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The only requirement to host a Flyer is an available bed and bathroom, and the only compensation families get from the players or team is season tickets. The Pettigrews, who actually ran the host-family program for a couple of years, have a reputation as a player-friendly home: They’re located a couple of hundred yards from alcohol-peddling downtown Fullerton, and they’re easygoing.
“We open up our house, and they have full rein,” JoAnne says. “They can eat whatever they want; there’s no curfew. Our only rules are: Don’t expect us to wait on you or clean up after you, and lock the front door when you leave.”
Oh, and one thing is off-limits: Leroy’s stash of single-malt Scotch and Jack Daniel’s.
The roster of the Flyers consists mostly of players who have some experience on major-league-affiliated teams, like both of the Pettigrews’ current guests: Andre Simpson is a pitcher who spent time in the Chicago White Sox, Colorado Rockies and Dodgers farm systems; and first baseman Julian Benavidez spent five years in the San Francisco Giants organization.
There are also former big-leaguers who are trying to get back to the Show, such as Korean pitcher Byung-Hyun Kim, who played in the major leagues from 1999 to 2007 (earning a World Series ring as the Arizona Diamondbacks’ closer in 2001), and outfielder Ben Johnson, who played three years in the bigs before injuring his ankle.
“He’ll definitely get back,” Leroy says of Johnson. “It’s just a matter of time.”
The players all share one connection: “They still dream of making it to the Show,” JoAnne says. “No one wants to stay here very long.”
But though the dream lives on in them, playing for independent minor leagues carries with it a dose of reality.
“Every time we get a new player, I sit down with him and tell him that there’s a reason he’s playing independent-league baseball,” Leroy says. “Something isn’t going right. And a lot of them do get dejected. I’ve had a lot of late-night conversations with players.”
Though the Flyers do get international players, such as Kim, those players are usually assigned houses where their native tongue is spoken. The Pettigrews have hosted players from as close as Oxnard and San Diego and as far away as Tennessee.
“There really isn’t much of a culture shock, but it was interesting to see our first player, Scooter Jordan [from Texas], experience his first earthquake,” JoAnne says. “He didn’t quite understand what was happening.”
The impact on the host families isn’t as daunting as you might think. The season ends in September, and with the team on the road half the time, the players are only there about two and a half months.
“They’ve all been great kids,” JoAnne says. “We’ve never had a problem with anyone. Some of them might go out to the bars at night, but usually their big night out is Denny’s. They’re up at 9 a.m., head to the gym, come back to eat or take a nap, are off to the stadium by 3 p.m., and not home until 11 p.m. at the earliest.”
Without the support of families like the Pettigrews, the Flyers wouldn’t be able to stay in business. But, each year, there’s always the question whether the team will hang on. A cautionary tale from just up the road: The Long Beach Armada announced in late 2009 that it was suspending its 2010 season due to leasing issues with the city of Long Beach. In January, that team was purchased by investors in St. George, Utah, who needed a new squad to fill a blank left when their team migrated to Maui after the 2009 season.
Cal State Fullerton charges the Flyers $3,500 per game and charges more to park ($8) than the cheapest ticket ($6). And the Pettigrews don’t see much support from the Fullerton community, even though they feel the product the Flyers offer is exactly what the city wants.
“I always hear homeowners complaining there’s nothing in town for families to do, just bars downtown,” Leroy says. “But what about the Flyers? You get to see guys with real talent, and the most expensive ticket is $11, and you’re close enough that you can touch them. It’s real family entertainment, and it’s great for the city, and we’d just hate if they ever had to leave.”
The Flyers begin their first home series on Tuesday. For information, visit www.orangecountyflyers.com.
This article appeared in print at "Safe at Home: Playing baseball for the OC Flyers doesn’t pay much, but at least you get a roof over your head, thanks to people like Leroy and JoAnne Pettigrew."