14 July, 2005

Providing a home away from home has its rewards

When Tom and Marti Zurn moved back to Cape Cod from Minnesota eight years ago, they bought a house that needed a lot of work.

It took them a couple of years to turn their fixer-upper home in Yarmouth Port into one that has five-bedrooms and a finished basement, but when they were finished it gave them an opportunity that scores of other Cape families get to enjoy every summer - hosting players in the Cape Cod Baseball League.

Tom had played baseball at the University of Minnesota and looked forward to the Cape League season. The Zurns had two young children who liked baseball so the next logical step was hosting the collegians who play in the league, so many of whom move on to the Major Leagues.

To date, 15 Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox players have lived in their Richard Road house over the past five years.

Tom keeps up with the progress of the players on the Internet, starting in January to see how they're rated by Baseball America. And while none of the players who have stayed with the Zurns have made it to the big show, 13 have been drafted.

They've had as many as five players during a season, but some are only with them a short time. "We were told that Daniel [McCutcheon] would probably sign a contract with the St. Louis Cardinals and leave for the minor leagues. He was a 12th round pick. But he still hasn't signed and may go back to Oklahoma for his senior year," says Tom.

McCutcheon, whose father is a contractor, landed a job with a contractor and works some long hours in addition to pitching and playing shortstop for Y-D.

"Some of them are great at keeping contact and some aren't," says Marti. Tom adds that the players, just a year or two out of high school, are closer to the age of their children - Kylie is 13 and Sam 12 - than to the Zurns, who are in their mid-40s.

"They like to play computer games and video games and play basketball with the kids in the yard," says Marti. "It's a hugely positive experience; the kids get to know them on a whole different level."

The Zurns have plenty of stories.

Jamie Vermilyea and Kevin Letz, teammates at the University of New Mexico, were last year's housemates. "Their first day on the Cape it was 40 degrees and they come into the house with shorts and sandals and we had a fire going in the fireplace. They were shocked, coming from the southwest," says Marti.

The ups and downs players experience can be traumatic. Vermilyea and Letz got off to poor starts and took different paths. Letz didn't stay long because he didn't think he was ready for the league. Vermilyea had his doubts after a bad first outing at Cotuit, considered leaving but stayed and became an all-star.

"Jamie is with the Blue Jays' Triple A farm team and he's now close to being called up to Toronto. He pitched a perfect game in the minors last year," says Tom.

At the beginning of the Cape League season, a lot of temporary players get a shot until the College World Series and Team USA tryouts are completed. "The temps are hard," says Tom. "Tom Majors of South Alabama was a temp and he helped with Kylie's softball team. He was fun and good around the dinner table. But he didn't have a roster assignment and had to leave. It's hard because they become part of your extended family."

Ben Crabtree was a member of last year's championship team and the Zurns stay in touch with his family, who told them that when a package arrived at their Connecticut home they didn't want to open it because it was addressed to Ben. So they called him at his Ohio University room and he insisted they open it. It was his Cape League championship ring and he couldn't wait to see it so his parents e-mailed him a picture of it.

When Chris Carter of Stanford flew in late one night from College World Series, he had forgotten how to get to the house he was assigned to so he was directed to the Zurns, who had just finished a cookout but fortunately had a full plate of hamburgers and hot dogs left over.

Carter was told to help himself, but every few minutes while the Zurns were busy trying to track down his hosts, they heard the microwave working away. By the time the host family was located, Carter had polished off the whole plate.

The kids are a big reason for doing it, say the Zurns. "These kids are living their final audition, with its ups and downs and they wear it on their sleeves."

Kylie liked Brian Hall, who taught the family the electric slide, the two-step and some card games. Sam and Kylie were trying to wake up Hall, who was sleeping late one morning, and sent an electric toy car banging into his window. Finally, when Hall realized what was happening, he got hot on their trail with a water gun backpack.

It's a tradition that each player who stays with the Zurns signs their bat - a keepsake they treasure.

Chris Malek, an infielder from Cal-Santa Barbara, stayed with the Zurns during the 2003 season. "He hit for the cycle one night, and that was exciting," Tom says. But last year, Malek was diagnosed with testicular cancer and underwent chemotherapy treatments, missing the season. "After the draft this year, we got a box in the mail and it was from Chris. He told us if he ever got drafted, he'd send us a hat from that team." The box had a New York Yankees hat in it, but Tom put it on anyway.

By Don Sherlock