Host families, a benefit for players like the Angels' Carlos Estévez, go by the wayside

Anaheim, CA - April 25: Angels closer Carlos Estevez celebrates after retiring the Athletics in order to end the game.
Angels closer Carlos Estévez celebrates after retiring the Athletics in order to end the game on April 25. Estévez lived with a host family when he started his pro career in the Rockies organization in 2013. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Carlos Estévez was 20 when the Rockies organization sent him to Grand Junction, Colo.

This was in 2013 and Estévez, now a fan-favorite Angels closer with 12 saves, at the time was navigating the early years of his professional career. He’d spent the previous two years in the Dominican Summer League, then was sent to Tri-City, formerly a Rockies affiliate, but was there just a few days before being moved to Colorado.

“I just showed up,” Estévez recalled. “I didn’t have a host family, I didn’t have [housing]. But one of my teammates told me ‘they’re looking for someone to stay with them.’ And I was like, ‘well, I think that’s where I’m going.’”

The same day Estévez arrived in Grand Junction, he was introduced to Stephanie and Bruce Hagen, and Josh Hays, their youngest child (they also have a daughter, who at the time was away at college). Estévez spent only about a year with the Hagens, but formed such a strong connection with them that when he was set to make his major league debut in 2016 in Denver, a four-hour drive from Grand Junction, he called to make sure they would be there.

“‘Yes, of course we’re coming. When is it?’” Stephanie recalled the conversation. "‘Today? Oh, OK.’ He goes, ‘I’ll have tickets for you.’ ” The Hagens are looking forward to seeing Estévez again this season, when he and the Angels head to Colorado for a series in June.

Forming this kind of connection between a player and fans was, in essence, meant to be the best part of the host family program while providing a home away from home for players who couldn’t afford their own hotel room or apartment.

Minor league players unionized under the Major League Baseball Players Assn. umbrella and ratified their first collective bargaining agreement with team owners in March, which guaranteed housing and increased pay, among other benefits. With that new CBA, host families are no longer permitted.

“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 players union said in a statement.

The host family program wasn’t a perfect system. Estévez’s experience was not the same for every other minor leaguer across the country. Estévez was like family to the Hagens, who drove him around to where he needed to get to or allowed him use of the family car when they could not.

“They really helped a lot,” Estévez recalled. “As soon as I got there they were like, ‘Hey, whatever you need just let us know.’... If I didn’t have that good level of comfort, I don’t know how I was going to do in rookie ball. And I did really good.”

Estévez, who is from Dominican Republic, also said that living with the Hagens helped give his mother peace of mind, knowing he was in a good place even though he was so far from home.

Minor league baseball’s host families were volunteers, who received a perk of season tickets or discounted tickets and merchandise fromthe minor league team. The basic requirements of being a host previously stipulated that families just have a place for players to sleep, with no rules about living conditions.

The Hagens began hosting players in 2011 with Grand Junction before that team lost its Rockies affiliation after the 2019 season when MLB restructured the minor leagues. They said they became a host family for the opportunity to introduce their son to people from different countries and cultures. They remained a host family with the Grand Junction team when it transitioned to an independent league not under the new CBA.

But Stephanie recalled home inspections starting only after 2013, the result of a report that a player with another family spent a season living in a kitchen.

“They didn't vet people as well as they could have and they saw some problems,” Stephanie said

Despite the positive experience for the Hagens and Estévez, they are unsurprised by the program being phased out

The Rockies' Carlos Estevez, right, and Nick Hundley celebrate a win in 2016, the year Estevez made his MLB debut.
The Rockies' Carlos Estévez, right, and Nick Hundley celebrate a 7-3 win over the Giants in 2016, the year Estévez made his MLB debut. (Ben Margot / Associated Press)

“It can go either way,” Estévez said. “Some of the guys [for example] that did have a host family, they didn’t have a car for them and the house was far. … Now that the teams are paying for [housing], it’s going to be fine.

“But we’re going to be missing that [opportunity] for people to get closer.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.