The people of Butler brought their support of a local baseball team to a new level this year.
Like every team in the summer collegiate league, the Butler BlueSox needed to find host families willing to house a player for the season.
There's no single type of person who volunteers to host a player. They may be empty-nesters, widows or widowers, single parents, families with young kids or any configuration in between.
Some teams have trouble finding enough people with the patience and space to host a college-age athlete from late May until August. But this year, something different happened in Butler -- families had to be put on a waiting list. For the first time, more families volunteered than there were players.
That may have happened because the BlueSox had Larry Sassone and Terry Steighner serve as host family coordinators.
They've hosted a player in their home all five summers that the BlueSox have been in Butler, and the relationships they form are so enduring, they say, that they've made it a yearly tradition to go see one of their former players, wherever they're playing.
"I'm a flight attendant for US Air[ways], so wherever they play, we jump on an airplane and go watch them play," Ms. Steighner said.
In March, it was San Francisco. Last year, it was Scottsdale, Ariz., where the two went to see Shayne Houck, a draft pick of the San Francisco Giants who was playing in the Arizona rookie league.
"We keep in touch, we follow him on the computer," Mr. Sassone said. "We talk to his parents all the time to see how he's doing."
This is part of life in Butler, a city of about 14,000 residents who come together each summer for the BlueSox, cheering them on when times are good and especially when times are tough.
Ray Conlon, former major league pitcher Matt Clement, attorney William "Wink" Robinson, doctor Mike Fiorina and businessman Gordon Marburger, all locals, make up the ownership of the BlueSox.
"The Steelers weren't for sale," Mr. Conlon cracked when asked why he bought into the team. "When you grow up in a place, it matters to you, you want to give back. We're natives and this was something we wanted to do. We're proud of what we've been able to do.
"This is the best evidence," he said, pointing at the fireworks-after-the-game crowd of more than 1,200 during a late-season game at Pullman Park. "The real story here is the fans."
Playing in the Prospect League, the BlueSox give college players a place to compete over the summer. Athletes must have played a year in college and have at least one year remaining to be eligible for the team, which means the average fan is going to be around a lot longer than the average player.
Teams like this are forced to put the fans first, and at least here, the fans are responding.
"We've had helicopters fly in pregame and land on the field, skydivers, it's all about entertaining fans and keeping the expenses as low as possible," Mr. Robinson said.
At the team's final home game last Thursday, the scoreboard wasn't turned on until five minutes before the first pitch. Advertisements for a turkey farm and a local autoworkers union were on the outfield fence. The public address announcer wished happy birthday to a former local judge during the game, and the bar across the street had baseball players painted across its façade.
Nearly all the players live with Butler families in town, and two of the assistant coaches do, too.
BlueSox games are community events more than anything. If it were possible to find the numbers, Mr. Conlon said, you'd be amazed at how many people in the stands live within walking distance of the park. He said the team helps keep kids off the streets by giving them a free ticket if they bring back two foul balls from the parking lot.
"The whole area around the ballpark is starting to be redeveloped," season ticket holder and Butler fire Chief Nick Ban said. "People have a renewed interest. They're building a new Marriott hotel. Things are sparking and starting to happen.
"You don't have to drive all the way to Pittsburgh. It's affordable family fun and it's close to home. You don't have to fight traffic and worry about getting back in time for the kids."
He comes home from work most days and grabs a quick bite to eat before coming to the ballpark. His wife doesn't give him a hard time about going, he said. Actually, she's usually the one yelling at him to hurry up.
The fans come here and come together.
And this summer, they needed each other.
The BlueSox dropped the opener this year but won the next day, beating the Chillicothe Paints, 6-1. Andrew Revello, a pitcher from St. Bonaventure, struck out eight over seven innings.
The players on the BlueSox were still getting to know each other. Some were from Pittsburgh, but others came from colleges in Colorado and South Carolina. They were adjusting to their new host families while their new host families were adjusting to them.
