One of the first Mustang players to spend the season in the Billings home of James and Joy Mariska was Didi Gregorius, now the New York Yankees’ shortstop.
That was in 2009, and the Mariskas have opened their Billings home to at least two Mustangs every summer ever since.
“We have learned a lot from these kids,” James Mariska said. “It’s a lot like having two thoroughbreds living in your house. They are strong, determined, focused people — and they’re a little high-strung.”
Seated in their living room one story above the family room and bedrooms that the Mariskas turn over to Mustangs players every summer, the couple joyfully recounted the names and some of the memories from nearly a decade of hosting young players.
Gregorius was born in Amsterdam, and the Mariskas say they’ve appreciated hosting international players ever since his stay. A tabletop cluster of seven international flags — Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Netherlands, Curacao, the Czech Republic, Taiwan and Puerto Rico — indicates the mini-United Nations that has shared the Mariska household over the years.
“Some families don’t want to host foreign players,” Joy Mariska said, “but we feel that it broadens our horizons.”
Most foreign-born ballplayers “send home almost all the money they make,” she said. “Their first stop after payday is to Western Union to send money home to mom.”
Take me out to the ballgame
As the players’ taxi drivers, cooks and confidants, the Mariskas are often busier than the players themselves, and that’s saying something since the Mustangs typically play 76 Pioneer League games in 80 days.
According to the Mariskas, players often sleep until about 90 minutes before Mustangs manager Ray Martinez has them report on gameday to Dehler Park, at about 1 or 1:30 p.m. for an evening ballgame.
Joy will fix lunch for the players, and the Mariskas or another host family will then drive them to the ballpark.
Longtime season ticket holders, the Mariskas sit along the third baseline and must wait after the game for the players to get cleaned up and meet with the coaching staff before they can go home, usually around 12:30 a.m. or later.
“By the end of the year, we are exhausted,” James said. “They work hard and they play hard. We have things we have to get done during the day, so we’re sleeping just four or six hours and we’re exhausted just like they are.”
The difference, of course, is that James is 71 and Joy is 61. Some of the players are still teenagers. This summer, the couple is hosting a pair of 21-year-old players from Connecticut, infielder Manny Cruz and pitcher Matt Blandino.
“But then spring training rolls around,” James said. “We go see them that first time (at a Mustangs barbecue, held just a couple days before the season starts), and they get to know us.”
The Mariskas tell players that their home is “their sanctuary,” James said. “You can sleep, eat, plan your day and correspond with your family. We do ask them not to bring any fans or locals to the house, and they are very respectful of the rules.”
“We talk a lot after the game,” Joy said. “We don’t like to pry, but occasionally they will tell us stuff.”
The Mariskas say they enjoy showing the players the sights around Billings. They have photographs of just about every player they’ve hosted smiling at the camera from Swords Rimrock Park, with the city at the player's back, far below.
“What little they see of Billings, they like,” Joy said. Added James: “During their careers, they will see a lot of towns, most of them through a bus window.”
Each spring, weeks before the Mustangs' season-opener, the couple heads down to Goodyear, Arizona, where the Cincinnati Reds organization — the Mustangs’ parent club — holds spring training.
“They are all talkative then,” James said. “They see us there, and it’s like old home week.”