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2001-07-19 - 3:11 p.m.

Mi casa es su casa

One of my more enjoyable reporting assignments (as I mentioned yesterday).


LAKEWOOD -- When Malta Ramirez came home one early April afternoon and told her three children they'd be getting nine brothers, all Lakewood BlueClaws ballplayers, they thought she was crazy.

But for Malta and her husband, Angel, taking in nine young Spanish-speaking baseball players from the Dominican Republic and Panama did not require much discussion. They have a big house on Hope Chapel Road. Angel works as a groundskeeper at GPU Energy Park; he and his wife are also self-employed. Why not make life easier for nine young men working their way toward the major leagues?

"My husband started talking to Carlos Ruiz, and he said they were looking for a place to live and they had three days to look, this was three days from opening day," Malta said, standing in her kitchen yesterday afternoon. "My husband said, 'If you don't have anything else, you can come live with me.' Ruiz said, 'Well, there's like four,' and he said, 'I don't care, bring them.' And from four it went to nine, and we took them all in."

Just days before opening day, Ruiz and teammates Dario Delgado, Carlos Acevedo, Eude Brito, Ambiorix Reyes, Juan Richardson, Robinson Tejada, George Rodriguez and Julio Collazo moved in with the Ramirezes and their children: Jose, 23; Brenda, 22; and Lucy, 20. Rounding out the household are Lucy's 9-month-old daughter, Ciara Gallup, and Gina Soto, a family friend.

"It doesn't bother me at all," said Malta, who added that the players call her "Marta" or "Mom." "I enjoy it. I use a lot of disposables. I've used more disposables this summer than in my entire life."

It was a relief for these players -- earning between $1,000 and $1,500 a month -- not to have to search for pricey accommodations at the Jersey Shore in the summertime. They do pay rent to the Ramirez family to help cover expenses.

"At first, it is tough because you don't know anybody," said Brito, who translates for the team. "The first day that I was here, we were sad. We were a little scared."

The number of players at the Ramirez home has shrunk to six over the course of the season. Rodriguez got a promotion to the Philadelphia Phillies' high-Class A club in Clearwater, Fla. Tejada has moved in with another Lakewood family. Collazo was released by the organization in June and has returned home to Puerto Rico.

"I thought it was the worst idea to bring these guys here," Lucy said. "You don't know them. I was thinking stupid stuff about them. But then once we got to know each other, I realized I was wrong."

Now the players and the Ramirez children get along as if they'd grown up together. Acevedo chased Lucy around the basement yesterday after she pilfered his sandal. Then, at Malta's urging, Acevedo and Brito tossed Lucy into the pool.

"They do that all the time," Lucy said later, in dry clothes. "It's fun having them here. We can all relate because we're all about the same age. We miss them a lot when they leave (on road trips), but when they come back home, we can't wait for them to leave again."

When they leave -- that's the hard part.

"I didn't think it was going to be like this," Malta said. "They're like family, they're like my kids. It's very hard to explain. I had to drive Collazo, when he was released, to the airport, and it was very devastating. It was very sad to realize that someone I had become very close to was leaving. I cried. I came home and they said, 'It's OK,' they were trying to comfort me. They took me to dinner. You become very attached."

The attraction is mutual. The players make themselves right at home in the large house on the wooded lot with a "Welcome BlueClaws" banner hanging out front. Living in the spacious finished basement, with its own entrance to the back yard and the pool and a 64-inch television, they have all the comforts of an apartment, complete with a refrigerator behind the bar and a separate bathroom. With a surrogate mother to make meals and drive them to the ballpark every day, they have less to worry about than some of their teammates.

"It's better because when we get here, we don't have to think," Brito said from the deck overlooking the yard. "We don't have to cook or we don't have to go to McDonald's, or whatever place, to eat. Every time that we come here, the food's ready."

With a rare day off yesterday to spend at home, rather than ride the bus between Lakewood and South Atlantic League towns such as Greensboro, N.C., and Savannah, Ga., the extended family enjoyed lunch together with salsa music playing from the living room stereo.

Later, Delgado and Acevedo took on one another in a game of baseball on a Sony PlayStation system. Richardson leafed through some baseball cards. Brito and Soto danced to the music.

"They're happier now that they're winning," Jose said. "Sometimes when they lose, they don't want to talk. They just come in, turn on the music, and sit on the couch. When they win, they're happy, they're dancing around the house."

The experience has made for the perfect summer, Malta said.

"I enjoy every bit of it," she said. "I take them to the ballpark every day, I pick them up every day. I'm there all the time. I haven't missed a game from day one, and I don't think I will, either.

"I'm willing to do it again (next season), no doubt about it."

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