When entering Julie Bubnick's tidy home in Linden Woods, one might easily overlook the two baseball bats resting quietly in an umbrella stand next to the door.
"This is my defence system," Bubnick says, her wonderfully dry sense of humour in full swing. "These are the Duva bats."
That's Duva as in the switch-hitting second baseman Brian Duva, the first Winnipeg Goldeye to have his number retired. He is one of only three players (Max Poulin and Donnie Smith the others) to earn the honour from the independent baseball organization, which today finishes its first homestand of the 2012 season.
"These bats were my son Brian's birthday present from (Duva)," she says, holding up an autographed blond bat that still shows the scars of play. "He got one of these each season that Brian (Duva) stayed with us. Then we started getting pitchers and (my son) moved out of home. But that's fine. How many bats do you need?"
Setting aside that existential query, which surely some baseball statistician has settled, the real questions have to be: How many years in a row can a person open her home -- rent free -- to strangers, which Bubnick has done for 19 consecutive Goldeyes' seasons and counting? And what would possess a person to do such a thing?
From the club's point of view, the host family program is a no-brainer. It's also a little noticed but significant part of what makes the Goldeyes one of the most successful franchises in independent baseball in North America.
"I can't say enough about all the host families we've had over the years," says Andrew Collier, longtime general manager of the Fish who runs the program. "No doubt the Goldeyes are a better organization because of this program."
Eight families signed up to host players this year and five players will bunk with four families to start the season. Collier says these numbers have varied in the past, but they seldom, if ever, need more than eight families.
"From a purely selfish point of view, it can only help the Goldeyes by having these players out there representing the team very well," Collier says.
"Host families are going to talk to friends and say how wonderful the Goldeyes are and that the players are great and that you should go out and watch these guys play. At the end of the day, I can only think that they're helping us sell tickets."
Of course, there's more to it than that. It's a recruitment tool, too.
"We had some players coming straight out of college and they did not have a lot of money," says John Hindle, who initiated the program in 1994, the inaugural season, and served as the team's general manager for its first eight years. "They're coming here with that dream still in their eye that they can make it to Major League Baseball and play for the big money. But with the Goldeyes, and minor ball in general, they don't make a lot of money. We thought that if we could provide that home environment for them, it would be to their benefit. We tried to do everything we could to help the players."
Salaries range from approximately $3,500 to $10,000 per season, with most guys cashing cheques in the lower end of that scale. So, if a player makes $800 a month, about half of that can be spent on accommodations. This makes the free-rent option of a host family attractive, especially if the player has his own means of transportation.
For a fifth season in a row, pitcher Zach Baldwin, 29, is looking forward to doffing his shoes at the front door, filling his belly and stretching his 6-foot-5 frame across that comfortable Bubnick-family couch.
"I can save quite a bit of money by staying at a host family as opposed to renting a hotel or staying in an apartment for four months," says Baldwin, who commutes to Shaw Park in his silver pickup. "I don't want to sound like I'm cheap or that's the sole reason I'm here. But with the way salaries are in this league, it's a given that we don't make a lot of money. Every penny you can save helps you out."
Coming from a West Virginia home that's family oriented, Baldwin admits he's well suited to the program. Plus, he says, "I've heard from past players that if you stay in the hotel the chances of you enjoying the nightlife a little too much go a little bit higher."
Such an atmosphere helps lure players back, bringing continuity to a team's roster, Baldwin says.
"Fargo does a pretty good job with their host family system, too. But basically all the other teams, it is apartments or hotels," he says.
"We're lucky as players and as an organization to have folks like Julie who open up their homes to people who are basically complete strangers. The team does do screening and tries to make good fits, but these families are still taking a great risk."
Brian Duva, now a lawyer in Atlanta, interrupts a family vacation in Las Vegas to consider why Julie Bubnick took him in for five seasons, from 1996 to 2000.
"Julie did it obviously not for any sense of personal benefit because it was a hardship on her to have all of us there using her cars, using her food, etcetera," he says. "She did it as a way to benefit and help the community... She did it because she has a strong sense of community."
Duva, 39, initially welcomed the host-family option as relief from the sardine-like accommodations of rookie ball. He swapped a "small apartment" that he shared with seven other Cleveland Indian hopefuls for a spot in a four-bedroom, 2,650-square-foot suburban residence.
But it was more than that.
"After a while, each season, it felt like I was leaving home to go home. And I'm pretty sure it felt that way for a lot of the other guys," he says. "It really became not just a host-family situation, but a family situation."
So how did it all start for Bubnick?
In 1994, her house sitter for the summer fell through, opening the door for fate to intervene in the form of a newspaper's sports section. Her son, an avid reader of the section, happened to leave the paper open on the table the morning a story ran announcing the Goldeyes' search for host families.
"I saw an opportunity to solve a problem and help someone else at the same time," says the 60-year-old chartered accountant. "So why not give it a try."
She also saw a chance for her kids -- Brian, then 11, and Lisa, then nine -- to spend some time with a "big brother."
While the "perks" of hosting -- 25 ticket vouchers per season, a 15 per cent discount at the park, pre- and post-season parties and gifts of appreciation -- are nice, they're incidental, at best, to what she found became the program's more profound and unexpected appeal -- the memories gained and the relationships fashioned.
Bubnick can talk for hours about the weddings of players she's attended, the "tub of meat" she found in her freezer, the days when "groupies" would never stop calling, and the morning when she discovered an "unknown pair of high heels" at the front door.
"The good has always outweighed the bad," Bubnick says. "I didn't do this with the expectation I was going to get something out of this.
"Whatever the team or any players have gotten out of this, we've gotten so much more than we ever imagined."