Coming out of the closet

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%.

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  1. JohnMcG said...

    And, of course, the attention wouldn’t just be focussed on the ballplayer himself; it would extend to his teammates, the team’s management, each of their opponents, and his partner if he has one.  It’s understandable that a player may not want to bring this down on the folks around him.

    As we are familiar with these pioneer situations, the press will badger everyone close to it until one of them gets fed up and says something stupid, and gets cast as the villain in the story.  a la Vijay Singh or Fuzzy Zoeller.

  2. kendynamo said...

    i cant think of anything more boring than a pearlman story about a gay baseball player.  i think we’d all be better off if we could skip all that and get to the ‘BFD a gay baseball player’ phase.  the sooner the better.

  3. Tripon said...

    >>Forgive my youthful ignorance but didn’t Glenn Burke come out while he was an active player? <<

    He didn’t come out, but it was well known among the players.

    Tommy Lasorda wanted him traded to the A’s because he was friends with Lasorda’s son, and Billy Martin who was the A’s manager at the time refused to play Burke due to him being game.

  4. Broadway said...

    “How will Americans—especially those in the heartland” 

    Because I’m from the “heartland” this stereotype bothers me.  Do people know that gay marriage is legal in Iowa, but not in New York or California – in fact recent voted down “by the people” (New England is doing a fine job too I will admit) /end rant

  5. Craig Calcaterra said...

    I’m with you Broadway.  The lazy assumptions about the attitudes of “Middle America” are ridiculous. They drive me absolutely nuts.

  6. Michael said...

    I can’t believe anyone gives a crap about homosexuality in this day and age.  Legalize it in every city hall, and stop acting like it’s a big deal.

  7. Anthony said...

    I think that rather than wait for an established major leaguer to come out, we’ll see a more organic progression of gay players, as kids are more comfortable than ever coming out in high school. There are openly gay boys playing on high school teams now without the professional pressure of MLB. It’s just a matter of time until one of these players is good enough to be drafted and his sexuality will be just part of his story instead of the breaking headline. Of course there will be heightened attention, but probably not a lot more than a lot of superstar high school prospects get anyway, and a few years in the minor leagues will further dilute the ‘shock value’ of the story.

  8. Aaron Vowels said...

    I think it’s a wonderful idea to have a “gay Jackie Robinson” who could turn the tide of oppression for homosexuals in this country, but we have to remember that it wasn’t just Jackie Robinson playing baseball that caused racism to be a little less problematic in this country.  As a matter of fact, Robinson quit baseball in 1956 and it was another 12 years before there was a civil rights act which, technically, enabled blacks to appreciate the same rights as other Americans. I say technically because Hank Aaron received as much bigoted hate mail as anyone when he eclipsed Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974 and that’s nearly a decade after the civil rights act. As much as I’d like to believe that an openly gay ballplayer would be the salvation of all gay Americans, there has to be an understanding of gay rights issues and what can be done to ease their continued suffering, as well as why they’re not monsters who want to subjugate our children, which is simply a ridiculous charge.

    Of course, I’m one of the less-enlightened heartland Americans who couldn’t possibly understand why people of the same sex would want to share their lives together.

  9. J. McCann said...

    A few have come out after being retired of course, and that is no big deal.

    I think an active player would get it way worse than Jackie Robinson ever did, at least for the near future.

    Also, it would kind of have to be a star player, otherwise teams and players will just not want to deal with all the attention.

  10. Jacob said...

    Minor point @Aaron Vowels.  The Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964, followed by the Voting Rights Act the next year.

  11. MooseinOhio said...

    I think there are two issues here; 1) the potential backlash to being the first openly gay ballplayer(s), and 2) the distraction of the attention given said ballplayer(s).  Both would more than likely affect their performance as a percentage of the locker room would more than likely shun the player to some degree and the aforementioned media/GLBT attention would not allow them to be as focused on their game preparation that aided in their success. 

    I speculate that both are reasons why the current gay ballplayers are reticent to come out.  Adam from American Idol coming out was not news as most folks ‘gaydars’ had already gone off and in his industry the news is not groundbreaking anymore.  While I believe it is an important and healthy step in his self-identification it was not in his industry.  However in professional sports, much like the military, the culture of ‘don’t ask – don’t tell’ is strong and while I am sure that in time it will be more common place and accepted- being a pioneer takes a toll and I suspect that career aspirations and success weigh more heavily than being out and proud, even if it stunts ones self-development.

  12. Bon said...

    An openly gay baseball player?  Sure, why not, right on, and add on a few more ‘freedom for everyone’ platitudes for me.  But this article is coaxing, even prodding, the unnamed boy-toy of summer to hurry up about it.  Why?

    It’s one thing to accept people who come out of the closet; however, it’s quite another to encourage people to come out of the closet for its own sake.  One gets the impression that Pearlman is encouraging this for the attention the action will garner, and for that reason alone, regardless of the personal hardships that will befall this individual, regardless of whether or not he’s truly ‘ready’ to be the first gay major leaguer. 

