The opportunity to host people from a different culture is something that not every family gets to experience.
For one Crystal Lake family, hosting international baseball players who participate in the McHenry County Youth Sports Association Summer International Championship has been a part of its summer for more than a decade.
“It’s been a rewarding experience for us,” Todd O’Connor said. “I’ve got kids that are getting older now. … We’ve done it 12 times total so the kids really enjoyed it, and now it’s an excuse for me to tell them they’ve got to come home for a day here and there.”
With the tournament beginning Friday, Todd and Julie O’Connor, along with their four children, Tom, 28; Katie, 26; Patrick, 24; and Brendan, 22; have homestayed players for 12 years, including hosting players from Japan for the past nine years.
The tournament runs in two sessions at fields in Crystal Lake and Woodstock. The first session begins with games at 9 a.m. Friday and runs through Monday. The tournament’s opening ceremony will be at 7 p.m. Friday at Lippold Park in Crystal Lake. The second sessions runs Thursday through July 28.
The O’Connors got the idea to homestay after being involved in the tournament for years. Todd managed teams five times, and all three sons played in the tournament from 2006 to 2012.
“My family and my wife’s family have always really liked baseball, and we thought it would be nice to try the homestay,” Todd O’Connor said. “We knew that our kids would bond with the players we hosted, especially those from Japan. We also thought we would have the energy necessary to make the visiting players have a fun and rewarding time in Crystal Lake.”
“It’s been a really cool experience,” Tom O’Connor said. “Just getting to experience a little bit of their culture, show them around the Crystal Lake area and give them a taste of America.”
International players get the opportunity to take in an MLB game each year. They’ll head to Milwaukee on Wednesday to see the Brewers host the Cincinnati Reds. In past years, players also have attended games at Wrigley Field and Guaranteed Rate Field.
“A couple years ago, it was funny, the game that everybody went to it ended up being Cubs [versus] Sox. It was Aroldis Chapman’s debut at Wrigley,” Tom O’Connor said.
“It’s really fun because you can tell they’re just super excited to go see a major league ballpark and see Wrigley Field.”
Players attended an Arizona Diamondbacks versus Cubs game at Wrigley Field last year; although the Japanese players didn’t get the opportunity to see Yu Darvish, who was on the injured list.
Todd O’Connor said that the kids have a handful of past and present Japanese players they look up to.
“They like Ichiro [Suzuki],” Todd O’Connor said. “They didn’t care about [Kosuke] Fukudome during those years when [the Cubs] had him. I thought they liked Darvish, but I don’t know if they will anymore. Or whoever is the big Japanese player now, probably [Shohei] Ohtani. He’s having a fantastic year.”
Outside of the trip to a major league game, the O’Connor family makes sure to do what it can to make the kids’ time in the U.S. as fulfilling as possible.
“We take them to Three Oaks [beach] to swim, we take them fishing, we take them out to play tennis and things like that,” Todd O’Connor said.
“They’re OK playing a few video games with my younger son. We’ll see which one is the Fortnite expert this year.”
Overall, while Todd O’Connor said the kids enjoy their stay, it’s the “rewarding” experience that keeps his family involved.
“I look forward to the time off, and it’s kind of a staycation for me, you could say,” Todd O’Connor said. “I get to cook breakfast, make a mess in the kitchen … figure out where we can take them if they don’t get terribly bored. … We have a lot of fun with it.”