EVERETT — Julie and Norman Nicholson were girding themselves for an unusually quiet 2021 baseball season.
During the summers of 2015-19 the Nicholsons’ Arlington home swelled, as an influx of young men joined the household and created a two-and-a-half month buzz of activity. During those years the Nicholsons were an official host family for the Everett AquaSox, helping house players during their stays with the Sox. It’s a duty they cherished, as they gave the players a small assist along their professional baseball paths, and built relationships that will last a lifetime.
So when Major League Baseball told minor-league teams they were not allowed to place players with host families this season because of the coronavirus pandemic — in addition to the Sox switching from the Short Season-A level to the High-A level — the Nicholsons feared their days serving as a host family may be over.
But all that changed with one call — not from the Sox’s housing coordinator, but from a player — that became a rallying cry.
This is a tale of how a handful of veteran AquaSox host families took it upon themselves to ensure at least some of this season’s players had places to stay that felt like home.
A hotel is not a home
Throughout their history, the Everett Giants and Everett AquaSox always provided host families for their players. That was standard procedure for teams in the Short Season-A Northwest League, which had a season that ran from mid-June to early September and therefore was not long enough to make finding other accommodations practical.
With Major League Baseball taking over operations and restructuring Minor League Baseball during the offseason, there were questions about whether Everett’s host-family days were done. In the past Everett was the last stop on the minor-league ladder that provided host families, as players were left to their own devices once they were promoted to a higher level. Now that Everett is the Seattle Mariners’ High-A West affiliate and playing a five-month season, the team theoretically would no longer be allowed to provide host families.
But it was the pandemic, rather than the level change, that sent the host-family program to the showers this season.
“We had host families ready to go, but we had to tell them we’re not providing host families due to the COVID situation,” Everett general manager Danny Tetzlaff said.
The Sox came up with some alternatives for their players, including dormitories at Everett Community College and Edmonds College, as well as partnering with some local hotels. But those options are far more expensive, hovering in the $100-a-night range rather than the $250 per month host families receive. The cost is the responsibility of the players, many of whom are barely eking out a living. Plus there are complications with what to do with one’s belongings while the team is on the road for a week.
So some host families decided to take initiative.
Bernie Von Herbulis describes Connor Hoover as the mayor of Everett.
Hoover, an infielder from Augusta, Georgia, is well acquainted with the town. This is his third stint with the AquaSox, having played parts of the 2018 and 2019 seasons in Everett when the team was a Short Season-A club. In both his previous stints he was housed at the Von Herbulis’ Marysville home.
Hoover’s progress through the Seattle Mariners system had him reaching the High-A level this season, which just happened to coincide with Everett being moved to High-A. The timing of those events proved fateful.
When Hoover was planning for his arrival in Everett for the start of the season, he was just like the rest of Everett’s players, trying to figure out where to live.
“I wasn’t opposed to trying to find a place to live with some of the other guys,” Hoover said. “We have an interesting schedule this year in that we’ll have a week at home then a week on the road, so a bunch of guys were trying to find an Airbnb to rent for a week. But even with six, seven, eight guys, we couldn’t afford it, it was crazy expensive. The only other option was to try to live in a hotel for the nights we’d be here, and most of us don’t make enough money to stay in a hotel 15 nights a month.
“I’d talked to Bernie, he and Lisa (Von Herbulis’ wife) are like my second family at this point,” Hoover added. “I’d talked to them about once a month throughout COVID time, and he told me if I was back in Everett I’d always have a place to stay.”
That was great for Hoover, who snapped up the offer, but was little solace to his teammates. So Hoover began playing matchmaker, seeing if he could pair players with AquaSox host families who were willing to open their doors.
“A couple guys asked if I knew of a place to stay, so I talked to Bernie and asked if there were other families who were willing,” Hoover said.
Opening their homes
The Nicholsons’ home is ideal for being a host family, with plenty of extra rooms and lots of space on the property. Therefore, it made perfect sense that they were the first ones Hoover contacted, especially given the circumstances of the first player seeking help.
“(Hoover) contacted me about (catcher) David Sheaffer,” Julie Nicholson said. “He’s married and he and his wife were in a motorhome, so they’d asked if (Hoover) knew of a property where they could park their RV. We said, ‘Sure.’”
