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The Home Team

Long Beach families open their doors to the up-and-coming boys of summer

July 28, 2002|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Coltons consider their hometown baseball team family. Robin Colton and her son Tyler are season ticket-holders of the Long Beach Breakers. They are members of the team's booster club. And Tyler, 8, wears one of his two autographed Breaker T-shirts to every home game.

Also, the team's starting shortstop sleeps in their spare bedroom.

Despite being last year's champions of the independent Western Baseball League, the Breakers still can't afford to pay players a big-league wage. Whereas the average salary in the majors is about $195,000 per month, the average Breaker pulls down about $1,200 a month. Rookies can make as little as $600 per month. So, for Breaker fans, it's not so much root, root, root as it is put up a roof, roof, roof for the home team.

"I'm glad to do it because these kids don't make any money," said Colton, 47, an escrow officer. "Tyler loves it because it's like having a big brother here, and I love it because there's an adult to talk to."

The Coltons were one of a trio from the Breakers' Blair Field stands to step up to the plate and house their local boys of summer. The practice is not all that unusual. Minor league clubs from hockey to football sometimes tap the community for seasonal shelter. The sports organizations are, after all, businesses, albeit not the most lucrative, and they cut corners where they can.

Clubs like the Breakers sell the lodge-a-player deal to fans by offering free season tickets, discounts on Breaker merchandise, and the firsthand experience of getting to know an aspiring major leaguer. "It's sort of like having a foreign-exchange student," said Collin Schoenfeld, assistant general manager of the Breakers, who pairs players with host homes.

A very large, home-grown foreign-exchange student. The Coltons' new boarder is 6-foot-3, 190-pound Kevin Baderdeen. Even though he speaks perfect English, the polite 25-year-old shortstop with the strong throwing arm still had to learn the language of his new home. His first day, Colton, a single mom who displays the American flag in front of her house and had flags painted on the tops of her big toenails, spoke loud and clear about the rules inside her three-bedroom, one-bath home in east Long Beach.

Make your bed. Put your dishes in the dishwasher. Put the toilet seat down.

"He's two for three," jokes Colton, who describes herself as a substitute mom for Baderdeen. "He's good with the dishes and the seat, but not the bed. But that's OK, he keeps his bedroom door shut."

Not far from the Coltons' house, Harold Ray had the "house rules" chat earlier this summer with his Breaker player, relief pitcher Joe Isaacson. The 82-year-old retired grocery store manager welcomed the company. After 57 years of marriage, his wife, Ada, died a few years ago. Other than his volunteer work as a driver delivering meals to seniors, and going to Breaker games, Ray doesn't have much contact with others. He lives alone in his quiet house a couple miles from the ballpark.

When Isaacson, 24, arrived in early June, Ray told him what he told the player he housed last season: "I don't expect you to clean up my mess, and I don't expect to clean up yours."

The talkative Ray, who dons his Breaker ball cap for every home game, immediately liked Isaacson. "He's a great kid. He's clean and neat," said Ray, who served in the same military unit during World War II as legendary St. Louis Cardinal Stan Musial. "He's a little bashful, but I'm trying to draw it out of him."

Another Breaker player, Matt Harrington, was also hosted by a local family, but the former Palmdale High pitching star declined to talk about it. Had the young talent played his cards differently, he might have been in a position to shelter a struggling ballplayer himself--in beachfront digs.

In 2000, Harrington was the Colorado Rockies' No. 1 pick in the draft and was offered $4 million. He turned it down, hoping to get $4.95 million. He didn't get it and reentered the draft the following year when he was offered $1.2 million by the San Diego Padres. He rejected that as well. Eventually, the once-hot prospect tumbled his way to the Breakers. But less than midway through the Breakers' 90-game schedule, which ends in August, Harrington was released from the team for performance reasons, according to Schoenfeld.

Such roster moves are common. Last year, the Breakers, who usually carry a little more than 20 players, made nearly 30 personnel changes, Schoenfeld said. The team is on pace for similar numbers this year.

The reason is simple: The organization wants to win and players want to move up, namely to a minor league baseball team affiliated with a Major League club. A few Breakers have made it, but most do not. When management sees a player who isn't contributing, he's cut. From there, released players may seek other independent leagues in the States, go to Mexico or quit.

"Baseball players are vagabonds," Schoenfeld said. "They'll usually go anywhere to play."

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