LA PUENTE, California — Six months after knocking ignorance and intolerance out of the park, Milwaukee minor league slugger David Denson hops out of his father's white Dodge Charger in a parking lot here and smiles broadly.
Behind him are the shadows from which he emerged to declare himself to the world, finally brave and comfortable enough in his own skin to do something that no other active, affiliated professional baseball player ever has dared.
Ahead are skies that have cleared for the first time in his memory, the dawn of an era that finally will allow him to continue pursuing a very old dream in a very new way.
Simply, as a professional baseball player who happens to be gay instead of something far more complicated: a gay man trying to play professional baseball.
Speaking extensively for the first time since coming out in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in mid-August, Denson revealed these past few months have been a revelation to him in a way in which he never expected.
Instead of being ostracized, he has been welcomed.
Where he once feared cold shoulders and harsh judgments, he instead has received warm hugs and supportive gestures.
And a rough-hewn sport known for beanballs and bench jockeys helps guide the way, ever so gently, into a new and welcome Age of Enlightenment.
"I think it actually formed a bond between my teammates and me even more," Denson says, sitting at a patio table at a local Starbucks in mid-February. "They had an idea. They would never cross the boundary of actually asking me, but they always had an idea in their mind.
"So when I actually said it, it's like, it satisfied their wonder. It was like, 'OK, now we know. We don't have to think about it too much anymore.' It's like, 'It's out there, it's cool and we've passed it.'"
It never was Denson's goal to be a trailblazer. He did not set out to make a statement after signing as Milwaukee's 15th-round draft pick in 2013.
It's just that, as all those buses rattled along past Wisconsin and Iowa corn fields in the Midwest League and beneath the darkened big sky of Montana in the Pioneer League, a guy like Denson cannot help but feel like a phony, eventually.
He bites his lip here, passes on making a comment there, plugs a pseudonym for his partner into his cellphone so nobody catches on, and pretty soon, there is the person on the inside and the person on the outside. And they are different, much different, and sometimes they wage war with each other. The mind churns endlessly while peers compete and jabber and pass the time, and soon the person on the outside becomes unrecognizable to the person on the inside.
Although Denson had been considering coming out for months, texting regularly for support and advice with Billy Bean, Major League Baseball's vice president for social responsibility and inclusion, when it finally did happen, it surprised even Denson.
He was with the Brewers' rookie-level team in Helena, Montana, last July, just another game day in another minor league town. When the rain swept in following batting practice and the team retreated into the clubhouse, the players did what players have been doing during rain delays since the invention of the tarp. They started teasing each other. In Denson walked and one of his teammates ribbed him, calling him a maricon. The word is a Spanish slang term for f----t.
"Be careful," Denson, 6'3" and 254 pounds, told his teammate. "You never know."
And just like that, the secret he had painstakingly guarded since stepping into the world of professional baseball two years earlier was out.
"I was like, 'Did I just say that?'" Denson, who turned 21 in January, says. "And my teammate said, 'We know that you are [gay]. We were just waiting for you to become comfortable enough to say it.'"
"It was pretty surreal," says Charlie Galiano, a catcher on the Helena club last summer. "I was really happy for him. Some guys did have some questions but, for the most part, I think everybody accepted it."
Credit Mother Nature with a sharp sense of drama, because it rained hard enough that night to postpone the game. So Denson and his teammates sat in the clubhouse and talked about what he had just told them for probably 15 or 20 minutes, first in a small group, then with more and more players crowding around. They asked him questions, and he fed them answers.
"I was still kind of in shock," Denson says. "You could say it was OK, but you never know who was going to react to what. I never wanted to make my teammates feel uncomfortable. I never wanted them to feel different toward me.
"Because whether I'm gay, straight, bisexual, whatever, I'm still myself. I wanted them to see me for me. And that's exactly what they did."
Wearing a Brewers cap backward and a sleeve tattoo, Denson is a couple of hours away from another offseason training session at a nearby college. He is working out with a renewed zeal this winter. He cannot wait for this season to begin.
This is not how he thought it would go.
"Huge difference from last winter," Denson says. "Huge.
"When it came to preparing for spring training last year, I'd say I worked hard but I didn't work my ass off. It ran through my mind that if any of the stuff I'm thinking goes wrong, or goes the way I think it's going to go, then what's the point of me even trying? What's the point of me giving everything to something that I'm going to lose anyway?