From there the news spread among the Sox via word of mouth, and other players decided to seek host-family assistance. The Nicholson household became ground zero. In addition to Sheaffer and his wife, the Nicholsons have housed pitcher Jarod Bayless and his wife — wives are a new thing this year, with Everett moving up to High-A and therefore having older players — pitcher Bernie Martinez, utilityman Cody Grosse and pitcher Tyler Driver. The Nicholsons would have also housed infielder Joseph Rosa, who they hosted in past seasons, but Rosa chose to stay in the dorms at Everett CC to serve as a Spanish translator for his teammates.
“I used to be a youth pastor, and after leaving the ministry I feel like this is my ministry now,” Julie Nicholson explained about why she and her husband chose to host players this season. “We’ve always had an open-door policy, if someone needed space. I wish I could take them all, there’s still so many in hotels.”
The Von Herbulises also have a house that’s set up well for being a host family, with a downstairs area that contains three bedrooms, a bathroom and a full kitchen. Like with the Nicholsons, word of mouth led to other players joining the household. In addition to Hoover, pitcher Michael Santos, outfielders Jack Larsen and Zach DeLoach, and catcher Jake Anchia have variously been put up at the Von Herbulis home.
“We have a son who played four years of college baseball and there were times he got shipped around he country and host families stepped up to take care of our son,” Bernie Von Herbulis said. “This is our way of paying it forward, because we appreciated what other families did for our son.
“On top of that, Lisa and I are parents of six boys, and although all of them are out of the house, having young men marching around the house doing the stupid things young men do is normal for us.”
All of this was done in a somewhat clandestine manner, as the Sox couldn’t be involved, and the host families didn’t want to incur the wrath of Major League Baseball — and everyone in all the households was vaccinated against COVID-19 to ensure safety. The Von Herbulises went so far as to create official rental agreements to make sure no one would get in trouble.
Rick and Catherine Davis haven’t housed any Sox players this season, as their modest south Everett home only has room for Sox athletic trainer Brennan Mickelson, whom they’ve hosted since 2019. But they’ve gone above and beyond to help those who are perhaps the most in need of housing assistance, the Sox’s Latino players.
About a month into the season Mickelson and Davis were approached by pitchers Juan Then and Dayeison Arias, who were struggling with the financial burden of staying in a hotel.
“I know that some of the players, especially those who aren’t bonus babies like Julio Rodriguez, were struggling,” Rick Davis said. “We’ve been around the AquaSox and Mariner organizations for a very long time (Rick Davis is heavily involved in the Little League Challenger Division) and a lot of the Latin players are like family to us. I learned over the years that most of those kids send 80-90% of their pay back home to help their families.”
With the Sox’s hands tied, and with the Latino players facing the added complication of a potential language barrier, Rick Davis decided to take matters into his own hands, starting a Facebook campaign to try and find them host families. Within a week he had Then and Arias placed in homes. He was also able to get pitchers Igor Januario and Ben Onyshko (who is Canadian) and outfielder Victor Labrada placed.
“It’s hard to get people on board with this,” Rick Davis said. “The big thing is people are afraid of the language barrier. But most of the players will put in the effort to learn English if you give it a chance, if you sit and talk to them.
“It’s been fun. I wish I could help more.”
Mission partially accomplished
The AquaSox host families weren’t able to get the whole team housed, as maybe half of Everett’s players were able to find spots with host families. That means the other half is still dealing with the expense and inconvenience of hotels and dorms.
But even getting half the team housed is a tremendous accomplishment, considering it required the host families to figure all of it out on their own.
“The willingness of host families to continue to provide housing for guys is valuable beyond description,” said Tetzlaff, who was forced to stay out of the process. “We appreciate it more than we could ever express.”
Several weeks ago Major League Baseball lifted its restrictions on host families, which is great for next season, but too late to get all the players housed this season. Tetzlaff said the plan is for the Sox to resume finding host families for its players next season.
But thanks to host families stepping up to the plate and taking matters into their own hands, many of the Sox were able to navigate the 2021 pandemic season without the added stress of trying to figure out where and how to live.