1 Year Later, Pro Baseball's 1st Openly Gay Player Still Leads by Example

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterAugust 3, 2016

Photo credit: James Toy III, courtesy of the Sonoma Stompers.

Sean Conroy's trip to the National Baseball Hall of Fame last November wasn't his first. His hometown of Clifton Park is roughly 70 miles from Cooperstown, so he'd seen the exhibits about baseball's immortals.

But it's different when you go to gaze at your own.

There, in a case marked "Today's Game," just south of the hat Cole Hamels was wearing when he no-hit the Chicago Cubs, was the scorecard from the Sonoma Stompers' June 25, 2015, game against the Vallejo Admirals. Conroy led the Stompers to a 7-0 victory with a complete-game shutout in his first professional start.

That's a damn good debut, but it's not what got him into the Hall of Fame. It's who Conroy is that prompted the call. 

He became the first openly gay player in professional baseball history that day, as Major League Baseball historian John Thorn confirmed to Lisa Leff and Olga Rodriguez of the Associated Press. That's the kind of occasion that is indeed worthy of Cooperstown.

"I had been a couple times as a kid, going with my family on trips or whatever," says Conroy, 24. "But going back to see myself there was a completely different experience. It was definitely surreal. I'll probably go back in the future. And it's something I'll be able to tell my kids about someday, which is pretty cool."

Photo credit: Conroy family photo, courtesy of the Sonoma Stompers.
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The moment may have been surreal, but what happened last June was very real.

The Stompers are one of only four teams in the independent Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, where players make only a couple hundred bucks a month in a three-month season. But it's still pro ball.

The precedents for Conroy's experience aren't encouraging. Glenn Burke and Billy Bean had unhappy and short-lived careers as major leaguers who were not out publicly. Jason Collins and Michael Sam were celebrated for coming out but then swiftly nudged aside. Before becoming the first openly gay player in Major League Soccer, Robbie Rogers' coming out originally coincided with his retirement.

So far, though, Conroy's story has been different. It's already put him in the Hall of Fame, and it's still offering a glimpse at a brighter, more inclusive future for professional baseball.

As recounted in Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller's book about running the 2015 Stompers, The Only Rule Is It Has to Work, Conroy came out to his parents when he was a teenager. They were immediately accepting but also worried.

"I said, 'I think you should kinda keep it in your back pocket until you get through high school,'" Conroy's mother, Terry, told Lindbergh. "'It's just a better life, because I know what life was like when I was in high school.'"

But Conroy had a better idea. Rather than stay in hiding, he came right out to his high school teammates. Later, he would do the same in college at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Described by those who know him well as "quiet" and "cerebral," Conroy's not the spokesperson type. He was fine with losing his Pride Night spotlight to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage, saying in a TV interview that his preference is to be in the spotlight for baseball. And when I asked about the tragedy at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, he had nothing he wanted to share publicly.

But wisdom based on his own experiences for anyone who might need it? That's ground he'll tread.

"I think everyone's experience is different. I could write a book on my own experience and how I got through what I went through," he says. "But if I had any overarching advice, it would just be to be yourself. And I always made friends first and then continued to be myself after I came out to them. It's like, 'OK, I was friends with them before, and then I came out, and nothing's changed.'"

Apart from one ugly moment—the book tells of a vanquished batter saying "I can't believe that f----t struck me out"—Conroy's amateur career passed without incident. What there was instead was lots of dominance. Especially at RPI, where he went 21-7 with a 2.05 ERA in four seasons.

Trouble was, he didn't fit the usual profile of a draftable pitcher: a tall drink of water with a fastball radar guns can't ignore.

Conroy is a 6'1" right-hander who works mostly from a sidearm angle with mid-80s velocity. Relying mainly on a sinker-slider combination, his game is more about deception. It's not easy for young pitchers to impress affiliated clubs with such a scouting report, and dominance against Division III competition isn't the thing to make them think otherwise.

But when Lindbergh and Miller sought to discover what two stats-minded writers could do running a professional team, they didn't need future major leaguers. They just needed players who could cut it in the Pacific Association, where the competition is roughly equivalent to Single-A ball.

They commissioned Chris Long, a former San Diego Padres executive, to devise a system that rated all college players on the same scale. The resulting spreadsheets highlighted Conroy as a guy who could help. Lindbergh and Miller didn't need to know much more than that.

"We didn't know he was gay, for example," Lindbergh says. "Our eyes were just caught by the stats and by the performance. And even though it was RPI, this little Division III engineering school in upstate New York, we just thought, 'If you can pitch that well in college and you can get college hitters out that effectively, maybe you can do the same thing in the Pacific Association.'"

Conroy had another appealing quality. He was just three credits shy of a psychology degree and pursuing an interest in team chemistry with a paper titled "How Perception of Teammates' Ability Affects Personal Ability." 

