CARY – On Greg Case’s basement wall at his home in Cary hangs a 6-foot-wide green, gold and blue Brazilian flag. Signatures from six Brazilian baseball players and a few coaches line the flag.
On the other side of the room sits a stand with plaques, signed balls and trophies. One trophy is from the 2012 McHenry County Youth Sports Association’s Summer International Championships.
The memorabilia are remnants of three years as a host family for the MCYSA’s homestay program. The international tournament, hosted in Crystal Lake every year and beginning Friday, brings together kids from across the world to compete.
Those international baseball players need somewhere to stay. From 2011 to 2013, Case and his family hosted two Brazilian baseball players each summer for the week-and-a-half-long tournament.
“You’re their parent for 10 or 12 days that they’re here,” said Case, 41. “You take them sightseeing, you make sure you get them to their games on time. You’re their cheering section, you’re there when they need something. There’s a huge attachment to these players.”
What’s even more remarkable is that three of the six Brazilian players who stayed with Case now play in the minor leagues.
Luiz Gohara is a left-handed pitcher with the Mississippi Braves, the Atlanta Braves’ Double-A affiliate. Daniel Missaki is a right-handed pitcher in the Milwaukee Brewers’ minor league system and Rodrigo “Bo” Takahashi is a right-handed pitcher with the Visalia Rawhide, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Single-A affiliate.
Gohara and Missaki stayed with Case in 2012, while Takahashi stayed in 2013.
This year more than 30 local families will host international players for the MCYSA tournament. Teams represented include Japan, Brazil and the Dominican Republic. In past years, teams have traveled from such far-flung places as Sri Lanka, Lithuania, New Zealand and Aruba, among others.
Case, who works as a firefighter in Cary and at Alexander Lumber in Woodstock, became involved when his stepson Bill Blank, 17, was playing in the MCYSA tournament. Blank still plays baseball, and his busy travel ball schedule has kept the family from hosting any international players the past few years.
Even so, Case would do it again if he had the time.
“When we got into this, we had no idea that it was going to be like this,” Case said. “We didn’t know what to expect. And after they left the first time, we couldn’t wait to do it again.”
The Brazilian players came to Case’s house – where he lives with his wife, Tammy Case, and Blank – speaking varying levels of English, some speaking none at all. They stayed in Case’s basement, where the memorabilia now lines the walls.
Learning to communicate with the players and getting to know them was one of the Cases’ favorite aspects of the program. Blank was 11 the first time they hosted players.
“I thought it would be pretty cool, get to see people from a different country,” said Blank, a senior at Cary-Grove. “Sometimes it was hard to speak with them. I thought it was a cool experience.”
In 2012, the Brazilian team with Gohara and Missaki won the 15-year-old international tournament. Also on that team was Luis Paz, now a catcher in the Dodgers’ minor league system. The players could only return home with the one suitcase they brought, so they left many keepsakes behind – Brazilian jerseys, the flag, the 2012 tournament trophy.
Takahashi, 20, who stayed with Case and his family in 2013, remembers the tournament well.
“It was fun,” said Takahashi, who was born in Presidente Prudente, Brazil. “It was my first time (in America) and Greg and Tammy helped me a lot. They treated me like a son.”
Case and his family keep in touch with all the players who stayed with them. Takahashi said he communicates with the family “all the time.”
International minor league players such as Takahashi often don’t have family in America. Case tries to provide a familiar face in the crowd when he can.
When Takahashi played a few games for the Kane County Cougars last summer, the family made sure to be there.
“Some of them have been here for an extended period of time, and we’re the closest thing to family (in America) that they have,” Case said. “When we show up, it’s exciting for them to see us.”
The family made a trip to Clinton, Iowa, in 2015 and watched Missaki throw a combined no-hitter for the Class-A Clinton LumberKings when Missaki was in the Seattle Mariners’ minor league system. Missaki pitched seven innings in the no-hitter against the Cedar Rapids Kernels.
To date, only three Brazilian-born players have ever reached the major leagues: Yan Gomes, Andre Rienzo and Paulo Orlando – all debuting within the past five years.
Takahashi, who is of Japanese descent, said his family is the reason he started playing baseball.
“Right now, it’s getting way better,” Takahashi said of the Brazilian baseball scene. “They’re getting more media. There was a pitcher in the All-Star Futures Game, Thyago Vieira.”
The chance to play in America, even for just one tournament, was a great opportunity.
“If it weren’t for all of the homestay families that MCYSA needs, these players wouldn’t have an opportunity to come here,” Case said. “It’s not just what we did, it’s all of the families in the surrounding area.”