USPBL looking to expand host family program

By: Timothy Pontzer | Shelby - Utica News | Published July 21, 2017

 Utica Unicorns outfielder Chris Cruz readies for a pitch in a game earlier this season. Cruz praised his host family, calling it a great experience.

Utica Unicorns outfielder Chris Cruz readies for a pitch in a game earlier this season. Cruz praised his host family, calling it a great experience.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

UTICA — In the game of baseball, the ultimate goal is to reach home.

In a player’s career, the chief objective is to earn a spot in the majors. Along the way, home plate is crossed many times at many different places — usually many miles away from a player’s home.

The United Shore Professional Baseball League aims to be one of these stops along the way, serving as a “finishing school” for those fresh out of college as they improve their skills. However, while a handful of USPBL players hail from the surrounding community, for most, Utica is far from family and friends.

Therefore, the league is pushing the initiative of host families, a unique offering that gives members of the local community a chance to welcome in a player.

“With host families, we’re looking for three things, with the first being it provides stability for the player,” said USPBL Executive Director of Baseball Operations Justin Orenduff. “Second, it helps the player save financially, as they’re not making a ton of money and may have things like student loans already coming up. Third, we want to build a bond with the community, and having families host helps build that connection.”

A 2004 first-round pick by the Los Angeles Dodgers, Orenduff recalled some of the host families he lived with during his baseball journey, calling them crucial to his development as a player and as a person overall. 

“After my freshman year of college, I played in a league in New England, I think I was about 19,” Orenduff said. “This family welcomed me into their lives, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. I was able to have that family setting and then just go and play ball. It was really outstanding, and I still have relationships with them.”

Sandy Wilton serves as the USPBL host family coordinator, a volunteer position that has become a passion.

“My son saw this league being built, and he loves minor league baseball, so we called and asked if we could host a player,” Wilton said. “I think it is important for the players and the community, and it is such an amazing opportunity. The players want that support and family environment, and you get to help a young man in his career. It is a win-win.”

Proudly clad in a neon green shirt that reads “Host Mom,” Wilton attends many of the games at Jimmy John’s Field, approaching families to gauge and stir up interest. She can use herself as an example, having hosted Ray Ortega of the Beavers the past two seasons.

“Within two days, he was part of the family,” Wilton said of Ortega. “He goes to family events like graduations and parties. He’s from Miami, so we are his family up here and he loves it.”

One of Wilton’s recruits is Justin Bright. He and his wife, Wendy, welcomed in two Utica Unicorns: pitcher Donny Murray and outfielder Chris Cruz. He praised the program, saying it has been an invaluable experience for his two boys: Noah, 14, and Carter, 12.

“It’s like having two big brothers. They play ping-pong, video games and bounce on the trampoline,” Bright said. “We’ve enjoyed having them because both have been superb role models.”

Cruz said the table tennis can get heated.

“It’s awesome, especially seeing the kids be excited about it, and the ping-pong is pretty competitive,” Cruz said, laughing. “Both of the kids are really into baseball, and they are a very athletic family. It’s a huge perk for us because we can show them the right way to work out, eat right and work at baseball.”

Noah is a linebacker on the JV team at Utica Ford II, and both he and his brother play a variety of sports, including baseball. Murray and Cruz attend many of the younger Brights’ ballgames, finding it a fun escape from their day job of playing baseball.

“Cruz and I love going to their games. It is really fun to see them grow with the game and use some of the stuff we have taught them,” Murray said. 

“Justin also says, ‘Make yourself feel at home,’ and they have definitely stuck to that,” Cruz added. “Having a host family like this allows you to make lifelong friendships with them. The financial side is also huge, as I can save a ton of money over the apartments.”

Players not living with a family live in a dorm-like setting in an apartment complex located 8 miles away from Jimmy John’s Field. Murray lived there last season, and he remarked that living with the Brights is a huge upgrade.

“When you’re this age, you want your own space, but you crave that comfortable family environment,” said Murray, who is 24. “While we’re busy with baseball, we still have so much downtime, so in the apartments I was just sitting there crushing Netflix shows. Now I have these two kids that look up to me, and I’m able to do things like ping-pong and help them with baseball. It uses up my time in a good way.”

Bright said he is thrilled that his family made the decision to host.

“Donny and Chris have exceeded my expectations in terms of wanting to be a part of the family,” Bright said. “I want my boys to see what it takes to become a professional athlete. And I want them to understand that when you can do something good like this for somebody else to help them chase their dream, you do it.”

For more information on host families, contact Wilton at (248) 941-7305 or at