More than just a host family: Rochester family formed tight bond with MLB player Dan Winkler
Dan Winkler, a former Atlanta Brave and Chicago Cub and current Texas Rangers minor leaguer, played for the Rochester Honkers in the summer of 2010. Even after 12 years, the bond that Winkler formed with the Tester family is as strong as ever.
ROCHESTER — For Dave Tester and his family, hosting Rochester Honkers players is now a summer tradition. They never really considered how long they’d host players — it’s just something he and his family do now, every summer since 2010.
Tester didn’t know about the host family program until his son, Nick, was a member of a Dream Team of the Game, a youth sports team the Honkers host that can take pictures and get autographs from Honkers players. That was 2009, the last year the Honkers won the Northwoods League championship.
After hearing host families talk about how rewarding the experience of being a host (or "billet") family is, Tester and his family — his wife, Jackie; daughter, Sabrina; and Nick — decided to host a player for the 2010 season.
“We have the room, let’s just do it,” Tester remembered saying.
Residents hosting players from out of town is a staple in many pre-professional and minor league sports leagues, and the Northwoods League is no exception. Collegiate players come from around the country to participate in the wood bat league for a summer as a way to sharpen their baseball skills.
Tester knew the concept of hosting a player for a summer: It’s like having a “summer son,” just a regular teenage boy that requires a bed and, ideally, a stocked pantry.
Maybe what Tester and his family didn’t realize was the bond they’d create with their first player.
In the summer of 2010, a 20-year-old named Dan Winkler rolled into Rochester fresh off his sophomore season at Parkland College in Champaign, Ill. He would only be in Rochester for a few weeks, on orders from his University of Central Florida coach, where Winkler transferred to finish his collegiate career.
To put it simply, Tester “fell in love” with him.
That feeling wasn’t one-sided — Winkler praised the Testers.
“Dave and Jackie have huge hearts,” he said. “Hands down their best quality.”
They were the perfect fit for a 20-year-old who found himself stressed about going through the process of living with a host family.
“You're coming into a stranger's home and essentially disrupting their lives, while also adjusting your life to respect and honor their family and home,” he said.
But, in his mind, Winkler lucked out with the Testers being his first host family experience. The Testers welcomed him into the family and did, in fact, have a stocked pantry, “which was huge for a 180-pound, poor college kid,” Winkler said.
Winkler did become part of the family, even showing up at Nick’s youth baseball practices between his obligations as a full-time baseball player.
Tester coached Nick’s team that summer. He remembered Danny, as he calls him, coming out to practice and pitching to the kids.
“I remember the kids being super pumped” about his presence, Winkler said. “I raced around the bases with some of them and worked with some of them on their throwing mechanics.”
After Winkler finished his time with the Honkers, he went to UCF and was drafted after the 2011 season by the Colorado Rockies.
His relationship with the Testers didn’t end after leaving Rochester, or after getting drafted.
In fact, after Winkler was drafted, he played for the Casper Ghosts, the team that used to be the rookie affiliate for the Rockies in Casper, Wyo. The Testers made a trip west to catch a game.
“I remember Nick getting to do one of the in-between innings games of racing the mascot on the bases,” Winkler said.
That’s just one of the many memories the two families share.
The strong bond they formed wasn’t something either Tester or Winkler expected, but in hindsight, they should have seen it coming.
“These guys that come through become part of the family,” Tester said.
Even 12 years after living with the Testers that one summer, Winkler can always count on them to call or visit.
“They have traveled all over the country to come watch me play baseball, which has been amazing,” he said. “We talk and catch up every now and then, but not as often as we used to. It gets difficult now with me having two kids of my own and just never knowing what time I'll be on or road trip they can come on. But I'm always following the Honkers and I know Dave and Jackie are always following my career and keeping up with my family.”
More than just baseball
Kevin and Angie Lash may be the Rochester experts in how to take care of college-aged boys, even before their own son is in college.
That probably doesn’t make sense until you realize the Lashes have hosted Rochester Honkers players since 2008. They aren’t on a one-player-a-summer schedule, either. The family is set to host four players this summer and had four last year.
The Lashes said that “it’s just easier when they have a teammate.”
When it comes down to it, host families provide a bed for players to sleep on and, if the players are lucky, food for them to eat. The summer is dedicated to players playing baseball.
“The guys are busy. It’s a grind. It’s their job,” Angie said. “So when they’re home, a lot of times they’re sleeping, or they’re working out, or watching TV.”
The Honkers have many new host families for this coming summer. Lisa and Pat Stewart, for instance, are one of the host families who are now empty nesters and have extra space available for a player.
Pat loves baseball — he made sure to sport his Milwaukee Brewers shirt to the host family meeting at the end of April. For him, the opportunity to host a baseball player brings him back to his own glory days.
“We’re like reliving my childhood. I used to have game,” Pat said, laughing. “I just think it’d be fun to have another man around the house, involved in sports.”
This summer will mark Jenn Becker and her family’s second year hosting. Baseball was always a big part of the Becker's lives, with three boys and a daughter interested in the sport.
After her kids grew up and left the house, baseball left their lives for a little bit, until they started hosting. The family went from rarely attending Honkers games to becoming super fans of the Northwoods League team.
“We ended up going to almost all of the games just because we wanted to be there to support him,” Becker said. “It became like a summer son and summer family just because you’re at a game almost every night of the week.”
The Honkers players have also given back and supported the Honkers the last couple years. The Beckers host a memorial golf tournament for their son, Samuel Lee Becker, who they lost to suicide in 2016.
In 2021, the Beckers first year hosting a player, the team was scheduled to be out of town the day of the golf tournament. They ended up not having to travel, so the team went to the golf tournament and set up additional ways for participants to donate money, like “hire a Honker,” where a Honkers player played a hole at the tournament.
This year, the team has an off day the day of the memorial golf tournament, so the team will again be there to help and support a host family.
At the end of the day, being a host family is more than just loving baseball.