How ready is MLB for its own Jason Collins?
Sounds like ancient history now, huh?
Via a column in Sports Illustrated, Jason Collins became the first openly gay NBA player last April. Earlier this month, draft-eligible Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam put himself on a path to become the NFL's first openly gay player when he opened up to The New York Times.
A remarkable turnaround, indeed. But what about America's pastime? Is Major League Baseball ready for an openly gay player?
I do think the answer is yes. Baseball is just as caught up in times that are a-changin' as football and basketball are, and the league is plenty ripe for a sea change on its own merits.
This, however, is a topic that demands ultra-honest discourse. I therefore don't want to kid anyone by proudly proclaiming that baseball's readiness is at 100 percent. It should be self-evident that it's not, and we can look at the stories of Glenn Burke and Billy Bean for insight into why that is.
Burke played four seasons for the Dodgers and A's between 1976 and 1979, and he was gay. Not openly so, obviously, and that's partially because of the identity crisis he was facing. As a 1982 article in Inside Sports (via Deadspin) put it: "He wondered if he could be masculine and gay, a baseball player and gay, Glenn Burke and gay."
Burke took to overcompensating with his masculinity, so as to "establish that if you found out I was gay, you might not want to start hassling me about it, because I could still kick your a--."
Judging from what one of his A's teammates, All-Star pitcher Mike Norris, had to say, Burke had the right idea: "If it had been out in the open, though, there would have been all kinds of problems. We're all macho, we're all men. Just make sure you put in there that I ain't gay, man."
Here's a sentiment that just feels old school, doesn't it? That was then and this is now, one wants to say. That macho man nonsense surely has no place in MLB in 2014, right?
Well, maybe you'd be surprised. It only took a couple Google searches to find an example of a contemporary player talking about how the macho nature of a baseball clubhouse is still a barrier.
"I think [being an openly gay player] would be extremely difficult because of the culture," Blue Jays pitcher Brandon Morrow, who did clarify that he's not against the idea of a gay teammate, told Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today. "Not that I think there's a lot of anti-gay sentiment around, it's just that masculine feel in the clubhouse."
In other words: As silly as it may be, the sense that openly gay men aren't macho men isn't dead yet.
Beyond that, the notion that there's not much "anti-gay sentiment" in baseball must be taken with a grain of salt. Andy Martino of the New York Daily News wrote last year in the wake of the Collins news that the "f-word is tossed around in many a misguided joke" in baseball, and that's easy to believe.
It's not as if baseball hasn't had public instances of blatant homophobia, after all. There was Ozzie Guillen in 2006. Roger McDowell in 2011. There was Yunel Escobar's eye black in 2012. There's been offensive tweets, including by Logan Morrison and, most recently, Jarred Cosart.
And homophobia in baseball isn't all about macho-man nonsense. There's a cultural influence at work as well. Many players come from Latin American countries, where Ortiz noted "views on homosexuality tend to be more conservative."
Religion is also a big part of baseball, and not even Bean was immune to its influence when he was playing. In a 1999 story in The New York Times, the former Tiger, Dodger and Padre said that because of his Roman-Catholic upbringing, he "always felt God was going to strike me dead."
Even the Pope is asking "Who am I to judge?" these days. As such, a gay ballplayer may not be as swayed by religious guilt as Bean was. There are still a lot of religious players in MLB's ranks, however, and those with particularly strong views could keep a player in the closet, if for no other reason than not wanting to be the center of a clubhouse holy war.
"For me, as a Christian...I will be uncomfortable because in all my teachings and all my learning, biblically, it's not right," then-Angels outfielder Torii Hunter told Baxter in 2012. "It will be difficult and uncomfortable."
Right. Wrong. Agree. Disagree. Whatever. This is a belief. Like old attitudes, beliefs also die hard.
So no, baseball's not 100 percent ready for an openly gay baseball player. That's the long version we just discussed, but the short version can be summed up thusly: Duh, it's a professional sports league.
For those of us who want to see baseball take the next step of welcoming an openly gay player into its ranks, that leaves us to ponder the next-best thing: Is baseball at least more ready than it's ever been?
It darn well should be. And it very likely is.
In 2011, "Sexual orientation" wording was added to baseball's CBA. Last summer, MLB commissioner Bud Selig and and New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced a new workplace code of conduct designed to specifically protect people from sexual discrimination.
We can take this for what it's worth. But at the least, what we can call it is baseball getting with the times.
Still, an openly gay player can only be on a team if the people calling the shots want him. To this end, it's worth noting that when Burke was traded from the Dodgers to the A's in 1978, a team trainer told Dusty Baker that it was because the powers that be "[didn't] want any gays on the team."
