PITTSBURG -- As Pittsburg's new professional baseball team makes itself at home, some East Contra Costa residents are making sure its more nomadic players feel that hospitality long after the final pitch.
About a dozen families have stepped up to the plate to serve as host families this summer for the Pittsburg Mettle, a time-honored tradition in minor league and independent league baseball, where players earn meager salaries, often far from home, while dreaming of a shot at the majors. Half of the Mettle's 22-player roster has come from out of the area to play ball in Pittsburg.
"It's been a really great experience thus far. It feels like (outfielder Tim Battle) is part of the family," said Christian Knight, of Oakley.
He and his wife, Gail, found out about the search for hosts when their 6-year-old son Brayden was participating in a tournament at Pittsburg City Park.
"It's great that it gives Brayden someone to look up to and admire," Knight said.
The family did a double play of sorts when it also put up pitcher Cameron Dullnig. But it later convinced Christian's mom, Lynnda Mori, to have him stay with her so that they have more space.
Now, the family and both ballplayers make it a habit of eating lunch together before the games. They sat around the kitchen island at Mori's home last week, laughing and sharing stories between bites of pesto tortellini and chicken.
The players are good with Brayden and give him "knuckles" before they go to bat, Christian Knight said. Battle also presented him with a bat signed by the team, and the Mettle tandem has been going to his baseball games.
"Brayden's been playing better lately too, so the other parents are like, 'I guess we have to become host families too,'" said Gail Knight.
Host families are valuable because the aspiring players don't earn lofty contracts, as most are teenagers or in their early 20s. It's a custom for the leagues, and helps make them successful, said Cris Franklin, one of the Mettle's co-founders. The Mettle is part of the four-team independent Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, playing its home games at City Park.
Having more host families would allow the ballclub to attract more players from farther away, Franklin said.
Many ballplayers have to cut corners to make ends meet. Battle, 28, said he slept on an inflatable mattress in the locker room in the United League in east Texas last year, as staying at a motel can be pricey. Teammate Dullnig, 25, said postgame meals consisted of trips to McDonalds.
"To have a home-cooked meal and a place to stay, it's one less thing to worry about," Battle said.
Families must provide each player with their own room and access to a laundry room and kitchen. It's preferred, but not a requirement, that they have their own bathroom.
Toni Torres, of Oakley, was a bit apprehensive when she read the team was looking for host families, given past experiences with roommates.
But, after reading about it on Facebook, she reasoned that this is different because they're affiliated with a team.
"It's a lot like dating. You worry about if it's going to be a good fit," said Monica Leite, of Pittsburg. Her partner, Victor Souza, was worried about having a stranger in the house.
"It turned out to be a really good match, and (infielder Nash Hutter) is good with my young daughter," Leite said.
Though they don't get paid, hosts say the program offers perks, including season tickets to the team's 42 home games and discounts on merchandise.
"I'm thoroughly enjoying it," said Denny Seelinger, of Pittsburg. "I've always gone to minor league games in San Jose and Stockton, so it's great to have it less than a mile from my house."
Seelinger, a retired teacher, calls his guest Colby Guerny a "model roommate," adding that Guerny is young enough to be his son. The two talk about life, schooling and the previous night's game, he said.
"I'll stay away from that if he didn't have a good game," he said.
The players often form lifelong bonds with their host families, Franklin said. One example the Mettle points to on the team website is San Francisco Giants slugger Pablo Sandoval, who stays in touch with the Musgrave family of San Jose, his host family when he played in the minor leagues after coming from Venezuela.
Franklin says her husband Wayne, the team's manager and a former major leaguer, lived with a host family when he played with the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. When you mention them to him, his face lights up, she said.
"If you mention the (words) 'host family' to a player, they will go on and on about their host family experiences," she said. "Host families can make a big difference in the player's day-to-day performance and confidence."
Torres said a tough part was that the first player they hosted was no longer with the team after the first three weeks.
"It was really sad, and I can't help but think how we'll feel when this is over in 90 days. I mean, he plays with my son all the time. They become part of your household," she said.
Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.