International players come to Johnson City and live with host families to have a chance to make it to the big leagues like other Johnson City players in the past. According to www.milb.com, four players made it in 2010 alone.
“The reason why I’m here is because I want to advocate the growth of the sport of baseball, especially with the youth,” said 2015 Cardinals Assistant General Manager Zac Clark. “Helping the Latino players get through their summer has also been a big part of what we’re here to do, and how we’ve developed ourselves in this organization.”
Matt Schumacker, 2015 director of media relations for the Cardinals, knows how hard these athletes work despite how unpredictable it can be to get “that call” to the big leagues.
In hopes that they get “that call,” these players spend the entire day perfecting their craft.
“I wake up around noon, because I go to sleep late,” said Juan Bautista, who is from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. “I cook for everyone, come to the field to play… when we finish playing we cook again and that’s it.”
Three athletes on the team had a very powerful story: Bautista, Anderson Gerdel from Charallave, Venezuela, and Ismael Brito from Tucupita, Venezuela. All three are pitchers.
Bautista was born in the Dominican Republic. He moved to the U.S when he was 11, then moved back to the DR when he was 16. Bautista signed as a free agent in the Dominican Republic and played two years with the Cardinals rookie team.
Venezuelans Gerdel and Brito went to play in the Dominican league with Bautista after the Cardinals’ league in Venezuela got cancelled.
“It was not secure,” said Gerdel. “They stopped it to take care of players. It was not secure for players because the country is not doing well. When people were not finding jobs, they would try to rob the complex.
In 2011 Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos, who was visiting Venezuela, was held hostage in a cabin, surrounded by gunmen who threatened to harm him if his family did not pay a ransom, according to the Washington Post. Ramos was gone for 51 hours until armed commandos rescued him.
“People think because you’re playing professional ball… you’re rich,” said Bautista.
Players for the Johnson City Cardinals can get paid from anywhere from $400 to $600 every 15 days. It depends on how long they have been there and where they are from.
“The money isn’t all that good, but it works for us,” said Bautista. “It’s better than being in a place you don’t want to be in… at least you’re doing what you love.”
These men leave home for long periods at a time without being able to see their family or girlfriends. Long days out on the field leave them with little time to talk to them, either.
“Out of two months and a half we only have three days off,” said Bautista. “Sometimes we have to play 16 to 20 games straight, depending on the schedule.”
Luckily when the guys come to Johnson City they live with a host family, or in their case, with “mama.”
Robin Hodge, known as “mama,” gives athletes on the team a place to live during the season. She provides the guys with a temporary home they can call their own during the summer. The players come from different traditions, and Hodge helps comfort them despite them being shy in the new environment.
“They became my sons. From now on, they’re my sons...If they don’t live in my house, they’re my friends.”
– Robin Hodge
“Some of them won’t speak to me,” said Hodge. “They’re afraid. They all just come in and stand there, but now word has spread… now they all want to come to “mama’s house.”
“Our house mom is really nice with us,” said Brito. “She treats us like we are her sons.”
Hodge has been sharing her home with athletes who play for the Johnson City Cardinals since 2009.
"They became my sons. From now on, they're my sons," Hodge said. "If they don't live in my house, they're my friends.
The guys love “mama” and they’ve created a strong bond with her. Living with her is not that different than living at home. They do chores, clean and still get to eat like they eat back home.
The guys take turns cooking so everyone gets to eat traditional food from different places.
“Mama loves our food,” said Bautista. “She never makes us food. We cook for her, we clean the house, do the dishes and fix the kitchen.”
Coming home is a sense of comfort, because when the guys get out on the field they know they have to give it everything they’ve got. Players have to perform well enough to make it to the next level, but there are many stages before they can reach the top.
“There’s a lot of different rules, but in the rookie league you have three seasons before you have to move up or the team will cut you,” said Schumacker. “The next level up is Short Season A in New York, then Peoria, then Palm Beach, then Springfield, then Memphis and last the Major League.”
The opportunity to play in hopes of going to that next level means so much to these athletes. They spend their days and nights focused on one thing and one thing only.
“They’re so happy to be here,” said Clark. “They’re so thankful for everything… they’re so kind. They know that they’ve been given a gift and a blessing and they treat it as such. They’re more than grateful, it’s really cool to see.”
The Johnson City Cardinals is a non-profit organization in Johnson City, Tennessee, that is managed by Johnson City Sports Foundation. Revenue is built from the Cardinals season and given back to educational programs in the area and local youth sports.
Photo Above Right: Ismael Brito, Juan Bautista and Anderson Gerdel; left: Robin Hodge chats with team members before the game. Photos: Garrett Tumlin.