Mr. Revello had moved in with the Rekich family, a young couple with two kids -- Tyler, 9, and Ella, 7 -- who were getting used to having a new person in their home for the first time. The brawny ballplayer played with the kids to bond and ease the transition.
On June 1, about a week and a half after moving to Butler, Mr. Revello was injured in a car accident. His parents persuaded him to recuperate at home in Ohio, but he left his baseball equipment in Butler, determined to return in a few days and miss only one start.
The BlueSox played on, but Mr. Revello's recovery took longer than he planned. He eventually decided to stay home for the summer and just get ready for his senior season.
Mr. Revello's uncle picked up his things when he was in the area for a golf outing, and his mother texted updates to Mrs. Rekich.
"She would tell us something good, then a setback, something good, then a setback."
Complications from the crash eventually forced Mr. Revello to seek treatment at the Cleveland Clinic. Then the Rekichs' phone rang July 10 during dinner. The call was about Andrew -- he had died.
The first time Mrs. Rekich met Andrew Revello's mother was at his funeral.
Mrs. Rekich felt compelled to meet his family after knowing them only through calls and texts. Meeting his parents was tough. Meeting his girlfriend was tougher.
Back in Butler, the Rekich children took his death the hardest. Nate Rekich noticed it the most in Tyler on the way home from one of his baseball games. He was staring out the window in the backseat, crying.
"I was just thinking about Andrew," Nate said to his dad.
And the death was tough on the BlueSox front office.
"It was like someone in your family died," Mr. Conlon said. "He was here, like, seven days, but you felt like you lost a member of your family. It was a bad time."
Mrs. Rekich thought her father had died too young at age 64. Andrew Revello was 22. He was listed at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds on the St. Bonaventure roster, and Mrs. Rekich remembers that he was in great shape. Some of his last tweets were about golf cleats, Nutella and other things college kids like.
"He wasn't with us for a long time, but our kids got really attached, and we did, too," Mrs. Rekich said at last Thursday's game as the BlueSox batted in the bottom of ninth inning.
It's quiet for a while, until Tyler runs back from wherever he was.
"He was so strong, so healthy," Mrs. Rekich added.
Tyer looks up.
"Are you talking about Andrew?"
What has helped the Rekich children recover, their parents said, was news that came the same day that Andrew Revello died: They'd be getting a new player to host -- another player named Andrew.
The Rekichs don't regret taking in a player this summer and said they'll definitely do it again next year. They're in now, and they're hooked.
The BlueSox played the longest game in team history that night, winning 1-0 in 17 innings.
"This is dedication for you guys," Lorain County hitter Zach Ratcliff told a fan in the luxury $8 seats while he warmed up in the on-deck circle in the top of the 17th.
Michael Pezzone came up for Butler with the bases loaded in the bottom of the inning and hit a chopper off the plate to win it, keeping the BlueSox playoff hopes alive.
"We just wanted to go and win for him," outfielder and Butler native Cody Herald said of the team's outlook after Mr. Revello died. "It's hard whenever people give us posters to sign and we see his face on there, but we're just trying to get to the playoffs and win this for him."
The BlueSox were shutout in the season finale Friday. They finished half a game behind Chillicothe, narrowly missing the playoffs. The players will pack up and say their goodbyes this week, go back to college and be on their way.
The host families will get their rooms back and get ready to do it again next spring.
They'll file back into Pullman Park, walk past the red metal chair in the lobby that they claim was used by the 1935 New York Yankees when they played here, dodge kids on the way to their seats and chant "We will, we will ox you" to the rhythm of the rock group Queen song, "We Will Rock You" in support of players they're just getting to know but will never forget.
"We'll be here as long as they're here," Ms. Steighner said.
Mr. Sassone nodded in agreement. "We're committed."neigh_north - sportsother
Nick Veronica: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @NickVeronica.