116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Inside the brown house on Sussex street — the one with the white garage and the wooden bench at the front door — there is a pantry that does not have any granola bars.
There also is a freezer without a haul of Jack’s pizzas and a refrigerator with just one carton of eggs inside, instead of the usual three dozen.
This is Linda and Leroy Mann’s kitchen — not stocked like it normally is and certainly not as busy.
Usually, this time of year, the Manns, as members of the Cedar Rapids Kernels’ host family program, get used to players milling about in this kitchen, knocking back carbs, before heading to their rooms or Veterans Memorial Stadium.
“I always tell the boys the very first day,” Linda said. “I show them everything in the kitchen and I say, ‘I'm not showing you again, I'm not asking you if you need any water. I'm not asking you if you need a beer. I'm not asking you anything. This is your home.’”
This year, though, the Kernels players have had to make their homes at rooms in the local Marriott. The Manns have had no reason to buy granola bars or extra cartons of eggs. Because of Minor League Baseball’s COVID-19 protocols, the Kernels host family program has been put on pause, although that should be lifted soon.
For those like Linda and Leroy, the new rules have halted a cherished routine. The unfamiliar quiet that now lingers in their homes has nudged host families to reflect on what it has long meant to open their doors to young men, chasing a dream, in a place they hope to just pass through.
Though families have been hosting Kernels’ players since the 1960s, the program’s transformative moment came in the late 1990s when Lanny Peterson, a teacher-turned-insurance agent, signed on to be a host dad.
“Lanny used to be an umpire and he just had a love for baseball,” Michelle Hocraffer, a host mom since 1999, said. “I think he just knew what the boys struggled with and wanted to be there in that regard.”
The connection to sport and the mentoring opportunity the host dad role provided was significant for Peterson as he transitioned to an emptier house after the loss of his wife, Linda, and his kids moved away.
“With being a host, he got to still be a teacher,” Tom Jarom, Peterson’s best friend, said. “He would lecture these kids about ‘what’s plan B?’, ‘you better get your damn degree,’ the odds of them making it. He was very realistic in a grandfatherly way. It kept him young.”
Attending as many games as possible, staying until the end of those games no matter what the score, time or weather, and asking for nothing in return, Peterson set the host family standard.
He later codified it, writing the host family’s official mission statement.
Now, it is Linda Mann handing out that statement. Peterson became sick in 2015 and Linda took over the program. He died two years later.
“We oughta thank God Linda is there.” Jarom said. “She’s kept it on great.”
In order to keep it on great, Linda spends hours, every season, interviewing and sending out questionnaires to players, vetting hosts and coordinating the dozens of up-and-down movements that happen during a minor-league season.
The Manns and other host families take pride in expanding the bounds of selfless commitment and generosity first exemplified by Peterson.
Over the years, these “moms” and “dads” have claimed injured players as their own sons in order to ride in the back of ambulances. They have learned how to cook arepas to serve to the Venezuelan player who sits at the dining room table.
Gestures such as these make a difference to these young men as they adjust to living hundreds of miles away from loved ones, in a city many could not even point out on a map just months before their move.
“It’s just really cool that when your parents can’t be there that there is somebody always there, cheering you on, whether you did great, struggled or anywhere in between,” said Tyler Palm, a Kernels pitcher who lived with Linda in 2019.
Several of the families have been hosting players more than 15 years.
“This is our summers,” said Mark Hocraffer.
“It’s just a natural thing,” Leroy Mann said.
A natural thing now severed by pandemic protocols.
“It was very hard last year not having boys in the house,” said Michelle Hocraffer. “This is our socialization. We don’t really do much in the winter so, yeah, it was missed.”
Eight-year host dad Dave Solberg reminisces on the fun he would have with the players in their “down time, watching a ballgame and playing Bocce ball on their day off.”
Christy Hines, a newer host mom, felt the difference this year when she sat in her seat for opening day.
“It just means so much more to go to the game and have a connection with someone who is playing,” Hines said.
The hope is these connections will be reestablished when, hopefully, the host family program can start back up again later this month. These families wait eagerly for the day.
“I’m excited to just hang out with them again, you know?”, Linda said.
In the meantime, in the brown house on Sussex Street, out from the kitchen, there are three rooms with beds made, tidy, and waiting.
Hannah Lichtenstein is a graduate student in the sports specialization Masters program at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Twelve students were in Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Des Moines and South Bend last month reporting and writing stories on Minor League Baseball