(Merced Sun-Star (CA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Jul. 22--Halfway into his trip, from the San Francisco airport to Merced, Anthony Potter checked the coordinates on his GPS device. Surrounded by crop land and rolling hills, something was amiss. Surely, they had made a wrong turn and ended up in ... Kansas.
Where was his summer paradise -- the ocean and beaches, cool breezes and big-city horizons?
When the Columbia sophomore and New York native was told he'd be playing for the Atwater Aviators in California, naturally, it appealed to his inner surfer dude.
But his inner farmer?
"Coming across the country, you don't know what to expect," Potter said. "The drive out here was definitely different. There was a lot of agriculture -- fields, fields and more fields.
"I thought, 'Uh oh, what have I gotten myself into?'"
And then he found it, not Memorial Ballpark but the Parle household, his California oasis: a 3,200-square-foot home atop a hill in Merced, complete with a swimming pool and more verandas than a bed and breakfast.
"It was huge and gorgeous," Potter said of his host family's sprawling home near the Merced Golf and Country Club.
"It definitely put my mom's heart at ease, knowing I would be in good hands."
Potter is one of only a few Aviator players staying with host families during the summer, and one of two who call the Parle household home.
Senior-to-be Nick Morreale, who is in between colleges, stays in the bedroom next door.
Cal State San Bernardino's Julio Torres is living with the Conner family in Atwater, while Gonzaga slugger Cameron Edman stays with the Woodruffs in Winton.
Together, the families have formed a small support network for a team that features several out-of-state and out-of-area players, providing a roof, a room, refrigerator, meals and a small slice of home.
"We jumped all over it," said Kara Parle. "My son (Aviators pitching coach Justin Parle) played baseball at USC and was sent away to baseball camps every summer.
"We figured this was a good way to payback the families that hosted him. A pass-it-forward thing."
Welcome to the family
The front door to the Parle household opened to find a 6-foot-3, 225-pound Midway masher, wide-eyed and hung-jawed.
Morreale stood at the threshold in awe, as if he were staring at the majesty of Wrigley Field from the pitching mound.
"Everything was so nice that I didn't want to touch anything," he said in his distinct Chicago accent. "It didn't feel like I was supposed to the be there."
Boy, was he mistaken.
Soon after their arrival, Morreale and Potter were given a surprise welcome by the Parle's youngest.
Staying in the rooms typically reserved for the Parle's granddaughters -- Savannah, 10, and Paige, 8 -- Morreale and Potter were fast asleep when...
Savannah and Paige burst through the doors, giggly and full of life, razzing the players for stealing their rooms.
It's been a love affair ever since. Morreale and Potter have become regulars at Sunday family dinners and new voices in late-night, round-table discussions.
"The boys are so cool," Kara Parle said. "They fit right in with our family. My granddaughters love them, and I can tell the feeling is mutual.
"We laugh and joke all the time. They're rejuvenating. I'm really going to miss them when they leave."
Ernie Conner is going to miss more than Torres' presence. He's going to miss the right fielder's home-cooked Mexican dishes, particularly Torres' chorizo and egg platter.
"He's a really good cook," Conner said. "I told him if baseball or sports medicine don't work out, he can always be a cook.
"A damn good one, too."
Torres deflected the praise. He's no culinary talent, he said.
"Ernie will eat anything," Torres quipped, displaying the closeness in their new-found relationship.
Host of support
The Aviators have been a pleasant surprise, rocketing out to a 27-11 record and 14-5 in Pacific West Baseball League in their inaugural season.
"We got to keep winning games," Torres said. "That's what brings people back. So far, this looks like a winning season."
Arguably more important to their long-term future in Merced County is their success off the field; in the homes of the host families.
Richard Ruiz gets it.
The owner/general manager realizes that if the Parles, Woodruffs and Conners walk away from this summer with a positive story to tell, their friends and family will be more inclined get involved next season.
And the more host families Ruiz has at his disposal, the easier it will be to attract some of the top collegiate talent from across the country.
"Every team needs host families," Ruiz said. "They're vital to what we do. It makes me proud that I've heard nothing but great things about these kids from their host families. That's the kind of publicity we want."
Ruiz already has one host family lined up.
"I'd do this again in a heartbeat," Maureen Woodruff said. "If I could get another kid just like Cameron, I'd definitely do it again. ... If I had an extra bedroom, I'd probably take on two of them."
James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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