- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 12, 2012

The home of Steve and Phyllis Wilson, on a tree-lined Virginia street, does not immediately distinguish itself from the equally lovely ones around it. There is no way to know just from looking that their home is unique - that their home has helped groom so many major league players.

The only signs of the Wilsons’ connection to a quarter of the Washington Nationals’ active roster sit in a trophy case in the basement. There is the proof. There are the autographs, the photos, the evidence that their home is a sure stop on the way to the big leagues.

In the past seven years, the Wilsons have hosted eight different members of the Single-A Potomac Nationals at their Woodbridge home. Six of them have spent time on the Nationals’ major league roster. Five are on the team now.

“They must have some luck in that house or something,” said rookie Tyler Moore, who lived with the Wilsons, along with Steve Lombardozzi, in 2010. “They’ve got good juices flowing.”

Ian Desmond was their first, a 19-year-old kid the day he tagged along with Blaine Bott, then the Potomac trainer. Bott was the second trainer the Wilsons had housed, but Desmond was an instant hit.

“I’m 19, in a new city with people I don’t really know,” Desmond said. “I’m playing with a bunch of guys who are older than me. I’m not necessarily fitting right in. Then I go and I meet the Wilsons, and they’re just the nicest, [most] hospitable people. And I felt right at home.

“I love them like parents, to be honest. They’re unbelievable people.”

The Wilsons have hosted only players since, a list that includes first baseman Chris Marrero, catcher Jhonatan Solano and right-hander Jordan Zimmermann. Desmond sent Marrero, who brought Zimmermann, and then Solano. The Wilsons are part of a Potomac booster club run by Lamar and Dottie Boone that every player raves about, but you’d be hard-pressed to find another family with this kind of track record.

“I tell guys in spring training all the time, ‘You better go stay at Phyllis and Steve’s house because it’s a pretty good percentage,’” Lombardozzi said.

This year, Steve, a retired armor officer from the U.S. Army who works for the Department of Defense, and Phyllis find themselves making the 45-minute trek north to Nationals Park more often. Their son, Mike, graduated college this spring and their daughter, Sarah, delivered their first grandchild, Henry. So the Wilsons decided not to host a player this season. Instead, they watch the ones who already have come through.

“You get close to them,” Phyllis said, adding that she’s never had a troublesome player. “They do mean a lot to you. The best thing that comes out of it is the relationships.”

Phyllis calls herself a “frustrated tour guide,” and chuckles at the thought. The players are so busy, she said, so when their families visit she’ll take them around D.C. A picture of Marrero’s family from Christmas a few years back sits on the top of the trophy case.

“When they first come to us,” Phyllis says, “you don’t want to get too much into their space. But these guys are all so nice. They treated us like family, so we treated them the same way.”

They helped Solano, who’d only been in the U.S. for two years, improve his English - testing all of the college Spanish Phyllis could remember - and their son Mike drove him to the ballpark each day. Solano, who said because of the Wilsons “I have family here in the U.S.,” calls them on Christmas and New Year’s and loves to keep in touch.

Desmond sees the Wilsons often, even leaving his dog, Bailey, with them when the Nationals go on road trips. There, Bailey can play with the Wilsons’ dog, Lola. Long-lost sisters, they call them. One day this spring, Desmond was on his way to drop Bailey off when he got a call from Phyllis that they wouldn’t be home. Sarah had gone into labor. So Desmond brought a baseball-themed bouquet to the hospital and fooled all the nurses into thinking he was Sarah’s brother.

Phyllis laughs as she tells how each group of players seems different. Desmond and Marrero were younger when they lived there, so the Wilsons were accustomed to having them come home after games, eat ice cream and talk. Moore and Lombardozzi were a bit older and came home a bit later, often after the Wilsons had gone to bed.

After a few nights of missing them, Phyllis came up with a different way to give them her congratulations: she hung signs on the front door. “Nice hit, Lombo!” one read. “Nice grab, Tyler!” said another. They liked the signs so much they took them in, night after night, and tacked them to their fridge in the basement.

“We were just laughing,” Lombardozzi said. “It was awesome.”

When Moore had his best offensive day in the big leagues this June, a two-homer day in Toronto, a text from Phyllis was waiting for him when he got into the clubhouse. “If I had a sign,” the message read, “it’d be as big as the door.”

“She’s just an unbelievable lady,” Moore added. “Acted like she knew us for 20 years. Nothing was awkward. It was just always very welcoming, like a mother.”

No one can seem to explain their impressive run, or the link between being a Wilson charge and making it to the big leagues. But if it does have to do with them, or with their home, it wouldn’t be a shock to any of the players.

“You can’t disrespect them,” Desmond said. “They’re so sweet. [But] they expect you to know the difference between right and wrong. I think players that live there are held accountable for their actions so they’re staying focused.”

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