CRYSTAL LAKE – It’s always a little awkward the first day.
It’s 10 a.m. on a Wednesday, a few days before tournament play kicks off during the McHenry County Youth Sports Association Summer International Championships.
A group of warm-up clad Japanese players arrive fresh off a bus from O’Hare International Airport, where they’d landed on the last of a series of planes that took them something like 6,000 miles.
They stand, smile and wait. Across the brick drop-off area at Crystal Lake’s Holiday Inn, under a handful of international flags, there are about 10 McHenry County families. They stand, smile and wait.
Soon, under MCYSA’s home stay program, these families will each meet and take home two players from Japan’s 15-and-under international team. With hardly any common language to fall back on, the two sides will coexist for the next two weeks, eating together, sleeping under the same roof and spending hours at the ballpark.
Host families – this year, 48 of them caring for about 100 players – become the de facto mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters of players from countries like Japan, Brazil and Lithuania.
“It’s a little awkward,” Diane Rowe, a 10-year home stay veteran, said of the first day. “And then I wake up that [last] morning, and we’re always so mad. It’s that feeling – they’re leaving. They’re going back.”
Breaking the ice
No voices come from downstairs – just the steady, high-pitched knock of pingpong ball on paddle, then table, then paddle.
It’s still Wednesday, about 2 p.m. The Rowe’s have brought home their two 14-year-olds, Mitsuhiro Takita and Taiga Numamoto.
“I let my kids really talk to them more in the beginning,” said Diane Rowe, sitting at a kitchen table near the staircase in her Cary home. “I don’t even know if Eric’s down there playing pingpong with them now, but kids break the ice easier than parents.”
It is, indeed, Eric Rowe, Diane’s 16-year-old son, and Mitsuhiro. Taiga has laid down for a nap in Eric’s room. Later, they’ll all play more pingpong and darts.
Being a kid proves universal. Settling into a parent-son relationship can take slightly longer.
“When you’re the parent, you’re not playing games with them. You need to make sure that their physical and emotional needs are being met,” said Kristen Lewis of Cary, who coordinates the program for Brazil. “So I think it’s a little bit easier for the kids than it is the parents.”
Greg Case of Cary, who also opens his home to Brazilian players, agrees. He said the goal is to find a level of comfort as quickly as possible.
“Once you get rolling a few days into it, they open up and they’re part of the family,” he said.
‘Everything is completely different’
Baseball is the top priority for the players, but the home stay program offers something extra for all involved.
Many international players wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to get out of their own country.
“They learn American culture,” Sadao Nakashiro, head coach of Japan’s 15-and-under team for the last 13 years, said through an interpreter. “Everything is completely different here than Japan. They have fun staying in home stay.”
The program provides an added financial benefit that proves essential for some players.
And host families have their own takeaways. Lewis’s two sons – Jonathon, 13, and A.J., 12 – aren’t big baseball fans. Having players in their home forced them out of their comfort zone.
“It was a good learning experience for them,” Lewis said. “They got so much out of the boys, the baseball players. Learning to communicate when you don’t have a common verbal language. ... And what it felt like to have an older brother.”
Emily Rowe, Diane’s daughter, said growing up with players in the house forced her to learn about other cultures.
“Not being in such a bubble, which I think a lot of kids in America tend to be,” said Emily Rowe, 23.
Staying in touch
The Case family first got into the home stay program because of a requirement of the Cary Trojans baseball program, for which Greg Case coaches.
But three years later, they’re hooked. Case likes the challenge associated with simplified verbal communication and hand signals. And, like all families in the program, it’s the lasting relationships that really make it worthwhile.
Social media has made the world smaller, and home stay families take full advantage. The Case family still communicates with their four previous home stay players.
“On a weekly basis,” Case said. “If we were to go to Brazil, we have an open invitation with any of them to stay at their house.”
It’s something Emily Rowe has considered. After Elizabeth Zacher finishes college, the two, who’ve become close through the home stay program, want to visit some of their former Japanese players. It’s a distant dream, Rowe says, but she’d like to make it happen.
In the meantime, the families are enjoying their time with this current batch of players. They try not to think about Monday, August 5 – the day they’ll have to say their goodbyes.
On that final day, the Zachers and Rowes always go to Around the Clock for breakfast. Their waitress knows them by now, and she sees the redness in their eyes.
“Every year, she goes, ‘Oh, this must be the end of Japan,’ “ Emily Rowe said.