There have been gay baseball players in the past, there are almost certainly gay baseball players today, and there will no doubt be gay baseball players in the future. Jeff Pearlman is eager for one of them to come of the closet. I don’t disagree with his general rationale. A lot of good could be accomplished — and a lot of bigotry confronted — by an active professional athlete coming out. I think, however, that Jeff misses a key part of the calculus facing any potentially out gay ballplayer:
How will Americans—especially those in the heartland—handle the juxtaposition? How will they respond? Answer: I’m not sure. It could be horrific. Worse than horrific. That said, Americans have been known to surprise. Maybe, just maybe, instead of heckles and catcalls, there will be cheers and standing ovations; curtain calls and sellouts. Maybe you will be branded a groundbreaker and a hero; will be referred to as “the Jackie Robinson of gay rights.” Maybe teams that once craved your production might shy away at first—until they realize you’re baseball’s biggest draw. Maybe fans will purchase your jerseys in droves. Maybe little boys and girls will sing your name. Maybe parents will urge their offspring to be just like you. Maybe the clubhouse, normally a sanctuary, will serve this role more than ever. Maybe teammates will stand up for your right to be yourself. Maybe your manager will say, “Gay or straight, he’s my guy.”
Those are all possibilities, but I think the nature of the reaction is kind of beside the point. Attitudes about homosexuality in this country remain way more screwed up than almost anything else, but I don’t think the rejection/acceptance, hate/love matrix would be the biggest thing facing the player involved. Actually, I think it would be relatively easy for a person as famous as the first active gay ballplayer to tune out the haters and bask in the love he’d no doubt receive. Indeed, the haters would be positively cowed into silence (at least within earshot of the ballplayer himself) and the love, if anything, overplayed. People would fall all over themselves in order to accept, praise, and yes, cynically profit from a gay ballplayer.
No, the real problem would be the volume of the reaction, be it good, bad, or indifferent. And actually, I think the putatively positive reaction would be the worst part of it. How many interview requests would the gay ballplayer have to sit for? How many photo ops? Awards show invitations? How large would the paparazzi contingent around this guy be? The baseball season is a big enough grind as it is, so one can only imagine that adding a media circus to it would make it damn nigh intolerable.
If there’s a gay man playing ball today, he has probably already dealt with hate and intolerance on a personal level, and if he reads the newspapers, he has already engaged it to some extent on a societal level. That stuff would be old hat. What he wouldn’t be used to is being on the receiving end of the hype and overexposure orgy this great nation is truly capable of when it puts its mind to it. I can’t imagine the player who wouldn’t be utterly crushed by that, and because of it, I can’t imagine the player who would want to subject himself to it, even if it presented itself to him with open and loving arms.
UPDATE: Take a gander over at the BTF thread on this, where commenter Sam M — a gay Mets fan, which makes him 50% offensive to me — has some very on-point comments along the lines set forth above. Most apt: “It’ll be a lot easier to be Mr. Gay Larry Doby than to be Mr. Gay Jackie Robinson.” I agree 100%.