A new meaning to home plate

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Even though Spencer Branigan was sweaty, caked with dirt and appropriately ripe after playing a season-ending doubleheader in Saturday’s 100-degree heat, it didn’t deter three of his biggest fans from bowling into him for a postgame hug.

The affection didn’t stop there, either.

The Cheney kids Matthew, 10, Kayla, 9, and Elizabeth, 4 continued to buzz around the 6-foot-5-inch Alexandria Aces first baseman (somewhere between knee- and waist-high) for the better part of 15 minutes until Branigan was teased away for an interview.

Shortly afterward came the question: For an athlete like Branigan, going into his sophomore year of college, is that at all odd? Nope, not really.

“It’s like, ‘Oh, my family is here,'” Branigan said. “I sometimes kind of forget that they’re my host family because I’ve seen them every day for two months.”

Indeed, such is the phenomenon of a great pairing of ballplayer and host family in the world of summertime collegiate baseball.

At the outset, it’s an awkward arrangement: One side is, more often than not, in a strange, new place for two months of non-stop baseball while the other side has opened its home to a relative stranger.

“I, personally, had no expectations,” said Lisa Marie Cheney, Branigan’s host mother for the summer. “I thought, ‘OK, this will be interesting is he going to be someone who’s never here? Is he going to be someone who’s here all the time? Is he going to want to be in with the family?'”

The families can be large or small, young or old, but really only need a washer and dryer to clean his uniform on short notice, and the extra space to house a player, said Aces President Pat Malone.

The players’ lodging generally falls within about a 20-minute radius from the team’s home base, Frank E. Mann Field, sandwiched between Arlandria and Route 1 in the northeast corner of the city.

Some players, like Aces catcher Will Davis, a two-year Ace going into his senior year at the University of Pennsylvania, figure out a living situation on their own. During his time in Alexandria, Davis has stayed with an uncle who lives about five minutes from the field in the Arlington Ridge neighborhood.

“It just so happens that my uncle lives closer than any host family does so it was a perfect fit,” Davis said. “It’s been very easy.”

Max Knowles, the only three-time Aces player, has stayed with the same family in Arlington for the last two summers. The setup has been a good backdrop for what turned out to be a breakout final year with the Alexandria team.

“I’ve been really lucky,” Knowles said. “They feed me they’re parents to me, they’re really nice. They don’t treat me like a kid but at the same time they are there for me if I need anything.”

Most of the players coming from nearby schools like Georgetown, George Washington and George Mason have their own off-campus places, according to several Aces.

Even after those cases, though, the team still needs to find close to 20 places for a bunch of 20-somethings. It’s a process that takes several months, beginning in the fall after the word first gets out into the community, Malone said.

In return for their hospitality, the team offers its host families free season tickets and traditionally holds an appreciation-day event before the last home game of the season.

Not all families take advantage of the trade-off, but the Cheneys did.

“I’m pretty sure I’ve got the only host family that comes to every game,” Branigan said. “They’re always waiting at the gate right when the game ends to come high-five me and give me hugs.”

After first hearing about the opportunity last summer the Cheneys decided they would get involved with the team this year and have been pleasantly surprised.

“It is really easy,” Lisa said. “The guys are great, really well-mannered and very polite. Spencer really has become a part of the family.”

Branigan, a California native who also plays at Penn, never had a younger brother or sister. Now he says he has three.

“It’s a home away from home,” Branigan said. “I know that’s clich, but that’s exactly what it is. I’m never lonely, there’s always someone in the household.”

Though rare, Malone said, players and their host families don’t always mesh. When that happens, the team does what it can to find a better match and for some players, in a new place and trying to survive a hectic summer, that can make all the difference.< /span>

“If you have a bad host family not a bad family, but somebody that doesn’t fit your lifestyle it’s tough,” Knowles said. “If you have a great host family you’ll probably have a great summer even if you don’t play well.”

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