August 19, 2014 at 4:04 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
When will a gay Major League Baseball player come out?
Billy Bean, baseball, gay news, Washington Blade

Billy Bean is “Ambassador for Inclusion” at Major League Baseball. (Photo courtesy of Bean)

Billy Bean has a goal in his new job as “Ambassador for Inclusion” at Major League Baseball: Make the league an accepting environment for any openly gay player who may come out of the closet.

“Baseball has a great history of social responsibility and understanding that indeed there are players who are playing in the major leagues without disclosing their private life, and they’ve made that choice,” Bean said. “But we’re going to at least let them know as well as every other player that if and when that time comes, then they’re ready to have a support group behind them.”

The former Padres outfielder — who came out as gay in 1999 after his retirement — became a high-profile figure in the gay rights movement upon disclosing his sexual orientation.

Bean, 50, was named in July as the league’s first “Ambassador for Inclusion” and talked about his new position in an interview with the Washington Blade.

In addition to ensuring the environment within the league is accepting of an openly gay player, Bean is set to undertake community outreach to encourage LGBT people to consider a career within the league. Just last week, Bean participated in a tour of Hetrick-Martin Institute – a New York-based social services agency dedicated to helping at-risk LGBT youth – to get them excited about potential careers in the league.

But Bean doesn’t envision his role as being solely aimed at enabling a gay player to feel comfortable about coming out. It’s also geared toward demonstrating for other players the potential for playing with an openly gay teammate.

“We’re trying to find the way that works best with their timeline, so that players are not going to feel like this is a burden on them, but a way to create opportunities for education, create opportunities for them to be role models, to be heroes to their fans,” Bean said.

Bean may have help in fostering this new atmosphere now that the league has chosen a new commissioner, Rob Manfred, who’s currently serving as Major League Baseball’s chief operating officer. Known as an LGBT ally, Manfred has worked to form a strategic alliance with Athlete Ally.

When the time comes for a baseball player to come out of the closet, Bean said he “absolutely” believes Manfred would be supportive. Bean said he had a conversation about his role with Manfred upon meeting him two months ago.

“He seems elated that the commissioner’s office is putting time and effort, and resources, into creating an environment that is going to let the players know, the coaches know, the management, the front office personnel, the league is supportive of everyone,” Bean said.

Two major American sports made headlines this year for accepting openly gay players into their ranks. In February, Jason Collins signed with the Brooklyn Nets, becoming the first openly gay player in the National Basketball Association. In May, the St. Louis Rams drafted Michael Sam as a defensive end, making him the first openly gay player in the National Football League.

But no openly gay person has played for Major League Baseball. Bean came out after retirement, and Glenn Burke, who played for the Dodgers and Athletics in the 1970s, came out formally in 1982 after he stopped playing baseball, although he was reportedly open about his sexual orientation to teammates, managers and sportswriters.

Bean said he couldn’t make a prediction on when baseball would boast an openly gay player, but acknowledges the chances are better given the positive experiences in other sports.

“I’m not banking on the decision of one player or two players to make it look like I’m doing my job,” Bean said. “I think I need to do my job in and around all of the players and then when that day comes I can lay my head on my pillow and know that he’s going to have the same workplace environment and succeed just the way he has before.”

Bean said it’s logical to assume that a player would come out in a major metropolitan area — such as New York City or D.C. — as opposed to a conservative area in the South, where he said gay people often don’t come out until later in life.

Some observers have suggested that a player has yet to come out in baseball because so many of them are from religious and conservative areas, like the Caribbean and the Deep South.

“You look at the percentage of Latin American players, and also, many players are supporting more than just their immediate family,” Bean said. “There’s responsibility because some of them are making lots of money.”

That environment, Bean said, is but one factor a player may consider when deciding whether to come out and the decision “is just an individual situation where everything lines up and the player feels safe.”

The league’s non-discrimination policy was amended to include sexual orientation in 2011 and bolstered last year by being distributed as a code of conduct to every major and minor league player.

One reason Bean said baseball has yet to see an openly gay player is because players in that sport, unlike in football, generally have to rise through the ranks in the minor leagues before signing a contract with the majors.

“There’s an interesting dynamic for a young player in those two sports where they jump right into the big leagues and highest level of competition,” Bean said. “In baseball, that doesn’t always work that way, it takes a long time to get there, and it takes about five or six years of being in the big leagues before you have leverage to make a living.”

Collins was cheered when he took to the court for the first time after coming out, and all eyes will be on Sam this fall when he takes the field. Bean, who said he personally knows Sam, said the best advice he can offer the player is to remain focused on his game and to maintain his health.

“He has a huge network of support, the problem is we can’t play for him,” Bean said. “And it’s up to him to keep all those things that are possibly distracting him to a minimum, and just focus. Because, of course, there are going to be people who want him to fail so they can live in those antiquated stereotypes, but whether he succeeds or fails, whether he wins the Super Bowl with the Rams or plays one game, he is one of the bravest people I’ve ever met in my life.”

Asked how he thinks the fans of the opposing team will react to Sam in the stadium, Bean acknowledged that “it’s the inherent nature of all sports” that those people will be predisposed to disliking him.

In the end, Bean said the decisions for Collins and Sam to come out as gay will make it easier for someone in baseball to make the same choice — and the trend will only continue.

“There needs to be some kind of compassion and understanding for why someone hasn’t made that choice yet, but like I said, I’m going to try to make it a better environment each and every day so that choice is easier for the first guy,” Bean said. “And if the first guy’s experience is good, that will make the second one twice as easy.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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