By Jeff Nations - firstname.lastname@example.org
STRASBURG -- Hundreds of miles from school and home, Strasburg Express pitchers Anthony Buonopane and Matt Solter nonetheless have a built-in fanbase which could well be the envy of the Valley Baseball League.
The pair, college teammates at Furman University, have perhaps the most unusual living arrangements in the entire VBL this season, not that they're complaining. But then, what's to gripe about? Buonopane and Solter have a roof over their heads, food on the table -- heck, even their laundry is taken care of -- all thanks to their unique host, Strasburg's Greenfield Senior Living facility. That's where the fanbase originates, as well -- Greenfield's residents have put out the welcome mat in a big way.
"It's relaxing, low-key -- you come in at night and sort of just do your thing, go right to the next game," Buonopane said. "The people there are great. They always say hi to us, are happy to see us when we walk in. The people that work there are nice to us, come and let us in later since the doors lock up."
Buonopane and Solter's unique living arrangement for the summer came courtesy of Greenfield director Jill Sutherly, who approached Strasburg Express general manager Jay Neal about volunteering to host the players for the summer in an apartment at the facility.
"I think they kind of like it, I don't know," Strasburg manager Butch Barnes said. "They ought to because I think they're taken pretty good care of."
Neal is no stranger to finding unorthodox solutions to the housing problem the Express, like many VBL teams, face each summer. Three Strasburg players -- Kevin Herget, Sam Fourre and Matt Dybus -- are living in a renovated and furnished stone mill in nearby Fisher's Hill. But lodging in an assisted living facility is a first for the Express.
"It's working out like a charm," Neal said. "It's a great situation. The players, they're kind of adopted. You might have heard of puppy therapy in assisted living facilities -- sometimes they bring in puppies and the residents just love them. Well, we have pretty tall puppies."
Neal said Greenfield has gone above and beyond in terms of accommodating the pair, including providing most meals and even taking care of their laundry. Then there's the added support for Solter and Buonopane which naturally arises from having so many new friends.
"We're so busy between lifting and coming out here early, you know, 3 o'clock every day, kind of getting stuff done on our own -- it's kind of hard to be involved over there," Solter said. "We talk to them whenever we come out. There's an area right outside our room, and there's usually four or five of them there. We'll sit down, have a conversation, see how they're doing."
Those daily conversations, mostly "small talk" about the players' baseball experience, background or long-term goals, have helped Solter feel more at ease this season.
"They're just trying to get to know us, maybe feel like we're a part of their family, too," Solter said.
Solter said his grandparents live in a facility similar to Greenfield, so he had a fairly good idea of what to expect. Buonopane didn't, but he's glad to gain the experience.
"I wasn't sure what it was going to be like," Buonopane said. "I just sort of went in with an open mind. I had no expectations either way, bad or good."
Rooming with a college teammate has helped Solter get comfortable in a strange town. The New Bern, N.C., resident has bonded more closely with Buonopane, who lives in Rumson, N.J.
"It's definitely made us better friends," Solter said. "We weren't that close at the beginning of school ball. I feel like that's the way with a lot of freshmen, with a lot of the other players. Definitely over the course of school ball we got a lot closer, and we were really excited that we were going to be together here.
"He's a good dude, so it's always good to have him around. Being able to talk to each other in the room or hang out with each other, it's better than living on our own or having to figure out something to do."
The support from Greenfield's population extends to the ballpark. Residents are offered a shuttle trip to and from First Bank Park to watch home games and cheer on their two adopted Express players.
Sutherly said Greenfield's residents have benefited from having Solter and Buonopane around this summer.
"It's brought a lot of joy to our community," Sutherly said. "Matt and Anthony, I don't think they realize what joy they bring to the residents, just hearing about their excitement for baseball and their lives."
Solter and Buonopane come and go as they please, and they don't mind following a few rules.
"Of course -- no parties," Buonopane said.
For Barnes, the unusual living arrangement for his players is a part of what makes playing summer league baseball in Strasburg such a special experience.
"That's how the community comes together and that's what it's all about," Barnes said. "Don't get me wrong -- we need to win, but we need to make sure we're doing the right thing in the community, too."