"Most of the time, I'm just a fly on the wall. I'm not a guy who likes to talk too much," he says. "I'm perceptive of the things around me, or at least I like to think I am. I just developed an interest in seeing how people interact with each other and then how they turn around and play after that."

As Lindbergh saw it, Conroy's talent and interest in reading the room while in the clubhouse could make him a "go-between" insider for him and Miller, two outsiders.

Little did they know he was also the perfect candidate for what came next.

Conroy's first priority upon arriving in wine country was to nail down a job. That turned out to be simple. When then-player/manager Fehlandt Lentini asked his pitchers on Day 1 of spring training "Does anyone want to be a closer?" all Conroy had to do was volunteer.

Then it was on to the coming-out process. For that, he would follow his usual pattern: make friends first, and then let them in on it.

Some circumstances were in Conroy's favor. He was on a team located in the Bay Area, a place he's found has "definitely lived up to its reputation as being open-minded." He was also on a team loaded with predominantly young and universally low-paid players. Any troublemakers could be easily cast aside.

Nonetheless, a standard-issue all-male clubhouse comes with natural barriers for gay athletes. 

As Outsports co-founder Cyd Zeigler outlined for Chris Hine of the Chicago Tribune, one is "constant heterosexism" that makes sexual escapades with women a frequent topic of conversation. That presents a tough choice for gay men: don't come out and carry the psychological burden of playing along—a game Bean talked about playing during his careeror come right out and be yourself.

This wasn't a tough call for Conroy. 

"I told my teammates I was gay because as we were becoming friends, I didn't want to feel like I was hiding or have to lie when they start to comment on girls," he told Scott Gleeson of USA Today last summer. "If a teammate tells me about how he met a girl at a bar, I tell him about how I met this guy at a bar."

Photo credit: Danielle Putonen, courtesy of the Sonoma Stompers.

A given clubhouse is also likely to feature some level of homophobia. An extreme case would be what drove young right-hander Tyler Dunnington away from the St. Louis Cardinals organization last year. He revealed to Outsports that he'd been worn down by "years of homophobia," including "both coaches and players [making] remarks on killing gay people."

On the other side of the spectrum would be a clubhouse like Sonoma's. It's characterized in the book as an example of what for now is still a fundamental truth: The more dudes you gather in one place, the probability of gay jokes happening approaches 1.

Isaac Wenrich, then a catcher for the Stompers, wasn't one of the guys Conroy told directly, but it seems he heard the news after making such a joke.

"You know, I'd be in the locker room and talking and everything and joking around, and one of our pitchers was like, 'Hey, man, you know Sean's actually gay.' And I was like, 'I had no idea about that,'" Wenrich says. "I mean, it's not derogatory or anything like that. It's just that locker room banter."

Wenrich's reaction was to go right over to Conroy, who was "more than open" with him. Wenrich was cool with it on the spot. So was everyone else, by all accounts. Lindbergh says the team "didn't really need to be corralled in any way." 

Meanwhile, Conroy was commanding respect with his performance on the field, racking up four saves with no earned runs allowed in his first six appearances. He also commanded respect by taking all comers in Super Smash Bros., the Stompers' video game of choice. And when he came out, he presented himself as, to use Wenrich's words, a "genuine person." 

"This was not new for him," says Lindbergh. "It was new to do this in professional baseball but not new in that he had been open with his amateur teams before. He knew how to handle it, and he really didn’t need any hand-holding."

If anything, Conroy's teammates were initially too respectful. What Wenrich called "that locker room banter" disappeared, creating a situation Lindbergh described as uncomfortable for everyone: Players not named Conroy were policing themselves, and that made players named Conroy self-conscious.

But this didn't last. Conroy couldn't recall a specific turning point for what allowed everyone to loosen up. But he credits Wenrich, a close friend who would later share in his surreal Cooperstown visit, for "just being blunt with me and doing it in front of other people and seeing my reaction, which I was fine with."

For Wenrich, the credit is mutual.

"We understood that, you know, maybe making a gay joke or two could be taken the wrong way. Sean never did. Sean was always so cool about it," he says. "[We] sort of died down on the banter just for a little bit until we understood that Sean’s just a baseball player. He tells the same jokes. He has a sense of humor. I think that’s what gave us the ability to pick it back up and be as loose as we were."

There's a line between good-natured ribbing and hurtful insults. But rather than leave it up to him, Conroy has found his fellow players to be good at checking themselves. 

"I would do it if I had to," he says, "but I haven’t had to yet."

After Conroy came out to Stompers owner Eric Gullotta on June 10, there was an obvious opportunity to make the club's annual Pride Night on June 25 an even bigger event. Attracting fans does take extra effort in the indy circuit, after all. That's why teams do things like sign Jose Canseco.

But for the Stompers, this would be more than a publicity stunt.

