It’s official: “Non-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation were added to Article XV.” We’ve focused more on the new CBA’s likely effect on the playoffs and on large-market and small-market teams in the draft and in player development. The new language regarding sexual orientation is going to be hard to enforce — both in terms of punishment and in terms of baseball culture, more broadly. And it’s still unclear when baseball will get its first “Gay Jackie Robinson.” But it’s a step in the right direction.
Baseball’s new language comes on the heels of a similar change made by the NFL this summer, which — following their lockout — added language forbidding sexual-orientation discrimination. Similar rules are in place in the NHL and in Major League Soccer, but as Rafael McDonnell writes in The Advocate, “Six years after their league adopted a sexual orientation nondiscrimination policy, no openly gay NHL players have skated onto the ice. Seven years after soccer adopted a similar policy, no openly gay Major League Soccer players are actively playing.”
So will baseball’s closet open soon? That’s a question that has been asked for three decades, since Glenn Burke came out after his retirement in 1982. In 2002, while he was managing the Mets, Bobby Valentine told Details Magazine that, in his opinion, baseball was “probably ready for an openly gay player.” For a moment, it seemed like he might actually have been right, and the Tony Award for best play on Broadway in 2003 went to “Take Me Out,” which premiered a few months after Valentine’s comment. It was a play about a star player on a New York baseball team who decided to come out as gay. However, that didn’t end up happening in the real world. Valentine’s comments led columnists to speculate openly about whether he had anyone in particular in mind, and that speculation led to Mike Piazza’s locker, where Piazza then gave his famous “I’m not gay” press conference. After that brouhaha, no active player stepped forward.
Only two retired players, and one former umpire, have ever come out. Glenn Burke did it two years after playing his last game for the Oakland A’s, and Billy Bean came out in 2000, several years after playing his last game for the Padres. Both were utility outfielders. An umpire from the 1980s, Dave Pallone — whose other claim to fame was an on-field argument where Pete Rose pushed him — came out after retiring and claimed that he was pushed out of the game for his sexual orientation. Though he only came out after retiring, Burke was out to his teammates while he played. In a recent documentary about him, one of Burke’s former teammates, Dusty Baker, accused the Los Angeles Dodgers of getting rid of him because he was gay; Burke and Baker are sometimes credited with having invented the high five in 1977. Burke died of AIDS in 1995, leaving Bean as the only openly gay baseball player still alive. (Today is World AIDS Day, by the way.)
For at least a decade, the official line for most baseball people who have been willing to go on the record is that while other people might be uncomfortable, they think teams would be OK with an openly gay player. That’s basically what Piazza said at his press conference, and what many have repeated since then. At least eight baseball teams have now posted videos to Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project: the Rays, Phillies, Mariners, Orioles, Red Sox, Cubs, Giants and the Dodgers, the team for which Burke and Bean played. In addition, MLB has posted most of the team videos on its YouTube feed, as well. Numerous teams have held “Gay Days” at the ballpark, encouraging members of the LGBT community to buy group tickets. (The site gaybaseballdays.com used to track such events, but it is no longer updated.)
Frankly, that’s the simple stuff. It’s extremely easy to speak in abstract terms about being tolerant of people who are unnamed. It’s easy, albeit still commendable, for Dodger manager Don Mattingly and the Dodger players to say, “Part of being a team means respecting everyone around us. Respecting our teammates, our coaches, our opponents and especially our fans. All baseball fans. Doesn’t matter which team you cheer for, where you’re from, or what language you speak. And it doesn’t matter what your sexual orientation or gender identity is.” Hey, I’m happy that the Dodgers were willing to speak out against discrimination. But I’m not satisfied by the way they handled it. “Respecting our fans” still conveniently sidesteps the notion of an openly gay player. The hard part is creating an actual environment where that can happen — and that requires players, teammates, coaches, managers and executives to start saying more than “it doesn’t matter.”
So has it gotten better? Sure. But the number of active, openly gay baseball players remains at zero. That will change sooner or later. Again, the new CBA language is just one step, and it’s a positive one. Now, though, it’s time for baseball’s culture to change. For Jackie Robinson to be able to succeed, he needed support — like the Kentuckian Pee Wee Reese who stood by him against racists on the Dodgers, such as Fred “Dixie” Walker, the Georgian who asked Reese to sign a petition to refuse to play with a black man. Reese refused, and Walker requested a trade.
We often hear players to say things like, “I love these guys,” when they’re on a winning team; now it’s time to hear a player admit he would still say “I love these guys” if one of those guys came out as gay. It’s time to move past arm’s-length words like “tolerance” and “respect,” and move toward words like “loyalty” and “love.” It’s time to move past non-discrimination, and move toward acceptance.
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