"So there's no point in my working my ass off because if somebody finds out, it's all going to go down the drain."
Can you imagine? Runs, now they are a part of baseball. Hits, too, and, yes, even errors. But hopelessness? In a society tilting hard toward tolerance and acceptance, ugliness and bile still too often poison the air.
"I expected the worst reaction," he continues. "I expected the absolute worst. And I think that actually helped a lot. Going through my mind, expecting the worst, even if bad things were going to happen, it still wasn't the worst that was going through my mind.
"So that gave me exactly everything I thought could go wrong, and it didn't."
His mind never stopped because his imagination wouldn't allow it. He envisioned every potential land mine.
"That my teammates would neglect me. That they wouldn't want me around," he says. "That I would make them feel awkward, that they wouldn't feel comfortable around me in the locker room because of that whole stereotype that somebody is gay and they're looking at me, something like that.
"That other teams would feel some type of way toward me, like me being on the field is disrespectful. That coaches won't be OK with it because of the saying that goes around in the locker room, that if you're a distraction to the team, they want to get rid of distractions.
"All of that ran through my mind."
Of those things, here is exactly how many happened:
Even in the stands. No catcalls, no rude comments.
"I'd read everything off of the first day in a city," he says. "If there was no reaction that first day, then I was like, 'OK, I can be calm here.'"
There was a time in this country when women were not allowed to vote. When African-Americans were not allowed to drink from certain water fountains. When simply being born to a certain gender, race or with a particular sexual orientation gave other folks a tacit license to discriminate.
Maybe as a society we are not in the clear yet. Maybe some days it seems like we're further from the clear than other days. But we also live in a time in which, fortunately, there is a growing awareness that bullying, in whatever form, is not OK.
Remove it, and the possibilities can seem endless.
"Heading into this year, I've done workouts that I've never done before," Denson says. "I've worked harder than I've ever worked before. That's why I'm so excited. I can see the difference. I can see the change.
"I feel like they're going to get a totally different player."
Text by text, beginning with Bean last winter, Denson built the courage to find a way out of his trap. That Major League Baseball had people in place with life preservers is no small part of his story.
The game that gave us Jackie Robinson in 1947, a full 17 years before that Civil Rights Act of 1964, hired Bean as Ambassador for Inclusion during the summer of 2014. A fourth-round draft pick by the Detroit Tigers in 1986, Bean, now 51, spent six years in the majors as a journeyman outfielder with the Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres.
Like Denson, Bean is gay. Only he kept it to himself until a few years after he retired.
"My trepidation on his behalf was, first of all...his mental well-being," Bean says. "Why he wanted to [come out], what his family situation was like.
"The fact that he reached out to me, I was not guiding his decision. I was just someone he could reach out to."
That Bean was there with a waiting hand was no accident. A game that long has prided itself as a social institution with a social responsibility this winter promoted Bean to a vice president's position, hired Curtis Pride as its new Ambassador for Inclusion and also hired Tyrone Brooks as senior director of MLB's new Front Office and Field Staff Diversity Pipeline Program.
"It's about diversity and inclusion," MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred told Bleacher Report. "I think for a business like ours to maximize its appeal to a very diverse population, people have to believe we are diverse—on the field, with what the product looks like and with who's running it. And it can't stop with race.
"Race is the first step. But diversity and inclusion in today's world is much more than that."
As internal pressure built last spring and Denson wondered whether he could even continue plodding toward a future he feared would be stripped away, he met privately at the Brewers' spring training camp in Arizona with Becky Schnakenberg, a counselor then employed by the club, farm director Reid Nichols, Class A Wisconsin manager Matt Erickson and minor league hitting coordinator Jeremy Reed.
"Their reaction was, we don't care," Denson says. "We don't see you any differently. As long as you can play and go out and do your job, there's nothing that's holding you back anymore."
But there was.
He spilled his secret but declined their offer to talk to some of the other players for him. No, Denson said, if his teammates were to find out, he wanted to be the one to tell them, face-to-face, on his own terms. He did not want them to feel like they had to accept him simply because a coach told them to.
After the season started, sensing Denson was spiraling downward, Bean secretly visited him in Appleton, Wisconsin.
"I didn't even tell anyone in my office," Bean says.
