BY MATT LaWELL
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa | They moved in together less than a year after their high school graduations, odd roommates, to be certain. One roamed the outfield after a childhood in New Jersey, moved fast, talked faster, never managed to stand still for more than a minute. The other remained stoic on the mound, always comfortable, always California calm, never in a hurry, still always on time. They stayed together in the same room for three months, separated by a dresser and not much else, until one received a call up and headed west and the other shipped out east in a trade.
They still talk and text and trade messages on Twitter. They never want to forget their spring and summer together in Iowa. They were as close as brothers that rookie season — teenage millionaire brothers.
No matter where they play the next decade or two, Mike Trout and Tyler Skaggs will probably always be friends.
A whole host of folks, all of them full of the baseball magic famous in Iowa, helped spur that friendship.
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Some time between Labor Day 2009 and Valentine’s Day 2010, Lanny Peterson approached Don Grawe after a service at St. Pius X Catholic parish, where Peterson is a deacon and Grawe is a parishioner, and asked a question he had been asked years before. “You have that big, empty house,” Peterson said. “Have you ever thought about becoming a host family?”
Don and his wife, Robin, raised three sons in Iowa, all of them college baseball players, all of them out on their own in their 20s or early 30s now. He is a market manager for an engineering component company, she is a pharmacy technician, and they both look incredibly young to have six grandchildren. “We didn’t know for sure where he was going with the question,” Don says a dozen or so rows up from the field at Veterans Memorial Stadium during a Cedar Rapids Kernels home game. “But he no more than says that and Robin went, ‘Well, that would be cool.’”
ONE FAMILY, EIGHT PLAYERS
The Grawes have hosted eight players during their first three seasons in the Cedar Rapids Kernels host family program. The full list, complete with the numbers posted by the players during their time with the team:
Mike Trout, 18 years old, .362 batting average, .454 on-base percentage, .526 slugging percentage, 76 runs, six home runs, 39 RBI and 45 steals in 81 games
Tyler Skaggs, 18, 8-4, 3.61 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 82 strikeouts against 21 walks in 82 1-3 innings
Dwayne Bailey, 23, .130 batting average, six runs, three RBI and two steals in 23 games
Michael Demperio, 22, .031 batting average, three runs and one steal in 18 games
Dakota Robertson, 23, 10-3, 2.86 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 65 strikeouts against 14 walks in 72 1-3 innings
Eric Gregersen, 1-0, 2.25 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 30 strikeouts against 16 walks in 28 innings
Abel Baker, 21, .217 batting average, three home runs, 22 RBI, 14 runs scored in 47 games
Matt Scioscia, 23, .233 batting average, two home runs, 16 RBI, 15 runs scored in 45 games
“I thought it’d be fun,” Robin says from the middle of the next row up.
“And of course, my first reaction,” Don says, “is, ‘You have no idea what you just did.’”
Peterson is the coordinator for the Kernels host family program, so successful the last decade or so that other Midwest League teams and Los Angeles Angels affiliates have called to ask how they might be able to replicate it. The Grawes are one of 21 host families that open their home every season to young players, typically anywhere from 18 to 24, for anywhere from a couple of weeks to five months.
Host families are an often uncelebrated part of the minors. They provide a home, cook, clean, and sometimes even wash, dry and fold clothes. They seldom ask for anything other than good behavior, though in Cedar Rapids, each host family does receive a pair of season tickets, a polo shirt and an invitation to a monthly meal. The worst relationships between host families and players end as soon as the player walks out the door after the season. The best last for decades. “Over the years, I’ve been to five or six weddings,” Peterson says. “And one guy, a pitching coach, I went to both of his weddings.”
The Grawes are in their third season as a host family for Kernels. This season, the big spare bedroom on the ground floor outfitted with a pair of queen beds is home to catchers Abel Baker and Matt Scioscia. Last season, they adopted relievers Eric Gregersen and Dakota Robinson. And back in 2010, their first in the program, they welcomed a couple of teenagers — center fielder Mike Trout and lefty starter Tyler Skaggs.
“We found out who was staying with us when we went to the stadium the night before the season,” Don says, “so I didn’t have a chance to Google them or anything. So we meet them, get them arranged, then I looked them up. ‘Oh, these guys are pretty good.’ It took a couple days for us to figure out we had a couple million-dollar bonus babies.”
On the field, Trout and Skaggs played better than anybody else on the Kernels. Skaggs was drafted 41st overall in 2009 and went 8-4 in 14 starts, notched a 3.61 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP and struck out 82 hitters in 82 1-3 innings. Trout was drafted 25th in the same class and batted .362 with a half dozen home runs, 39 RBI, 76 runs scored and 45 steals in 81 games. More important than all those numbers — for the Grawes, at least — was that they were acclimating to life away from home for the first time.
“She adopted them like that,” Don says.
“I’m still a mom,” Robin says. “I still want to know what they’re doing and what they’re up to.”
Everything remained as normal as can be when a couple of teenage baseball players are living downstairs — home stands and road trips and four loads of laundry every week — until July 9, when Trout played his way right out of Iowa and up to the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes of the High-A California League. Two weeks later, the Angels shipped Skaggs to the Arizona Diamondbacks as part of the trade for Dan Haren, though he remained in limbo, unable to pitch or even work out for nearly three more weeks because he had signed his first professional contract less than a year before. The first thought for Robin, ever the mom, was, “Well, did they ask him if he wanted to be traded?”
Skaggs eventually reported to South Bend, Indiana to finish the season with the Silver Hawks. He’s in Mobile, Alabama, this season, with the BayBears in the Double-A Southern League. He was an all-star this season. Trout is in the Majors, the American League leader in batting average and stolen bases. He might be an all-star, too.
That first season still resonates, though.
“They put us in the same room,” Skaggs says. “We were side by side and became pretty close friends. It was fun. We had a good time with it.”
“I was fortunate to have good people take me into their house and comfort me,” Trout says. “They were my second family, my second mom and dad.”
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The program thrived long before Trout and Skaggs moved in, before the Grawes housed the first two of their eight players so far, even before Peterson opened his home for the first time — and it will probably continue to thrive after Trout and Skaggs retire, and the Grawes and Peterson welcome their last players and coaches.
Peterson brings an enthusiasm to it all that few minor league teams have. He visits spring training for a week every March and talks with every player who might be on his way to Cedar Rapids. He combines their needs with the homes available and places them all as best he can. The process works almost every time.
Peterson stumbled into this 15 years ago, after a friend helped him return to baseball after the death of his wife. He had worked as an umpire for three decades before moving away from the game in 1995. “Two years after her death, a friend of mine said, ‘It’s about time you get back in baseball,’” Peterson says. “‘How about hosting some of these players?’” He housed the hitting coach that season, a man named Todd Claus. They got along so well that, seven years later, when Claus returned to manage the Kernels, he lived with Peterson again — and he brought his wife and toddler son along for the season.
From Iowa, these players head to California, Texas and Utah before the Major Leagues — if they make the Majors, at all. Most peter out somewhere along the way. Most go on to work other jobs in far less glamorous industries, forgotten by fans and the media, remembered by the families who looked at them as sons for a season. “This is a story about 21 families who get together to do this for the good of the world,” Peterson says. “The good of the world. I believe that.”
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