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Host family meeting players' needs for 25 years

Posted: Sunday, June 20, 2004

For 25 years running, Kenai's Don and Nina Pearson have provided college baseball players from around the nation with the ultimate home (away from home) field advantage.

Over the years, the Pearsons estimate they've hosted nearly 50 Peninsula Oilers baseball players during the Alaska summer baseball season. From light-hitting utility players and party animal outfielders, fish crazy pitchers and slugging future major leaguers, the Pearsons have played surrogate parents to just about every kind of baseball player who's taken the field for the Oilers. And although the players are all different, Nina Pearson says there's always one constant she can count on with all her boys of summer.

"They do eat a lot," she said Friday, after watching a tough 1-0 Oilers loss at Kenai's Coral Seymour Memorial Park.

Cooking for the players is one of countless duties the Pearsons and other Oilers host families are responsible for each summer. In addition to keeping their college-aged players well-fed, host families are usually responsible for cleaning up after them, washing their uniforms, keeping up with entertainment needs, providing a comfortable bed and even lending out the family car. It's a job not many care to do only around a dozen host families volunteer for the job each summer but for families like the Pearsons, it's become a part of their lives.

Some might ask why anyone would open their home for three months each summer to a parade of college kids. For the Pearsons, that answer is easy.

"I like baseball," Nina said.

Don said that's not exactly true.

"She's a baseball nut," he corrected.

 

The Pearsons cheer a play from their favorite spot in the bleachers.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The Pearsons never miss an Oilers home game, and sometimes even load up their camper to go along for road trips. And although they truly love baseball, Nina said there's even a simpler reason they take in ballplayers each summer.

"We like the kids," she said.

And the "kids" who are actually some of the best college players in the nation love the Pearsons.

"They're the nicest people I know," Oilers pitcher Steven Wright, one of two players staying with the Pearsons this season, said after Friday's game.

Wright, from the University of Hawaii, and fellow pitcher Brian Chambers of Florida State University, credit the Pearsons with making their summer trek to Alaska an experience they'll never forget.

"Since they're so nice, it really makes this trip unreal," Wright said.

Chambers agreed. Having played in the College World Series, he arrived later than most of his teammates, finally getting to Alaska on Wednesday. Although he'd only spent two days in the Pearson home Friday, he said he already feels like a part of the family.

"They're the best," he said.

 

Don Pearson gives Oilers pitcher Steven Wright some fishing advise after preparing poles for an early-morning game.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Chambers said that before he made the trip north, he consulted with some of his FSU teammates about what Alaska would be like, and some who'd already been to Kenai gave him some advice.

"They said the Pearsons,' that's the house to be at," he said.

So far, both Chambers and Wright say their time in Alaska has been a little bit like a dream. Already they've had the chance to see plenty of Alaska wildlife and scenery including a moose Chambers described as "just huge" and they've even been on a fishing expedition to the Russian River, a place that left both of them in awe.

"It was crazy," Wright said. "There were thousands of people there."

On the Russian, the players got a taste of Alaska's infamous "combat fishing," where anglers line up shoulder-to-shoulder for a chance to hook into a sockeye salmon. They weren't able to land any , but Wright said it's only a matter of time.

"I love doing it," he said. "We hooked nine fish, but just couldn't land any."

 

Don and Nina Pearson talk with Steven Wright and Brian Chambers before the start of a recent game.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Although they couldn't bring any salmon home, Wright credited the Pearsons for helping set the trip up.

"Don gave us fishing poles, tackle, whatever we needed," he said.

Don said he may not have helped that much by giving the boys some of his fishing gear. He said he probably should have given them a little more instruction on how to use it, as well. When Wright and Chambers first went to rig up one of the poles, he said the players made a rather crucial error.

"They ran the line all the way through the guides and everything like you're supposed to," he said.

However, when Wright tried to reel, he found that the line wasn't coming back in. Apparently, Don said, a crucial step involved in running line from the reel had been overlooked.

"They forgot to flip the bail," he said, laughing.

As for the Alaska scenery they've seen, Wright said he's in awe of where he's living. He said the Pearsons recently took him for a drive along the coast of Cook Inlet, a trip he could scarcely believe.

"It looked like a painting the whole way," he said. "There's no words that can describe it."

 

Don and Nina Pearson buy "split the pot" tickets from Taryn Moeglein during a recent game. The Pearsons have a favorite spot in the stands where they watch most of the Oilers' games.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Nina said most of the players who have come to live with her and her husband over the years have had the same reaction to life in Alaska.

"They all say it was an experience they will never, ever forget," she said.

Nina said she believes the key to being a successful host family is to treat the boys like they're her own kids.

"If they do something wrong, I tell them," she said. "But if they do something right, I tell them about that, too."

Serving as temporary parents to a couple rambunctious college boys is not always easy, and Nina admitted she and Don have to always be on their toes. Although they rarely have discipline problems with the players, Nina said that, like any college kids, the players always need some supervision.

"We've had a couple who were pretty wild," she said. "It's like your own child. You have to always be there."

The Pearsons have three grown children of their own all girls who are out living on their own. But that doesn't mean they're done raising kids. They now have grandchildren to worry about, which Nina said is another reason they like having the Oilers around the house.

"They're just thrilled," she said of her grandkids' reaction to their summer visitors.

 

Autographed baseballs that the Pearsons have collected line a shelf in one of their guest bedrooms. They've been hosting players for 25 years.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Her grandkids, Nina said, idolize the Oilers.

"They follow them around like shadows," she said.

As for the Pearsons themselves, they don't forget any of the players they've hosted. Nina said they still keep in touch with many of their former guests and see many of them during an annual pilgrimage to Major League Baseball's spring training in Arizona.

"We hit most of the minor league camps," Don said.

There, they usually run into a number of their former Oilers, including those in the minors as well as major leaguers they've hosted like J.D. Drew, Rich Aurilia and Jim Bullinger. And although most of the players have careers and families to worry about now, Don said the Pearsons hear from most of them at least once in a while.

"Around Christmas time is when we usually hear from them," he said.

As for their current (and future) players, Nina said she's not sure how long they'll keep hosting Oilers.

"We keep saying we're retired, but they keep calling us," she said.

As long as the Pearsons keep hosting ballplayers, it's likely the players will be happy to stay with the Pearsons.

As far as this year's Oilers are concerned, there's no better place to spend a summer than in their Kenai home.

"They don't even know us, and they open up their home, feed us, give us everything we need," Wright said. "They're what everyone dreams of."



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