Lindbergh, Miller, and Stompers general manager and self-described "owner of a real name" Theo Fightmaster badly wanted Conroy's effective relief arm to be used in a starting role. They'd had trouble convincing Lentini, a traditionalist whose party line was "the closer is the closer," to make the switch. But for Pride Night, he relented. 

"If we had sought Sean out because he was gay and then we made him start on a night like that in a pure stunt, it would have been pretty detrimental to not just Sean but I think the whole inclusion movement in baseball and professional sports," Fightmaster says. "He had been on the team since spring training, and he had been a dominant reliever for us, and frankly we needed an excuse to get our manager to give him a few more innings."

It was after the Stompers made the announcement that outrage finally surfaced, but it was minor. Apart from a few Stompers season ticket holders and host families who boycotted the game, Lindbergh wrote that the bad noise was mostly restricted to the usual safe space for outspoken tough guys: Facebook comment sections.

As for the game itself, it turned out to be an occasion befitting of Cooperstown.

In front of a crowd of 478—pretty good by usual standards at Sonoma's Arnold Field—most Stompers players took the field wearing rainbow socks in solidarity with their starter. Conroy then held the Admirals to three hits, striking out 11 and walking one. It took 140 pitches, but what would have been a historic game either way turned into a tremendous personal success.

His first reward: the biggest hug of his catcher's life.

"I mean, you can't really put that moment into words, just how special it was for him as well as all of us," says Wenrich. "To share the locker room with him is an incredible thing, but for me to walk out there and give I think the biggest hug I've ever given anybody, I just think it was such a cool moment."

Conroy's next reward: a chance to appeal to the masses.

There had been some media interest in Conroy's Pride Night start beforehand, but it ballooned beyond just "some" afterward. That was partly due to how much his performance bolstered the story. Add in the Supreme Court's same-sex marriage ruling the very next day, and Conroy's story was folded into a larger conversation about LGBT rights.

"I remember the next day, I was just flooded with media requests," says Tim Livingston, whose many hats include the Stompers' play-by-play man and media coordinator. "And I was just sitting there on my couch that morning trying to go through them all before I went into the office. I was getting things from all across the country. A couple from overseas."

True to form, Conroy said through a team statement (via Outsports) before Pride Night that his focus was on "leading by example." He stayed on message after the game.

"It's something that I've wanted to do for the last few years," he said in an MLB Network interview, "playing through college ball [and] seeing it as an opportunity to really represent the cause and help young people in whatever way I can."

Photo credit: Danielle Putonen, courtesy of the Sonoma Stompers.

When Conroy was asked about his teammates' reactions, the question might as well have been prefaced with remarks from major leaguers—see Torii Hunter or Daniel Murphy—who've insinuated having an openly gay player in a clubhouse would be an issue.

Conroy isn't sure about that.

"I'd have to assume that, even though there are so many differences at this levelpace of play, the amount of money we makeI have to assume that the environment in the clubhouse is pretty much the same," he says. "You have so many different personalities, I think that if you do it in the right way that it would be completely acceptable in a major league clubhouse."

He might be right. Eno Sarris of FanGraphs collected quotes from a handful of major leaguers last June that paint an optimistic picture of MLB's readiness for its first openly gay player. Bob Nightengale of USA Today painted a similar picture this spring.

This is all theory for now. But thanks to an assist from Conroy himself, it could soon become reality.

David Denson, a 21-year-old slugger with the Single-A Wisconsin Rattlers in the Milwaukee Brewers organization, became the first openly gay player in affiliated ball when he went public last August. If he winds up being MLB's first openly gay player, one of the accomplishment's roots will be a conversation with the trailblazer.

"He wanted to know personally if the media was going to be a distraction. So I had to tell him how I dealt with the interviews," Conroy says of the talk he and Denson had last summer. "And he just wanted to make sure that I was being honest in my interviews, which I was. There was really nothing going on in the clubhouse. And he just wanted to make sure he was in the right place in his own life, so I talked him through that as well."

A year later, the experiences that backed up Conroy's advice to Denson are holding true.

The team itself isn't the same. Following an offseason in which he was named the Pacific Association's top relief pitcher and top defensive pitcher, Conroy was one of just a handful of 2015 Stompers to return for 2016. A largely different cast of teammates might have meant a less welcoming clubhouse.

Instead, it's been more of the same. Conroy didn't even feel the need to come out all over again. Some of the new guys already knew about him. Others found out as word permeated through the clubhouse. The general reaction: a shrug.

"I think it was more just gradually known," says Stompers catcher Mason Morioka, whose locker is next to Conroy's. "To me it's definitely not a big deal. He's my teammate. I'm going to treat him as a brother and definitely as an equal."

