By Rich Kane
By Joel Beers
By LP Hastings
By Dave Barton
By Patrice Wirth Marsters
By Erin DeWitt
By Taylor Hamby
By LP Hastings
The 1920s Craftsman-style house of Leroy and JoAnne Pettigrew doesn’t stand out on its tree-lined street in downtown Fullerton. There are roses and an American flag in the front yard and garden gnomes on the porch.
But the sign hanging by their front door indicates something is a bit unusual about the Pettigrews: “We interrupt this family for baseball season.”
Like many OC denizens, the Pettigrews are baseball fans. But their devotion goes above and beyond.
For the past five years, they’ve opened their home to members of the Orange County Flyers, an independent minor-league baseball team that plays at Cal State Fullerton’s Goodwin Field. They are so devoted to the Flyers—and the Flyers staying in their city—that, in 2007, they stepped up financially to assist the economically strapped team: They’re 1/12th of the ownership group that counts among its members James Denton, an actor on Desperate Housewives.
“We love this town, and we love baseball, and we really want them to stay here,” Leroy Pettigrew says. “So, when we heard they were looking for investors, we figured we were tired of watching the stock market go up and down. And if we faced the prospect of losing money, it might as well be on something we love.”
As a host family, the Pettigrews provide a vital function that every minor-league team—from rookie ball all the way up to Triple-A—needs: housing ballplayers. Even when affiliated with MLB clubs, these teams have huge expenditures, from paying and transporting players to facility rental. So paying to house players is prohibitive.
And though some minor-leaguers might sign for a bundle out of high school and college, none is making a major-league salary. Flyers players, whose team has no MLB parent club, make between $500 and $1,800 per month. So host families are essential.
“It’s a pretty common occurrence throughout minor-league baseball to have host families,” says Brent Miles, president of the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, the Angels’ Single-A team. “This year, 100 percent of our players are with host families. As they work up the levels, they might choose to get their own apartment, especially if they have families, but for the most part, they’re not making a ton of money, and the host families certainly make it feasible for them to play baseball and survive.”
The Flyers are a charter member of the Golden Baseball League, which started as an eight-team league in 2005. It now fields 10 teams divided into two divisions. The North includes teams in Calgary; Chico; Edmonton; St. George, Utah; and Victoria, British Columbia. The South includes the Flyers, along with teams in Maui, Tijuana, Tucson and Yuma. The Flyers lost the championship series in 2006, although Peanut Williams—who lived with the Pettigrews—earned league-MVP honors, and Chris Jakubauskas, who is currently on the Pittsburgh Pirates’ major-league roster, won pitcher-of-the-year honors. The Flyers won the 2008 championship.
Along with their love of baseball and the Flyers, part of the Pettigrews’ desire to host ball players is Leroy’s long-standing wish to host a foreign-exchange student. But, as a railroad manager for much of his life, he never stuck in one place long enough to do it: In 24 years, he lived in 17 cities in eight states.
But his pull to the Flyers might be more complicated than just wanting to help someone out: He might be trying to exorcise a small baseball curse.
“My dad didn’t approve of sports, so he wanted all his sons to be bull-riders,” says Leroy, who grew up in Oroville, at the base of the northwestern Sierras. “So I didn’t even get a chance to play baseball until I was about 10 or 11. And during my first year in Little League, the big outing was a trip to San Francisco to see the Giants. I was so excited on the bus ride there that I got sick and had to be let out of the bus. A state trooper drove me back home.”
A couple of years later, Leroy accompanied his mother and her second husband to San Francisco, where he watched his first professional game.
“It was tied 1-1 in the ninth, and my parents said we had to leave to beat the traffic,” he says. “On the way home, we heard Willie Mays hit a game-winning home run. I missed it.”
Leroy and JoAnne don’t miss many Flyers games. They watch every home game and travel with the team on several trips, including to Utah, where the Flyers played the St. George Roadrunners last month. The Flyers begin every season on the road, since Cal State Fullerton’s team occupies Goodwin Field until mid-June; this year’s started in Utah and then headed to Canada (Victoria, Calgary and Edmonton). Their first home game is June 15.
The Pettigrews estimate they’ve housed 15 players in five years. Usually just one or two, but when there is high player turnover, it can be a carousel. “We’ve had as many as four here on some nights, sleeping on blow-up mattresses on the floor or couches,” JoAnne says.