Knives clink against plates as the diners slice chunks of steak and sausage. Soon, peppers will be popped into mouths and salads scooped from bowls. The whole meal was prepared by Bob Palamara, 60, on Sunday afternoon as he waited for Duffy, Gauntlett Eldemire, and Kyrell Hudson to return from the BlueClaws game. But only Duffy came to dinner. Eldemire elected to sleep upstairs, and Hudson went to Six Flags with teammates.
No worries. Duffy alone can provide plenty of conversation. He and Palamara chat about the importance of staying confident on the field, and about Duffy's father, a retired New York City police officer. Later, Palamara talked politics, explaining the dirty process of gerrymandering to Duffy.
This is the type of conversation Palamara has shared with his own son, he said, the type of talk he has shared with many other Lakewood BlueClaws since he began hosting players in his four-bedroom home in 2008. Here, Palamara said, he wants people to feel comfortable, even if they aren't blood. That's how he has treated his three adopted children and the two nephews he welcomed in as 6- and 8-year-olds.
Likewise, Palamara said he wants the players to feel like part of his family, even if only for one year. That's why he lets them stay rent-free.
"I'm fortunate that I don't have to charge them," he said. "It's nice to have them in the house. I can't think of anyone who's been less than a gentleman."
Center of attention
At the table after dinner, Palamara served dessert: cake and raspberries. The table is made of wood, as are the floors and the walls. Twenty-five years ago, he said, he and his wife, Kathy, wanted their new home to look like a log cabin. It would feel warm, they decided, and welcoming.
When their sons and daughters were children, the Palamaras' house became the center of the neighborhood, said Rebecca, now 23. Neighbors watched as four, five, six bicycles stacked in the front lawn. Kids lounged in the living room, or doggie-paddled in the pool, or stopped by when they smelled barbecue. Bob and Kathy always welcomed company.
But before this season, Bob didn't want to host any more players. He couldn't do it alone, and the BlueClaws were Kathy's passion anyway. He watched a couple of games after she died in January 2011, but each game delivered pain.
Plus, for once, after more than two decades of watching children - his kids, someone else's kids, whomever - run through the rooms of his makeshift log cabin, a quietness surrounded Palamara. He kind of liked it, he confesses.
When Duffy called, though, he mentioned an important connection. His friend, Domonic Brown, recommended he stay with Palamara. Brown was one of three players who bunked at Bob and Kathy's back in 2008, their first season hosting players. He and Bob still chat, and they get together for dinner when their schedules permit.
"Domonic is family," Palamara told Duffy over the phone.
So of course Duffy could stay, and Eldemire came too. Later, Hudson also arrived, packing the house so tight that the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Duffy moved to the couch, where his feet dangle off the edge and his face gets licked by Palamara's chocolate labs, Mocha and Reese.
The setup is nice, Duffy said, and the rent is free. What else could you ask for? Well, much more, actually. These players don't know what a ticket to the Palamaras' used to mean, Rebecca said. They don't understand the depths of Kathy's devotion to her boys - Eldemire, perhaps, being the lone exception. He met Kathy in the summer of 2010. He needed to visit a doctor in Philadelphia, and she drove him 140 miles round trip, no questions asked.
"This was her thing," Rebecca said of hosting players. "This is what she loved. We try to keep it going as best we can."
A mother's passion
Bob and Kathy bought BlueClaws season tickets about 10 years ago. Their sons and daughters were teenagers back then, and they thought it would be a good place to hang out during the summers. Kathy had not cared much for baseball before, but she fell in love as she met the players at functions for season-ticket-holders. Soon, she hung around FirstEnergy Park, chatting with the players before the games. Sometimes, when a player spotted a girl he liked, he'd ask Kathy to talk to her, find out her name.
A rarely used Twitter account shows Kathy Palamara in a BlueClaws sweater flaunting the South Atlantic League championship trophy. "Looking for baseball weather!!!!" she wrote in June 2009 - one of four tweets she ever sent.
Kathy Palamara befriended some of the other season-ticket holders and learned about the host family program. Rebecca, her youngest daughter, was heading for Five Towns College in New York, leaving a void Palamara needed to fill. She worked as a nurse, but that wasn't enough. She needed to take care of more people. That, Rebecca said, was her mother's passion.
So in came Brown and two other players. Palamara cooked them breakfast every morning and sometimes drove them to games four hours before the first pitch. And when they arrived home, often after 11 p.m., she cooked dinner.
She'd cook anything a player would ask for. For the Southern guys, Bob said, she learned to prepare corn bread and collard greens. When they left for road trips, Kathy awoke as early as 4 a.m. to make them goody bags for the road.
"That whole living situation was more than perfect," said Jiwan James, who lived with the Palamaras in 2010 at Brown's suggestion. "It was pretty much like home. I even said a couple times that Kathy was too nice."
A couple of months after the season ended and James went home, around Christmas, Kathy fell ill. She went to the hospital. There, doctors delivered the news: bacterial meningitis. The next day, Bob said, Kathy slipped into a coma. He and Rebecca called every family member, players included. Kathy was sick, but maybe she'd rally. They prayed. But on Jan. 6, 2011, she inhaled her final breath. She was 54.
Some players texted Bob their condolences. Others called. Brown and former BlueClaws Adam Buschini and Mike Durant (who asked Bob to be his children's godfather) went to the funeral, which celebrated Kathy as a mother and a baseball fan. In her casket, she wore a BlueClaws jersey.
A year and a half later, Bob sometimes struggles to finish his sentences when he speaks about Kathy. He doesn't spend as much time with Duffy, Eldemire, or Hudson as he and Kathy did with some of the players in years past. Before the players wake up in the morning, he leaves for his job running a company that rents out construction equipment.
And at night he's usually asleep before the players get home. Nobody waits up to cook dinner, and Bob Palamara misses that. Even the noise.