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Click here to see a map of where the 2009 Kannapolis Intimidators come from.

It’s one thing to play the game that you love so much on your home soil.

It’s a totally difference thing to play it in a country thousands of miles away from your home, away from family and friends.

But many minor league players do just that—just for the chance to make it to the Big Dance. They start out at teams like Kannapolis, making very little money, playing games everyday, honing their skills. Some of the players who come from Latin America—Venezuela, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic—speak very little English, if at all.

This is more than just summer ball camp. This is their life. And living in a foreign land can be a little daunting.

So it’s comforting to know that they have a support system here in Cabarrus County, N.C.

The Intimidators Boosters Club is that support system.

The group hosts monthly picnics for the team. Usually a few hours before games at the picnic pavilion at Fieldcrest-Cannon Stadium, the boosters bring home-cooked food based around a theme—this month it was barbecue. It’s a time for the team and fans to relax before the game.

JoAnn Fugitt is in charge of the picnics. For her, the meal is more than just to meet the players.

It is a labor of love.

The Fugitts, of Mooresville, are a host family and house pitcher Greg Infante and shortstop Eduardo Escobar in their home. Both players are from Venezuela and neither can speak English.

“Babel Fish and the Spanish translation dictionary are our friends,” JoAnn said. “We translate the articles for Greg so he can read them online.”

The Fugitts have four children—all home-schooled—and they host players during baseball season. They have been doing that for eight years now.

“A player came up to us one year,” JoAnn said, “and asked if he could stay with us. We have a game room on the back of our house and they said, ‘We want to stay in here.’ So we moved beds in there.”

The players call her “Mama.”

“I’m their American mother,” she said. “Every Mother’s Day, my phone rings off the hook from former players, no matter where they are in the world, calling to wish me a Happy Mother’s Day.”

For the booster club members, this isn’t just a chance to meet a future major leaguer, said Terrance O’Keefe.

“We love the game,” he said, ” and the players come and go, but everyone in the club stays.”

These are baseball fanatics. “Rabid,” as Denise O’Keefe said. Most have season tickets and most have been coming to the Cannon since the team was the Piedmont Bollweevils.

“We sit next to the third-base line, right behind the home dugout and you can hear everything going on,” Denise said. “That’s how I learned about baseball.”

The boosters keep up with the birthdays of the players and give out birthday cookie cakes to the players when it is their birthday month. While folks ate barbecue, hush puppies and homemade peach cobbler, booster Denise Crosby called out players’ names and birthdays for April and May. This month’s picnic was moved up a hour, from 1 p.m. to noon. Manager Ernie Young, himself a journeyman former major leaguer, requested the time change.

“We have to work around that,” said booster Diane Miller. “New manager and all.”

Her husband, Ray Marsden, is the unofficial photographer for the team, providing photos for the Intimidators Web site. They also house players, mainly Spanish-speaking.

“I have to warn them that I’m using the Spanish that I learned in high school—which was back before they were born,” she said. “But when you take them to Wal-Mart for the first time, it hits them. They have never seen anything like it before. They make nothing here and most of them send money back home to their families.”

Miller said there are baseball academies in the Dominican Republic, where kids go to learn how to baseball, in the hopes they can, one day, come to America and play in Major Leagues.

“Some of them teach them English, others don’t,” Miller said.

All that matters is baseball.

The players buy their own food, JoAnn said, but usually, she cooks for them. And they are a part of the family.

“My son Tyler grew up coming to the ballpark, been coming since he was 2 years old,” JoAnn said. “Everyone knows him.”

Why does JoAnn Fugitt do this? Simple: For the love of the game.

“I grew up playing softball and I love watching baseball,” she said. “I’m happy sitting at home, watching it on T.V. as I am here.”

And, financially, with four home-schooled children, plus housing two players, it can get tight, she said.

“We don’t need extras,” she said, “just as long as I have my season ticket.”

– Posted by Ben McNeely

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