ELIZABETHTON, TENN. - Donna Bell has no kids and a four-bedroom home, which prompted a request from her insurance agent, Tom McNeil: How about letting some minor league baseball players crash there every summer?
A physical therapist and self-described "baseball fanatic," Bell jumped at the opportunity. She and her husband are among a group of Elizabethton families who serve as hosts to Twins rookie ball prospects.
Players have lived with host families for years because it's convenient, eliminates the hassle of finding an apartment for two months -- the season lasts only 68 games -- and provides a more comfortable and supportive environment for young prospects, some of whom are away from home for the first time. Joe Mauer stayed with a host family here after receiving a $5.15 million signing bonus in 2001. Bell primary hosts Latin players. She lived in Miami for 13 years, can speak Spanish and learned to cook Latin food. She keeps four players every summer and had 13 prospects on a waiting list in spring training. She played host to top prospects Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario last summer.
Bell's home is a five-minute walk from the ballpark and her "kids" refer to her as "momma" or "Miss Donna." She charges $100 per week for rent and home-cooked meals.
"The goal is to lose less than $1,000 a summer," she joked.
McNeil and his wife, Karen, who put up pitcher Nick Blackburn in their home in 2002, handle most of the legwork in securing host families so prospects can focus on baseball. Players have less than 48 hours to get settled after arriving from spring training in Fort Myers, Fla.
Mary Lewis, a single mom to a grown daughter, is celebrating her 12th summer as a player host. She keeps five players in her three- bedroom home.
"I'd have more if the boys allowed it, but there's no room," she said.
Lewis is known around town as "Miss Mary." She has hosted more than 50 players over the years, including Danny Valencia. A restaurant server for 31 years, Lewis cooks meals every day for the players and even loans them one of her cars.
"I tell them: 'When you move in with me, you move in with a momma that sits in the front and yells for you,'" she said. "They'll be at the store and people will say, 'Are you Miss Mary's boys?'"
Bell's cooking skills are well-known among players, which makes her house a popular hangout. Her husband came home one afternoon and found 11 players on the first floor alone.
"We have those who pay rent," she said, "and those who come over and raid the refrigerator. We don't let anybody go hungry."
Host families often stay in touch with players after they leave for the next minor-league stop. Their homes become quiet again at the end of summer, but Lewis always dreads that day.
"I die," she said. "My house is empty."