    So I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t believe Pearlman’s intentions are admirable; and if they’re not admirable, then why support him?  This is all fairly moot anyway, as Anthony is correct – the time is rapidly approaching where the culture will soften enough where a gay baseball player won’t even bat the media’s eye.  What is the purpose of rushing things, beyond causing undue hardship for the players who hit the headlines?

  13. Hank said...

    There are gay people everywhere.  On TV, radio, etc.  Do people really think it’s such a big deal?  After everything that we’ve seen, a gay ballplayer would still be a big story?

    And I’m from Chicago, which is in the center of the Heartland.  I’ve been to 40 states and I’d have to say Chicago is more cosmopolitan than most places.  Every summer we have a Pride Parade.  I marched in it with my girlfriend last summer and it was a great time.  So I’m with everybody else who is insulted by this heartland stuff.

  14. Sara K said...

    I can’t imagine that any ballplayer (or any professional of any kind) would want his personal life to be a bigger deal to the public than his contributions to his profession, regardless of the reason.  I doubt any ballplayer would want any/every professional shortcoming blamed on irrelevant personal characteristics. Unfortunately, both of these things are going to happen to the first (and maybe second, third…) openly gay player.  Everyone will get over it, eventually, but there will be no skipping past the media-circus phase.

  15. Mattraw said...

    I think Andrew has it spot on, which is good for everyone: tolerance needs to built from the ground up, not magically delivered by a single baseball player.

    Besides, its not as if Robinson was able to hide his race until he made it to the big show; so wouldn’t the true “Mr. Gay Jackie Robinson” be a kid who has been out since his early teens, and whose talent and perseverance wins out against the prejudices of others, rather than an established player who comes out having already made it to the bigs?

  16. Adam said...

    I think it’s telling that more people are offended by the stereotype of intolerance in the heartland than they are by the idea of an openly gay man in baseball.  Not wanting to start a regional dispute here, but a better choice of words would have been “south”.  According to Pew, 64% of southerners think homosexuality is “morally wrong”

    So those here who say “it’s not a big deal” don’t get it.  There’s still lots of prejudice in this country.  Remember the knock on Asian players?  Can’t be everyday players; too small, blah, blah blah.  I can tell you that symbols DO matter; my son is Asian, and when Ichiro became the first real Asian star in MLB, guess whose poster went up all over his walls?  Now, 8 years later, he plays right field for his high school team, bats leadoff, wears shades and shows off his arm.

    The definition of inspiration is when people see other people just like them succeed.  That’s why it’s important; not because of the media frenzy that will no doubt occur, and not for the people who say “would a gay ballplayer still be a big story?”, but because there are millions of people who will be able to point to to this courageous man and say “if he can do it, so can I.”

  17. Kelly said...

    I take issue with the “why should anyone care” argument.  While it insinuates tolerance, it CAN be imporant.  A person doesn’t have to identify their sexual preference but for an invisible minority, naming it, “coming out” can have such a positive impact on adolescents (hell, adults) to see that someone who is gay CAN succeed.  They become a role model or inspiration or whatever.  If they keep it quiet, hidden, denied….it is sending a message to those who are struggling with their own sexuality.

    And the psychological impact of THAT is significantly more detrimental than straight people having to hear about something they don’t care about.

    Oh, and I fully agree with Broadway—leave the Heartland alone on this one.  Go after California where it is legit.

  18. Melody said...

    I remember reading an article several years ago guessing that the first male openly gay professional athlete (team sports division) would most likely be a fringe player, as opposed to a superstar.  The argument made a lot of sense—a superstar is already a superstar, there’s not much he can do that will *raise* his profile in a positive way.  But a fringe player who might otherwise have been forgotten or be out of the sport?  Maybe he’d be more willing to take the risk.

  19. Michael said...

    OF COURSE Pearlman wants to get his hands (um, metaphorically speaking) on a gay player. I wouldn’t doubt that he’s called dibs on the SI-related publishing rights to the player’s story. Dude knows where the money is, I’ll give him that.

  20. J.R. Silvie said...

    I don’t see why a person has to identify with their sexual preference.  And, if you do, why does it have to be celebrated?  We aren’t lauding the sexual exploits of A-Rod or Jeter, celebrating their promiscuous behavior.

  21. Andy said...

    Right now one of the top stories on the Yahoo front page is: “How will coming out affect Adam Lambert’s career?”  I have a hard time believing that anyone who watched American Idol and voted for him would think any differently if they knew he was gay, assuming that they had no clue before now.  Second, if there are issues about a rock star who wears makeup and paints his fingernails black, there will be bigger issues with a ball player.  Third, the issues will mostly be with the media, and fans I think mostly won’t care.

  22. J.W. said...

    2 things:

    1) As a person living on a coast, I am quite aware of how often the “heartland” of this country gets stereotyped, insulted and ignored. So I’m totally with everyone who took exception to that lazy bit of “journalism.”

    2) What would happen if the player who came out happened to be a fringe major leaguer? A replacement-level player. Would it still be such a big story? If, say, the 7th man in the Pirates’ bullpen came out, would it bring boatloads of national media attention? I think it’s possible that he’d wind up on the cover of a couple magazines and then the whole thing would blow over.

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