During the 2019 Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League playoffs, Matt Thomas’s (William & Mary, Big Train 2019 and 2021) bat came alive. He posted a .417/.611/.833 slash line and hit a clutch three-run homer to spark the Big Train’s comeback in the decisive championship game. Thomas was named playoff MVP and helped the Big Train to its eighth total and fourth consecutive league title.
To understand the smile on Thomas’ face as he hoisted the championship trophy after the Big Train defeated the Silver Spring-Takoma Thunderbolts, you have to go back to the beginning of the summer when the teenager from nearby Lovettsville, Virginia, met his host parents for the summer — Amy Matush and David Lieber.
“They provided comfort and support when I didn’t really know anybody,” Thomas said of his host family. “They supported me right off the bat and gave me a home to where I was able to feel comfortable even though you’re walking into someone’s house for the first time.”
On a roster of around 35 players per summer, about 25-30 live with families in Montgomery County. Most players hail from notable Division I colleges and come to Bethesda from all around the country – including Florida, Georgia, California, and even Hawaii. And while there are those like Thomas, who lives an hour away, most of the players have never been to Washington, D.C.
The Cal Ripken League limits the number of players from one university to four per summer team, so it is rare for most players to know more than a couple of their new teammates.
The Big Train competes for a championship perennially thanks to manager Sal Colangelo’s recruiting. But while he draws in top-tier talent every summer, the host family program is vital to upholding a competitive yet nurturing environment.
“A lot of kids come from the South and have never come to D.C. or have ever visited,” Colangelo said, “but we want to provide a warm, friendly environment and a place with the host families to give them the opportunity to explore the metropolitan area.”
Not only is the program essential to acclimating to new surroundings, but it also gives players who bonded with their families a reason to come back the following season.
“We want them to look back on it and think well of their experience,” said Eric Cole, who has been hosting players with his wife, Andrea, and son, Ryan, since 2019. “We want them to walk away wanting to come back.”
The symbiotic relationship the players and their host families create extends past just the confines of the home; families often get to bond with their players and become a part of the team.
“When the players first come in, I want them to know that the host families are just an extension of their family,” Colangelo said. “I want them to embrace the host family. I want them to be able to play with the children, do things with them, invite them to games, bring them on the field and show them what they’re experiencing for the Big Train.”
After bonding with Matush and Lieber and their two children, Austin and Owen, Thomas linked up with the Northern Virginia Collegiate League during the summer of 2020. With the cancellation of the Cal Ripken League season, the NVCL served as a popup league for players to stay sharp during the covid pandemic. With games staged out of Fairfax and Vienna, the Matush and Lieber family frequently traveled across the river to watch his games.
“With those host family connections and families who are open to opening up their houses to players, it just makes their time here more enriching,” Matush said.
Thomas’s relationship with them helped drive the decision to return to Bethesda in 2021. Following one summer in Maryland and one in Virginia, Thomas had a breakout season in his second stint with the Big Train.
Last summer, he played in 31 games and made 100 plate appearances. Thomas drove in 32 runs, blasted seven home runs and posted a .350 batting average en route to earning Cal Ripken League Offensive Player of the Year honors.
“The host family makes everything go around,” Thomas said. “They’re the ones that support us. And if it wasn’t for them, we definitely wouldn’t be able to do what we do on the field.”
For Matush, who just finished her first year as a coordinator for the Big Train's host family program, the impact Thomas had on her two sons was one of the many benefits of hosting a college-aged baseball player.
“It was really nice for [Austin and Owen] to be able to have someone in the house who was focused on baseball, working out, eating healthy and being on time,” she said. “He went to bed at a normal time; he was disciplined. I think just having someone like that, who was super responsible, was amazing for the kids to watch.”
The placement process for matching players with host families begins as early as September. Program coordinator Emily Waldman, who has hosted in the past and has overseen the program since 2016, reaches out to families to gauge general interest.
Several months later, Waldman and her team reconnect with families to see if they still want to host for the summer. Families then receive a three-page profile asking for basic contact information and amenities within the home.
In May, Waldman sits down with the other members of the program to match players with families. When deciding where to place a player, the coordinators consider preferences stated by either party, distance from the field and dietary restrictions, among other factors.
"The host family program allows these players to feel, I think, safe sometimes,” she said, “or at least like someone’s paying attention to them. It gives them a sense of the Bethesda community.”
Families and players often forge a tight bond in two short months, but the relationship doesn’t stop when the season ends. Most families keep in touch with the player they host, and some even travel around the country to watch them play.
“I stay in touch, I go visit, I go to their colleges, watch the games,” said Becky Crowley, who has hosted numerous players since first connecting with the program in 2001. “I’ve gone all over the country. So many baseball fields, I couldn’t even name them all. It’s just given me a whole life outside of just sitting here in Maryland.”
For hosts like the Coles, not only have they had a chance to get close with their host sons, but they’ve also gotten to know the parents of the players as well. The first player they hosted was Drew Hamrock (University of Virginia, Big Train 2019). Early in the 2019 summer, Drew was hit in the face by a fastball and landed in the emergency room, where the Coles spent all night waiting with him.
When Hamrock's parents came to Bethesda to check in on their son, the Coles invited them into their home. Since that first meeting nearly three years ago, the Hamrocks have returned to Maryland, and the Coles have taken several trips down to visit their new friends in Atlanta.
Like the Matush and Lieber family, the Coles saw Hamrock's impact on Ryan, who is delayed developmentally. After homering one game, Drew signed the ball and handed it to Ryan, a baseball enthusiast. With Ryan, members of the team just treat him as an equal.
“What’s great about the guys that have stayed with us is they just accept [Ryan] for who he is,” his father, Eric, said. “They don’t over-program anything or overthink anything. They’re just kind of like, ‘Come on, Ryan’s coming with me.’ It really ends up being like a little-brother-big brother relationship.”
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