Some families display report cards, recipes or baby pictures on the refrigerator; the Bartletts have photos of baseball players. Not Willie Mays or Babe Ruth, but minor league lifers and young kids still trying to make it, all sporting Asheville Tourists uniforms.
Signed bats, jerseys, hats and baseballs line the wall next to the TV in the living room of the Bartletts’ cozy Swannanoa home.
For the past eight years, Gary and Karen Bartlett have been hosting players from the Colorado Rockies’ Class A affiliate, and they have no intention of hanging it up anytime soon.
“It would have to be something health-related or money-related to make us stop. We love it,” says Karen.
Season ticket holders for many years, the two retired schoolteachers began hosting players in 2007.
In 2006, Karen, who taught third grade at Black Mountain Primary for 40 years, invited the entire Tourists team to come visit the school as a part of a rewards program. When only one player showed up, she says she felt personally responsible.
But that one player, a pitcher named Zach Simons, took the time to sign autographs for each of the more than 100 students. Touched by his effort, Karen asked to have her picture taken with him.
“He said, ‘Only if I get a copy.’ Of course, my heart just fluttered, loving baseball and baseball players,” Karen remembers, grinning.
Simons and the Bartletts struck up a friendship that year, and when Gary drove him to the airport at the end of the season, he offered Simons a place to live if he ended up back in Asheville the next year.
Originally scheduled to move up to the Modesto Nuts, the Rockies’ Class A Advanced affiliate, Simons called the Bartletts three days before the season began to take them up on that offer, and he brought a friend as well. Every summer since then, the Bartletts have hosted anywhere from one to four players.
This year’s contingent, a pair of clean-cut, handsome 20-year-olds, are the youngest players the Bartletts have hosted.
Outfielder Max White also lived with them last year, and they were happy to welcome him back.
“He’s a real nice kid. He is kind of a homebody, doesn’t go out partying a whole lot or anything,” Karen reveals.
Not that the Bartletts impose any restrictions on their guests.
“We tell them their job is to play baseball. They do that and focus on that, and we will take care of the rest,” says Gary.
That entails just about every domestic task one could imagine, including cooking meals for them and doing their laundry.
At one point, Karen excuses herself to move a load of clothes from the washer to the dryer.
“She doesn’t have to do that, but she really enjoys it. We do this because we want to,” stresses Gary.
The Bartletts never had children, and they take great pride in the kids they’ve hosted over the years. Warmth fills their voices when they chronicle their former guests’ successes, which aren’t always baseball-related. In fact, only one of their former charges is currently playing major league baseball.
Many cities with minor league teams use host-family networks to house players, but that system never materialized in Asheville until the Bartletts started doing it.
“We just kind of fell into it and really, really, really liked it,” Gary explains.
The Bartletts receive no compensation from the team and mostly get their guests via word of mouth.
Sons of summer
The day before this year’s home opener, pitcher Zach Jemiola sauntered from the clubhouse into the midmorning sunshine wearing a Reebok pullover and a camo Colorado Rockies hat.
“Max told me about them and they sounded really nice, old-school like my own parents, so I thought I would give it a shot,” Jemiola said, in between dispensing thick streams of tobacco spit into a cup.
The San Diego native met White when they both played for the Grand Junction Rockies last year. Early in the season, White got called up to the Tourists. He initially planned to share an apartment with teammates, but it filled up, so he decided to give the Bartletts a try after a former teammate who’d lived with them recommended it.
“They love it. You can really tell they enjoy having you there,” said White, sporting a small gold cross on a chain around his neck.
Often, the Bartletts find themselves playing host to most of the team, not just the players living with them.
One Saturday after a home game, the Bartletts purchased a mixed martial arts fight on pay-per-view, and players and their girlfriends all came to watch. So many people showed up that they had to push the couches to the far walls and bring in extra seating.
“That was one of the best memories, because everyone was so at ease and it was so fun,” Gary recalls.
Over the years, the Bartletts have amassed a network of former players throughout the country that keeps them busy with weddings in the offseason. In September, Gary will travel to Seattle for Simons’ nuptials.
“How many 55-year-old men are in a 28-year-old’s wedding?” asks Karen, chuckling.
The Bartletts act as surrogate parents for six months out of the year, and maintain they get at least as much out of the arrangement as the players do.
“We call these guys our ‘sons of summer,’” says Karen. “We are a family from April to September, and we stay attached to them.”