Over dinner at a local steakhouse, Bean allowed him to vent. Through the first two months of the season, Denson was hitting .195 (16-for-82) with one homer and eight RBI at Class A Wisconsin. Not long after the dinner, those numbers would earn Denson a demotion to Helena, a lower-level Class A team.
"You could tell he had a lot on his mind," Bean says. "His parents were greatly concerned with his decision. David is a very confident young man. He's not going to be intimidated by anyone. But he's young.
"In this Facebook world, you're going to be given a lot of love if you put yourself out there," Bean says. "But my concern was that once he did this, he could not reverse that decision. Being the first active player with an affiliated ballclub, he was going into uncharted territory."
Manfred says he finds positive reaction in the game to Denson so far to be "so encouraging because we have worked hard to create an inclusive work environment, and the reason we do is our product is so compelling because we attract the very best baseball players in the world. If one happens to be of a different race or sexual orientation or religion, the fact that we have a welcoming environment is crucial to attracting the best.
"This doesn't happen simply because you fall off the back of a truck. Our clubs, from the time a player is signed as an amateur, and our great partners in minor league baseball, have worked very hard to give a player like David Denson the experience he's had."
Says Bean: "Baseball is proud of the way it was handled. There is a collective supportive environment. If you're a baseball player, we have that in common. And the world has changed dramatically in the way we talk about these other issues."
Indeed, two decades ago, Bean walked away from the game he loved at age 31 because it simply was too torturous for him to go on.
"The great regret I share is that I didn't believe I belonged somewhere and I still had time left," Bean says. "We get old quickly. I look back and think, 'How on earth could I have not talked to someone? How could I just run away, disconnect?'
"I decided to quit and not talk to anyone."
Denson did not quit....but it did cross his mind.
"David almost quit twice last year," says his father, Lamont, 62.
The first time was in the spring, about the time he had the meeting with the Brewers' contingent. The other time was in June, around the time Bean secretly visited him.
"I felt like when I was at home or by myself, I was being me, but any other time I was being a totally different person," Denson says. "And I really was being a totally different person, so that didn't help.
"In general, even off the field toward my teammates, I was getting a label for myself that I didn't like. I was a hothead. I had a temper. I had an attitude. And at the time, I don't want to sound rude, but I didn't care."
Back home in Southern California, his partner, Freddy, was one of the few who could listen. But catching up on the telephone isn't always the best, especially given the time zone differences as the baseball schedule dictated Denson's life. And there was no way they could travel together.
"On my phone, he was saved as a different name," Denson says of his now 10-month relationship. "Any kind of social media, he knew [a message] was toward him, but if anybody would read it they would never think it was toward a man.
"On Instagram, you know how you can tag a person? I would never tag him. I'd use a term that's unisex. It was never directed at him. It was always a secret."
Since the start of his professional career, Denson has had two prior relationships. Neither one lasted. This one, he says, is different.
"I finally found somebody who understands," he says.
Sometimes, inner turmoil is our toughest opponent. Denson is known to his friends as an easygoing, affable man who loves movies, dancing, music and laughter. He is quick with a smile, and quicker yet to bring friends together.
"He's not shy at all," says Adrian De Horta, a pitcher in the San Diego Padres organization and best friends with Denson since the two were six years old. "He's going to be the conversation starter. He'll come up to you and give you a hug and start the conversation right off the top.
"Great guy. Big heart. The type of guy who will always help you out."
Yet his teammates last summer in both Wisconsin and Helena saw that side of him only in glimpses.
"He had little anger-management issues," says Doug Melvin, the Brewers general manager from 2002-15 before stepping into an advisory role with the club at the end of last season. "Not major confrontations. I'm not saying he had attitude problems. But you could tell there were some things he was uncomfortable with, and later on we understood why."
The anger would flash after strikeouts. Every so often he would fail to hustle.
"I always say to our player development department, we can never know enough about our players," Melvin says. "Everybody has different hobbies, different likes, different social things they go and do."
Denson had broken the news to his parents on the eve of spring training last year, so he already was an emotional wreck by the time he took his first swings of the spring. His mother, Felisa, 43, was concerned in a protective way.
