Jacob Rosales (right) sits with Jim Phillips in the Carroll home of Jim and Karen Phillips.
Jacob Rosales (right) sits with Jim Phillips in the Carroll home of Jim and Karen Phillips.

April 18, 2018

Jacob Rosales lay in an orange-and-white jumpsuit in the Carroll jail last summer and worried about what Jim would do.

The California-born college baseball player had moved to town about a week earlier to play for the Carroll Merchants, and his host family — Jim and Karen Phillips — had warned him about small towns: Don’t drive drunk. Don’t have beer in the vehicle. Especially after 10 p.m.

He did all three.

On that jail floor where Rosales lay on a plastic-covered mat with a plastic cup in his hand that he tossed into the air — a one-person game of catch — he worried that Jim and Karen would kick him out of their house when they learned of his arrest.

That’s what my grandparents would do, he thought.

Rosales, now 21, grew up in Stockton, California, a city that routinely ranks as one of the most dangerous in the country for its crime rate.

His parents divorced when he was 3. His mother remarried but divorced again when Rosales was in eighth grade. She went to live with someone else and left Rosales to fend for himself.

He didn’t know what it was like to have someone who would help and support him no matter what. Someone to buy him furniture for his college apartment. Someone to fill his refrigerator with food. Someone to send uplifting text messages in the mornings.

He hadn’t yet learned what that kind of love feels like.

A GAME OF PRETEND

Karen Phillips had lost so much in a few short years.

Her father died in 2012 from a blood clot after surgery.

Her mother died in 2014 of stomach cancer.

Her brother died later in 2014 of lung cancer.

Phillips grew up in Carroll but moved to California, where she met Jim. They both worked at one of the nation’s largest glass companies. He was older and had already married once and had a son.

Jim and Karen married nearly 30 years ago. They tried to have children but couldn’t. They moved to Carroll to be closer to Karen’s family. She’s 57 now.

Karen handles billing for Family & Specialty Medical Center. Jim is in semi-retirement and works part time at Pit Stop Auto Wash on the east side of town.

They heard last year that the Carroll Merchants — a summer league team for college students — needed people to volunteer to house and feed their players.

The Phillipses had seen and heard those ballgames in past summers from the backyard of their house, which sits on a bluff that overlooks Merchants Park. And they thought it might be fun to have someone so young and lively in the house, to push away the pain of the previous years.

They had one stipulation: The player must be from California, where Jim grew up and his son and wife and grandchildren live now, near Sacramento.

There was one player who fit the bill: Jacob Rosales.

When Karen saw him for the first time, she thought: If I had a son, he’d be about that age now.

“He came into our life right at the right time,” Jim said. “He just brightened up our life.”

Rosales is a charismatic, good-looking young man with an easy smile and a 91-mph fastball, but he was nervous to meet his summertime family.

Carroll was shockingly different than the neighborhoods of Stockton.

No gunshots at night.

No barred windows and fenced yards.

There was so much open air — so much room to breathe.

He tried to shield the Phillipses from his past life. His mistakes. He said please and thanks and sir and ma’am and wondered aloud when they all would go to church.

“What kid in his right mind would want to go to church?” Jim chuckled.

It wasn’t long until Jim was loaning Rosales his pickup truck with $100 and some advice:

No beer in the truck.

Don’t drive drunk in Carroll.

You will get caught.

It was in the early morning hours of June 13, 2017, when Rosales went with his baseball buddies to a convenience store for cigarettes and chew. They drove back to another host family’s house to play video games and drink more beer, but when Rosales pulled Jim’s truck into the driveway, he looked back and saw police lights.

His teammate — who was trailing him in another vehicle and had parked beside Rosales in the driveway — was being stopped for littering. An officer said he saw something thrown from the vehicle.

Another officer questioned Rosales and later tested his breath. His blood-alcohol concentration was .135 percent, according to police records. The legal limit to drive is .08 percent.

Rosales went to jail. No one else was arrested, and one of his teammates drove Jim’s truck back to the Phillipses’ house.

He left one of the truck’s doors slightly ajar and a pack of beer in the back seat.

THE REAL JACOB

A judge released Rosales from jail about 9 a.m.

He gave back the jail jumpsuit and the orange sandals that were unexpectedly comfy and walked home.

He called his mom in California.

“Don’t be surprised if they don’t let you stay with them,” she told him after she heard the story.

Rosales called Jim at the car wash and said he needed to talk. Yes they did, Jim said. He had noticed the open door on the truck and the beer in the back that morning.

Jim returned home and heard the story of the night before from a teary-eyed Rosales, who said he had done nothing to get pulled over that night.

Don’t lie, Jim warned.

“I wouldn’t,” Rosales responded.

And then he began to bare his soul.

He told them about begging his former stepfather to take him in when his biological mother and father wouldn’t as a teen.

He told them about his alcoholic mother.

He told them about being 14 and having to drive his two little sisters to school when he didn’t have a driver’s license because he was their only ride.

He told them about when he was 18 and had gotten drunk at a party and a friend drove his car as he lay in the back seat. He told them that someone shot and killed the friend as Rosales rode in the back. He should have died rather than his friend.

“That turned my life around,” Rosales recalled recently.

He told them about the trouble he made as he was trying to start his baseball career in California — declining to recount more details to the Daily Times Herald. That trouble nearly derailed his career.

He told them he never decorated a Christmas tree with his mother.

“He was a kid on his own,” Jim said.

The facade of that perfect young gentleman who asked about church was gone.

“We still kept him, and we loved him,” Karen said.

They helped defend Rosales from the OWI charge, hoping to convince a judge to suppress his blood-alcohol test because the traffic stop was improper. They won, and the case has since been expunged from the public record.

“I told him, ‘We’re going to handle this,’” Jim recalled.

A CHILD OF THEIR OWN

The Phillipses spent many of their summer nights at Merchants Park in seats behind home plate where Rosales could see them as he pitched.

Jim — his voice hoarse and hushed from cysts that developed near his vocal cords after a long bout with a cold — used a bullhorn to cheer Rosales, along with a cowbell he rang.

Their basement was a hangout spot and an overnight stay for some of Rosales’ teammates.

“We had never had kids in the house before,” Karen said.

Then when the summer season ended and Rosales went back to Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis, they found him an apartment and bought new catalytic converters for his car and filled his refrigerator with food.

Rosales got a cat he named Cali.

“He just didn’t have anything — nobody cared enough to give him those things,” Jim said. “He really needs us. Nobody should go through life like that.”

Karen and Rosales talk most days, usually through messages on their cellphones.

Early on, it was talk about classes. Then it was about a tough breakup with a girl.

Karen sends him an inspirational message each Monday morning.

Believe in yourself. Know that there is something inside you.

“They taught me how to love again,” Rosales said.

Jim and Karen visit him about once a month. They traveled to St. Louis for family day at Busch Stadium — Rosales’ family never went to any of his college games.

And Rosales traveled back to Carroll for Thanksgiving and New Year’s and spring break.

“He’s the son my mom would have wished I had,” Karen said. “We never, ever expected to have someone come into our life like that.”

Jim and Karen feel more alive when he’s around. He calls Jim “Pops.”

Rosales soon will return to Carroll to play a second summer season with the Merchants.

He’ll stand atop the pitcher’s mound and see Jim and Karen in those seats behind home plate.

He’ll hear the cowbell ring and Jim’s voice through the bullhorn.

He’ll sleep with his cat in the basement bedroom where Karen has hung photos of him pitching on the walls.

He’ll be home.