Ross Voelker remembers, almost to the moment, when he was accepted as a member of the Madison Mallards.
It was the first day of practice, and the players whose college seasons were finished reported to Warner Park to meet their teammates on one of the Northwoods League’s nine teams. Voelker, one of the team’s three batboys, wasn’t required to be there. But as the Mallards would soon learn, he wasn’t going to miss many chances to join them – be it a practice, a game or anything in between.
Coming from Little League practice, Voelker had his equipment bag in tow.
“We went into the locker room, and I brought my baseball bag. It’s pretty big because I’ve got all my catcher’s stuff,” said Voelker, a 10-year-old who stands barely taller than some of the bats in the clubhouse.
“One of the players, Chris Maliszewski, came over and opened my bag and emptied all of the stuff out and put me inside. He carried me around the locker room until it was time for practice.
“So ever since then, I’ve just felt like one of the guys.”
In reality, Voelker has been part of the Mallards’ organization since 2001, when his parents chose to become a host family and open their McFarland home to a player for the summer.
25 older brothers
Like many of the Mallards’ original host families, John and Becky Voelker of McFarland heard of the opportunity not long before the start of the ’01 season. A week prior to the home opener, they were watching the news on television when a piece came on about host families. It noted the Mallards still needed volunteers.
“We didn’t say anything about it and went to bed,” John Voelker said. “Later we were talking and all of the sudden (Becky) said, ‘You know.’ And I said, ‘I know exactly what you’re going to say. We should be a host family, because Ross would absolutely love that.'”
The Voelkers’ motivation wasn’t exclusive.
“Most of the families have children, many of whom play baseball or other sports, and are at the age where they look up to athletes,” said Terri Gleason, another of the team’s original hosts and the Mallards’ host family director since 2002.
She and husband Mike, who are hosts to Mallards players Cody Hall and Tyler Bullock this summer in the Wexford neighborhood on Madison’s West Side, believe having responsible and dedicated athletes around has rubbed off on their sons, Kevin, 13, Jon, 15, and Tom, 16.
“The parents see that these guys are serious about what they’re doing and that they’re all good people, and they can be role models over the summer,” Terri Gleason said.
The Voelkers spotted Ross’ interest in baseball years ago, and have since taken every step to nurture his talent and his enjoyment of the game. From camps to instructional books to offseason lessons this year with Mallards manager Darrell Handelsman, there are few opportunities Ross isn’t afforded.
Becoming a host family was just another logical step.
“Just think about what he’s had,” John Voelker said. “He’s had 25 older brothers to look up to this summer.”
Winners all around
But host families aren’t the only beneficiaries of the arrangement. While they receive free season tickets (a $150 value), the real winners are the Mallards.
Like the other nine teams in the Northwoods League, a summer league of unpaid collegiate baseball players, the Mallards bring in athletes from campuses across the country. Without host families, they would not have an economically viable way to house their players for the better part of three months.
“Host families are the reason the Mallards can work,” assistant general manager Craig Bartlett said.
“We’ve found families that love this just as much as our employees, and they’re willing to sacrifice their summers, cars, bedrooms, food, anything for these players, who basically just get them into the park for free.”
Unlike the first season, when it was common for a host family to have two or three players, the Mallards have found enough hosts so only a handful of those on the team’s 25-player roster were doubled up this summer.
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According to Gleason, there is a waiting list four families deep and growing.
“Word of mouth has really spread,” she said. “It’s really become a popular thing, and I think that reflects on not only how much this team has endeared itself to the city, but also the kind of players that Darrell has brought in.”
It takes all kinds
The Mallards have found hosts from a variety of sources.
There are those who served in that capacity for the Madison Black Wolf, a Northern League independent team that played here prior to the Mallards’ arrival.
Only Mallards historian Dennis Degenhardt and Gleason have ties to the front office. Others have simply volunteered after hearing about the opportunity.
Mark and Wendy Newburg found out about becoming a host family from Gleason, who lives in their neighborhood. Participating for the first time last season, Mark Newburg quickly found his niche: A former University of Wisconsin basketball player who is nearly 7-foot tall, he plays host to the tallest Mallards player each season. The Newburgs housed 6-9 pitcher Andy Sigerich this year after getting 6-8 Michael Koehler in 2002.
Newburg said his sons Nicholas, 8, and Cory, 11, were the ones who pushed to host Koehler, and continuing this year just made sense. The Newburgs’ home was built to accommodate the father’s size and, among other features, has cathedral ceilings and higher shower heads.
“The guys seemed to like it,” Newburg said. “The shower is like a waterfall for most people, but for Andy and me it’s perfect.”
Newburg said he will continue to host until his sons tell him differently.
“It’s up to the boys,” he said. “As long as they want to do it, we’ll do it.”
‘It’s like being home’
More often that not, hosts become a second family to players who in some cases are thousands of miles from home.
This season, Mallards hail from 14 states, from the East Coast (catcher Javier Sanchez is from Miami) to the West Coast (pitcher Brian Kroll is from Livermore, Calif.). There are just three players from Wisconsin – former Madison West athlete Dave Hrncirik, Brookfield native Mike Rohde and Kenosha’s Jon Olson.
Kroll, a junior from Cal State Chico, had never lived with a host before coming to Madison. He said his host mother, Marj Schultz, and her two sons, Scott and Ben, have treated him like family from the first day.
“She came up to us and the first thing she did was take me and (relief pitcher) D.J. Roshone out for pizza,” Kroll said.
“It’s been great. It’s like being home, except without the nagging. If I were home this summer, my parents would make me mow the lawn. Here, the kids do it.”
Said Sanchez, who along with Notre Dame teammate Tyler Jones, lives with the Voelkers: “They welcomed me into their home. It’s not like, ‘Here’s a place to sleep, see you tomorrow.’ It’s like they’re my family for the summer, and that’s really a special thing.
“I come from a family that’s real close. When I’m away from them, it’s because of a family like this that I don’t miss them as much.”
While the players have formed bonds with their respective families, no one has endeared himself to the Mallards more than Ross Voelker.
From his earliest moment spent inside his equipment bag to the day he collects his last high-five going through the post-game handshake line, Voelker will have been as consistent a presence at Warner Park as Handelsman’s sturdiest player. His dedication has likely earned him 25 older brothers for years to come.
“He’s one of us,” said Sanchez, who mentioned Ross and his 5-year-old brother, Jay, in a diary entry last month on the Notre Dame baseball team’s Web site.
“He’s here late with us at the park, he always wants to help and he never complains. It’s pretty amazing to see a 10-year-old kid like that.”
The Mallards’ appreciation spilled out of Warner Park one day this summer when the majority of the team, as well as the coaching staff, attended Ross’ Little League all-star game.
“(Outfielder) Kevin Sevigny picked up his parents at the airport and headed to the field with them,” John Voelker said, “because he wanted to be there.”
Ross said he enjoys the relationships he has forged, but he wants to make it clear that he is there for one reason and one reason only.
“I like to focus more on the game part, and getting better,” he said. “My goal is to be the first host family Mallards player.”