"She was nervous because of the brutality that's out there," says Denson, who also has a sister, Celestine (26, and whose husband is a former Brewers minor leaguer, Jose Sermo), and a brother, Eugene (35). "The stories of how people have been beaten or tormented for being gay. All the traveling through different cities and towns, you don't know how people are going to react."
With his father, it was more of an argument. Lamont is a former athlete and a God-fearing man who had serious difficulty accepting what his son was telling him.
"He said it was really eating him up," Lamont says. "I told him that my son and daughter, you can talk to me about anything. When you don't talk to me, that's when things are going to be crazy."
Things still went a little crazy.
"I'm still going through it," Lamont says. "It hasn't stopped yet. As I told him, I'm a very religious man. I accept it. I don't condone it. But I accept it, I told him, because you're grown now.
"At a young age, I introduced him to the Lord. Anything he does now is between him and the Lord and not for me to judge. When it comes time to meet his maker, that's who he's going to discuss it with. I was put here and blessed to be his father, and I thank the Lord for that."
Not long after David publicly came out in August, Lamont's phone rang. It was Melvin, calling from Milwaukee.
"The one thing I did was call his father, because I had heard his father was having a difficult time," Melvin says. "I put myself into the shoes of a father.
"I told him, 'Mr. Denson, I want you to know our objective and our goal with David is not going to change. It is to get him to the big leagues. He is not going to be viewed any differently.'
"I wanted to put his father at ease because he could be thinking, 'What if the organization looks at my son differently?' I thought that was important for me to do as a GM."
Bean phoned his father as well—and continues to call. Lamont says they talk quite often, and that he appreciates Bean "opening himself up to our whole family." David Denson simply says that Bean has become family.
Sometimes, we all need angels in our lives.
"I told David that God had a special plan for him, and this is just the beginning," Lamont says. "With him doing what he did, it's going to open the door for a lot of people in a lot of sports for people not to be afraid of who they are.
"Once you let that go, you can achieve so many things in life."
Afterward, not coincidentally, Denson's anger issues just sort of faded away. Teammates noticed how relaxed he suddenly had become. You're not mad, they told him. You're not angry.
"And I was, like, that wasn't who I am," Denson says. "I was just doing that so you guys would leave me alone and not ask questions."
Galiano, who roomed with Denson on the road last summer at Helena, says, "I actually knew about him being a homosexual about a month before [Denson told his teammates during that rain delay]. I was the first teammate he told.
"I asked, 'Do you want me to keep it a secret?' I'm an Italian from New York; I know how to keep a secret.
"I was trying to explain to him, 'Listen, it's a different day and age. That other stuff was years ago. If they don't accept you now, they're the odd one out.
"My sister is a professional dancer, so I'm very familiar with gay people. They're awesome. He knew my feelings on it before he told me, and when he did tell me, I was like, 'All right.' It didn't bother me."
Says Lamont: "I am very surprised about how many people accept him, but only to a certain extent because I know what a good person he is. The way he expresses himself to people, he's a very likable guy."
As he speaks, by his own count, Lamont Denson's wardrobe is stocked with six Brewers caps. Two of them are official team caps given to him by his son. Four of them, he's purchased.
Nearly every day, one can be found atop his head.
Before David Denson, there was Michael Sam, who became the first publicly gay player to be drafted by an NFL team, and Jason Collins, the NBA veteran. Neither built much of a career after coming out.
Sam went public with his sexuality after his last season at the University of Missouri, then underwhelmed at the NFL Scouting Combine and was drafted in the seventh round by the St. Louis Rams. He was cut at the end of training camp in 2014 and then, last June, took a leave of absence for personal reasons from the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.
Collins came out following the 2012-13 NBA season, becoming the first active openly gay male athlete in one of the four major North American professional sports leagues. Though Collins played 13 years in the NBA, he played only briefly for the Brooklyn Nets after coming out and retired in November 2014.
Denson is still a long way away from the majors. He is expected to start at the Class A level this summer, and if he plays well for the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, maybe he'll advance to the high-Class A Brevard County (Florida) Manatees. As of 2015, he was not listed among the Brewers' top 30 prospects, according to MLB.com Pipeline's prospects watch.
So, both his professional story and his personal story are still being authored, and will be for the near future.
"We are changing the tide of that conversation in a wonderful way, but I don't need to explain that a [major league] clubhouse is not an employee resource group environment," Bean says. "It is a different world, and you'd better be a damn good player to bring personal stuff into the clubhouse.