Such an attitude might still exist in the NBA and NFL. Collins hasn't gotten a job since coming out. There are two Sports Illustrated articles (one written by Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans, the other by Peter King) that drive the point home that some NFL decision-makers are skeptical about bringing Sam aboard.
But baseball executives nowadays? They sound prepared to not give a damn.
Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com spoke with seven front office officials who said they would sign a baseball version of Sam, and the reasoning was simple: Any guy who can play is welcome.
Said Pittsburgh Pirates president Frank Coonelly:
I cannot imagine that a baseball player's sexual orientation would affect where he would be drafted in the baseball draft. Of course, I cannot speak for others, but I know for certain that the Pirates would make our draft decision based solely on whether we believed that the man could play.
Three managers—Diamondbacks skipper Kirk Gibson to MLB.com, Dodgers skipper Don Mattingly to MLB.com and Yankees skipper Joe Girardi to NJ.com—have also sounded off in support of the idea of having an openly gay player in baseball.
This is the attitude that executives and managers should have, of course. It's a lot easier for them to keep their jobs if their clubs win games, and nothing wins games like talent.
And lest you think that's no more true in baseball than it is in other sports, just remember that there are thousands of players in the minors at any given time, compared to 750 in The Show. Since non-MLB-caliber players far outnumber MLB-caliber players, MLB decision makers absolutely can't afford to shun the latter for petty reasons.
And while there are surely plenty of players in MLB's ranks who are at least wary of playing with an openly gay teammate, those who just want teammates who can help them win games have added their own voices to the pile.
Here's Angels pitcher C.J. Wilson (to MLB.com) speaking last year:
If he can play, he can play. If a girl could come out there and throw 100 [mph] and strike everybody out, we wouldn't have a problem with it -- at least I wouldn't.
Ditto Mets third baseman David Wright to The Star-Ledger:
...if you can play the game I don’t care about the color of your skin, sexual orientation, religion. If you can play the game, come on in. you’re welcome. All that matters to me is you go out there and you can compete.
We got 25 guys, it’s a family, and our goal is to win a World Series. What your sexual orientation is, I don’t see how that affects the ultimate goal of our family.
That there are players willing to voice their support for the idea of having an openly gay player should come as no surprise. In a 2010 Huffington Post article, Peter Dreier cited a survey of 476 major league players that the Chicago Tribune carried out in 2004. Three quarters of the surveyed players said they wouldn't have a problem with having a gay teammate.
We're in 2014 now. A decade has past, and the general attitude towards homosexuality has changed for the better, not for the worse. Collins noted that in his Sports Illustrated column, writing: "I'm glad I'm coming out in 2013 rather than 2003. The climate has shifted; public opinion has shifted."
Knowing this, it's hard to imagine that baseball's population of players is less willing to accept a gay player than it was 10 years ago. And while this is the sort of topic where you never know who's saying one thing and thinking another, it's certainly easier to take positive attitudes towards an openly gay player in the clubhouse at face value.
More specifically to baseball, another thing that's happened in the last decade involves Jackie Robinson's legacy. It was only in 1997 that Robinson's number 42 was retired. The first Jackie Robinson Day happened in 2004. All uniformed personnel didn't start wearing 42 on Jackie Robinson Day until 2009. Robinson's legacy itself hasn't changed, but awareness of it has certainly ballooned.
Hardball Talk's Craig Calcaterra summed up the significance of this quite nicely:
Much to baseball’s credit, every player has Jackie Robinson’s history and example drilled into them. Part of that history is Phillies’ manager Ben Chapman’s (and other bigots) role in it. I think most players and coaches are well aware of what it looks like to be on the wrong side of history. I’m not saying that example would instantly change everyone’s mind and heart — there are bigots everywhere — but I feel like most people in baseball would think a lot about what they said if, for no other reason, than no one wants to be Ben Chapman in baseball’s next civil rights story.
Basically, players decidedly against having an openly gay teammate could be scared into dealing with it by a simple question: Do I really want to be that guy in the history books?
Lastly, take a look at this graph that shows how the average ages of pitchers and hitters have progressed over the last 25 years (data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com):
Right now, baseball is younger than it's been in quite a while. And in the context of this discussion, there are two positives there:
- Young people in general have a tendency to be progressive.
- Young players aren't as firmly rooted in old conventions.
It's the second point that's more important there. If it so happens that an openly gay player arrives on the scene, a good chunk of the league isn't going to have its world turned completely upside down by the resulting sea change.
It's hard to be ready for something that's never happened before, especially when said something has never happened before because said something has been widely discouraged. It's not a coincidence that there's never been an openly gay player in a baseball uniform.
This is, however, something that's going to happen sooner or later. And given the circumstances, I think baseball can handle it sooner.
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