By Brian Feinzimer
By Charles Lam
By Joel Beers
By LP Hastings
By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
By Joel Beers
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.
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."