"If you're getting it done on the field, it's a layup. If not…unfortunately for Michael Sam, the decision on when he announced was when he was not playing and he was talking about going to play. It was so built up when Michael was not able to play at a level of a first-round draft choice at the combine that the naysayers began to have a field day.
"That was a learning experience for all of us."
In fact, with his son near the breaking point and determined to unburden himself, Lamont Denson urged him last summer to wait until the offseason to do it. But the way things went for Sam was instructive, and as David and Bean worked their way through things, they were very cognizant of potential minefields.
"I think we learned from Michael Sam's choices that we've got to keep it about baseball," Bean says. Hence, the decision for Denson to come out during the season, when the steady drumbeat of games would allow the news to float in and out of the news cycle. "David still is an A ball player, and it's getting pretty close to the time when he needs to make a statement. This is his fourth season, and the time is now."
Gay or straight, white or black, there are no guarantees. It is a bottom-line business, and the bottom line is production. Jobs hang in the balance all around, from the clubhouse to the front office, and there are no easy paths.
Sitting here under the warm California sun, what Denson most remembers are the final few weeks of last season. Following his revelation, he smashed four home runs and collected 20 RBI in August and September. He also was named as the outstanding player for the Pioneer League in the Class A Northwest League-Pioneer League All-Star Game.
"I was back in my game, easily back in my game," Denson says.
He could see teammates in both Helena and Wisconsin (he was promoted back to the Timber Rattlers later in August) wondering, where has this guy been?
"He wasn't here," Denson says. "There was so much other stuff going on, this person wasn't here.
"I'm excited. I feel like this season is going to be a total, total different outcome."
Says Bean: "I would be devastated if David's career is shorter rather than longer. I'm fond of him. It's hard to see, most athletes that are LGBT have a bad ending because they just didn't trust, and then quit, or they had a negative situation based on where they played.
"It's one of those things with David where, so far, it's been good."
When he reports to the Brewers spring training camp in Maryvale, Arizona, it will be with nothing to hide. It will be with a clear mind trained on possibilities, not a head full of demons taunting him about the horror life can bring.
Not only is it a good time to be living in his own skin again, but it is an excellent time to be young and a Brewer. The club is undergoing a renovation at the big league level, shedding veterans and rebuilding. There is enormous opportunity throughout the organization.
The Brewers, who have moved him off of first base and are making him a corner outfielder this year, like his power and plate discipline.
Finally, he feels free again, like he can handle anything the new season throws at him. Sure, the knuckle draggers are out there, but fear no longer is part of his equation. He knows he is being watched, both by those within the game and by who knows how many younger gay players who are keeping quiet while suddenly having discovered a new hero.
"I feel more motivated than anything," Denson says. "There is pressure, but the feeling of finally feeling free outweighs everything else. I don't feel like I'm doing this for myself. I feel like this is a stepping-stone for other players who may be going through it, or who have gone through it and never said anything.
"Or, for future generations of little ones who may be feeling this way and sooner or later are going to be exposed to it. It shouldn't be a thing where you discriminate against someone for their sexuality. I feel like I'm competing against a bunch of guys who are straight and I'm gay but I'm holding my own, so what does sexuality have to do with it?
"My sexuality is not going to make me hit the ball harder or feel better. It's just my personal preference, that's all it is."
Now, he says, his view is more outward than inward.
"Before, it was more about protecting myself," he says. "Now, it's like you have to stand up for others. You stood up for yourself, good. But now you have to keep going to show and to prove you can do everything anybody else does.
"My goal was never to be accepted. And I feel like that's the line that people don't understand. For me, there is a difference between being accepted and respected."
He still remembers scrolling through the comments section underneath the story when it first appeared in the Milwaukee newspaper last August. Those comments, some of which represented the only nasty reaction he's received, actually helped steel him.
"At first, I got upset," he says. "Why are people so close-minded? They don't understand.
"Then it finally hit me: Dude, your story's out and you know not everybody's going to accept it, so why are you taking the time to read these things? Now you don't have to worry about it. Now they're talking about something you were worried about for so long.
"So now, if they're going to talk, let them talk. Let them say whatever they need to say. Because at the end of the day, they're not supporting your playing, they're not working out every day like you're doing, and they don't pay your bills."
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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