PHOENIX (AP) — Long before David Peralta was a veteran outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, he was an 18-year-old kid from Venezuela who didn’t speak much English playing minor league baseball in Johnson City, Tennessee.
To call it culture shock would be quite the understatement.
“Even little things, like going to the grocery store, were a challenge,” Peralta said. “That’s why it was so great to have TeriAnn helping.”
TeriAnn Reynolds and her family were part of a little-known but vital piece of baseball’s minor leagues that dates back decades: host families. Players at the lower levels of the minor leagues in places like Johnson City or Lake Elsinore, California, often stayed at the homes of local families instead of apartments or hotels — a way to save money for low-wage players as they transitioned into their lives as pro athletes.
Host family programs were suspended during the coronavirus pandemic over health concerns. Now, they may never return. When minor league players unionized and reached a historic initial collective bargaining agreement with Major League Baseball in March, the league agreed to double salaries and provide guaranteed housing to most players.
The use of host families was officially outlawed.
“While players are sincerely appreciative of the many fans who hosted players in their homes, they’re excited this spring about the first minor league CBA, including salary and housing policy improvements that made the practice unnecessary,” the MLBPA said in a statement.
It’s true that the changes — particularly when it comes to salary — are widely considered positive among players. Many acknowledge that individual living arrangements are also a step in the right direction, particularly for players with spouses and children. The new arrangements are generally viewed as more professional.
While a host family was better than an air mattresses in an overcrowded apartment, the preference for players is certainly to be in a furnished unit with adequate living space.
Not that players aren’t wistful about the end of host family programs.
“The good was much better than anything bad,” Peralta said. “Sometimes, you felt sort of obligated to hang out, but I figured that was the least I could do considering they let me into their home. Honestly, it was a great experience.”
Reynolds hosted players for more than a decade, including a handful of eventual big leaguers like Peralta and Donovan Solano. She said it was a wonderful experience — outside of a few “cantankerous kids” — and is sad that more families won’t be able to experience it.
Reynolds’ ability to speak Spanish was a huge plus in a place like Johnson City, which for years was the rookie league franchise for the St. Louis Cardinals.
It was among the lowest levels of the minor leagues, filled with 17- and 18-year-olds, some of whom had never been in the United States.
“The thing I loved the most was being able to call a player’s family in the Dominican Republic, Colombia or Venezuela and let their parents know that their son was in a good place,” Reynolds said. “Sometimes the families would be able to make the trip to the U.S., and it was always so great to meet them.”
The role of host families varied from place to place, but for most, it was pretty basic. Players usually got a room, a bed and access to a few good meals each day. Reynolds said she usually had one or two players at a time, but there was one summer that six players were staying at her house because it was a better option than one of the local hotels.
“It was like a giant party all the time,” Reynolds said laughing. “It wasn’t ideal, but it was so much fun.”
Lora and Matt Greco hosted players in Lake Elsinore — a Class A affiliate for the San Diego Padres — for three seasons from 2017-19. Their tenants included future big-league pitchers Joey Lucchesi and David Bednar.
The Grecos are originally from Pennsylvania and Bednar was born in Pittsburgh, so the connection was instant. One weekend, Lora knew Bednar had a day off so she made a spread of Pittsburgh-area food favorites.
“He did a video chat with his family back home, showing them everything,” Lora said, laughing. “I was just glad to make him feel at home.”
The Grecos said Lucchesi used to stop at a gas station on his way home from games, pick up a movie from a Redbox in the parking lot, and then come home for a family movie night.
“If there’s no host families, you lose a little of that personal connection,” Lora said. “We’re very disappointed.”
Arizona Diamondbacks reliever Andrew Chafin said he had fond memories of the summer he stayed with a family in Visalia, California, in 2012 when he was in Class A. That family loved to hunt and fish — which was right in Chafin’s leisure wheelhouse — and he said the friendship continues to this day.
“I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, I wouldn’t have changed a thing,” Chafin said.
That long-lasting connection was a common refrain for both players and families. Peralta said he invited the Reynolds family to his wedding nearly a decade after he stayed at their house.
Linda Pereira worked for the San Jose Giants — a Class A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants — for 52 years until 2021. One of her main roles was overseeing the franchise’s host family program. She hosted a handful of players in emergency situations over the decades but mostly made sure players were matched with good families.
“When I would give players the choice between a hotel or a host family, nine out of 10 wanted to stay with a family,” Pereira said. “When you open your home, you’re opening your heart. I’m so sad it’s not continuing.”
Tiffany Fuentes and her family hosted San Jose players from 2012 to 2019, including six future big leaguers — catchers Joey Bart and Trevor Brown, outfielder Adam Duvall, and pitchers Sam Coonrod, Trevor Brown and Tristan Beck.
Beck made his big-league debut earlier this year and the Fuentes family was present in San Francisco.
“Just watching him warm up, the tears start flowing,” Fuentes said. “It’s just very emotional, knowing how hard they’ve worked to get to this point.”
Fuentes said her family stays in touch with all the players they’ve hosted, going to weddings, All-Star Games and even the World Series. Duvall made it for the Braves in 2021 and invited the family out for a game.
“We have a sign in our house that says ‘Enter as strangers, leave as friends,’ but really, it should say family,” Fuentes said.
The host family arrangement lasted for so long in the minors that it’s a bond between current and former players. Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo recalled a summer in 1987 spent in Toledo, Ohio, playing Class A ball after he was drafted out of UCLA.
He said the host family he stayed with was great, but there was one problem: The ceiling fan in his room squeaked so loud that he was always worried he’d wake up his hosts when he came home from a night game.
So he’d creep downstairs to the basement — where it was cooler anyways — and go to sleep on the couch.
“Looking back on those days,” Lovullo said. “That was the minor league experience.”
Author: David Brandt, The Associated Press
AP Baseball Writer Ronald Blum contributed to this story.
Photo Credit: © Sarasota Herald-Tribune
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