Cathy Pierce came to have Mallards in her house for a simple reason: She had a son who was nuts about baseball.
"We'd gone to several games in 2001, and my son said, 'We need to have one of these players stay at our house!'" A call to the front office and one basic "likes and dislikes" survey later, the Pierces were in.
This season marks her family's sixth year of hosting players. The Mallards, says Pierce, do try to match common interests: "My family is into fishing, so we often have a player with an interest in that."
And within the time constraints of a busy season, Pierce takes her "kid," as she says, on trips to the Wisconsin Dells or a lake cottage up north. Since most players "come from far away," she likes to give them some exposure to Wisconsin.
"Every year it's a little different," says Pierce, an IT analyst who lives within a mile of Warner Park. "You have to get to know your player. Typically, ours have been very family-oriented. A lot of times after the games they'll come home and we'll sit up talking until waaaay too late."
This year, 24 families will host one or sometimes two Mallards players. The host families are uncompensated except for season tickets, in a designated section behind the Mallards' dugout. It's a chance to make friends and to cheer team members you've come to know.
Pierce lays down simple rules from the get-go ("If you're going to be out all night, call") and credits that with trouble-free relations over the years. But she's also a welcoming host.
"I try to make it as enjoyable as possible - find out their favorite foods and fix those," she says. "Because I know they're away from home, and most come straight from college to Madison without a chance to go back to their own homes."
The Pierces stay in touch with their former Mallards, and have traveled to St. Louis for a wedding and to Waco, Texas, and Columbia, Missouri, to watch them play in college games.
"It's a special bond," says Pierce. "It's hard when they leave."
Not all hosts are as involved. Sue Heiser, who's entering her second year of hosting, represents the lower-maintenance end of the spectrum.
"I'm really busy," says Heiser, who lives in Sun Prairie. Even so, last year she went to "just about every home game. It's a lot of fun." But otherwise, she and her player barely saw each other. "I maybe cooked two meals for him. And as far as being like a mother figure, no - they're pretty independent. They don't need anybody, they have so much on their minds. These are just guys who want to play ball, and that's all they're thinking about."
John Voelker and his family are entering their seventh year of hosting a Mallard. After seeing a TV news item about the team needing families, John's wife Becky remarked, "You know, Ross" - the couple's son - "would love that." Ross, who's now 14 and a bat boy for the team, has "25 big brothers for the summer," says Voelker.
The first year, the Voelkers got a call very suddenly to pick up their player at the airport. "We weren't prepared, so I stopped at Woodman's with him on the way home. It's 11 p.m. and I'm standing in the cereal aisle with this kid we've never met before saying, 'Do you want cereal? Do you want eggs?' Finally, he picks out a box of cereal. It turns out he never ate breakfast, but didn't want to say anything. It's an interesting feeling-out process."
Voelker, by day the director of state courts, says kids who spend their summers playing baseball - with no salary - tend to be "really upstanding folks."
The same might be said for the families who put up players for the summer in exchange only for season tickets. And the love of baseball.