Sonoma Stompers @SonomaStompers

More good news for the Stompers as Sean Conroy is voted @PacAscBaseball best relief pitcher: https://t.co/ZHIxJ1tpiL https://t.co/zwsEt9cX48

The man himself hasn't changed either. Conroy can still kick anyone's ass at video games—Morioka says three guys against one Conroy in Super Smash Bros. is a surprisingly fair fight—and he still has the sense of humor that made a huge difference in keeping everyone loose in 2015. All told, what was an experiment last year has become status quo.

"I've heard absolutely not one whisper," says Fightmaster. "And Sean will even be the guy who's in the clubhouse during a meeting, and he'll make sort of a self-effacing joke about himself. It's taken well, and people laugh."

What has changed in 2016 is Conroy's role. He couldn't hang on to a starting role even after his Pride Night shutout last June. This year, he opened the season on May 31 as the team's No. 1 starter.

Conroy's first start didn't go so well, as he allowed 10 runs (nine earned) in 3.1 innings. But he's since pitched to a 4.09 ERA in 10 appearances, solid stuff in a league where the average ERA is 4.34. Mixed in is another dominant effort (eight innings, one run) on Pride Night on June 17. 

Conroy has now appeared in 33 total games as a professional. He's posted a 3.96 ERA in 118.1 innings, allowing 105 hits with an 88-to-36 strikeout-to-walk ratio. It's enough to justify Lindbergh and Miller's notion that he had the goods to get professional hitters out.

"He throws from two different arm angles, and he throws a couple different pitches—fastball, slider, changeup—from his down-under arm angle and then fastball and curveball from his top arm angle," says Morioka. "I think it's hard for hitters to pick up on a certain arm angle when he keeps changing it up."

Conroy's weapons and numbers eventually putting him in the major leagues is a long shot. Lindbergh believes Conroy could succeed in affiliated ball, but he's going to get his ticket only if a team believes he can one day rise to the majors.

"That's the thing that's going to hold him back," says Lindbergh. "If a team thinks, 'Well, he could pitch in A-ball, but he's not going to get to the big leagues, he's not going to get to Triple-A. Then why take up a roster spot with that guy?' That's gonna be the strike against him."

Still, you never know. 

Lindbergh and Miller thought enough of Conroy in 2015 to reach out to the Oakland A's, who sent a scout to see him. He also has the advantage of two things affiliated clubs don't usually get when scouting indy league players: PITCHf/x data and video. Lindbergh and Miller wrote in the Wall Street Journal about how these things helped get Santos Saldivar signed by the Brewers this year. For a soft thrower like Conroy, such things could be even more instrumental in attracting affiliated attention.

And in 2016, the signings of not only Saldivar but also the Pacifics' Max Beatty (Chicago White Sox) and the Admirals' Tim Holmes (New York Yankees) prove major league front offices have their eyes on the Pacific Association.

"The league definitely seems to be on the map now in a way that it wasn't even a year ago," says Lindbergh.

Conroy will have options if baseball doesn't work out. He finished at RPI over the winter, giving him a college degree to fall back on. And he doesn't necessarily need to be a player to find a gig in The Show. Bean, who is now MLB's first Ambassador for Inclusion, invited him to MLB's Diversity Business Summit at Chase Field in March, where he had what he called an "umbrella interview" with the Baltimore Orioles that covered different internships in their front office. That's not his first career choice, but he says he would "obviously jump at it" if an opportunity came along.

Otherwise, he could always try to make something of his gaming talent.

"You know what, I practice enough that I should," he says with a laugh. "I'm just trying to have fun with my life, and behind baseball, video games is the thing I enjoy the most."

But for now, there's still baseball to be played. 

Sonoma Stompers @SonomaStompers

Champions. https://t.co/jMGLl4qIjl

The Stompers have already expanded their inclusivity banner by signing and playing three women: two-way talents Kelsie Whitmore and Stacy Piagno and catcher Anna Kimbrell. They also earned a second straight first-half pennantTheir unfinished business now is winning the league championship. That's also Conroy's unfinished business, as he was on the mound when the Stompers fell short last August.

Even if Conroy's baseball career doesn't take him further up the ladder, his place in Cooperstown lore serves as a reminder that the door he opened will be hard to close. The example has been set. It's already helped Denson come forward. Perhaps there will soon be more, and then that will be that.

"I've always assumed it would take the next generation of players to have more openly gay guys in the clubhouse," he says. "Similar to what I did, where I was open throughout at least college and that's just who you are and how you're presenting yourself to the team."

You wouldn't need to travel far back in time to find a point when an influx of gay players in professional sports would have sounded like a fantasy. But the ripples of change are a start. And for the future, there's hope in the fact that it's not just the LGBT crowd that can learn from Conroy's example.

"I think people need to understand that regardless of what you are or who you are," says Wenrich, "you can still be an unbelievable athlete, and you can still perform on the field to where people take notice of your performance rather than whether you're gay or straight.

"I think the biggest takeaway from it is just don't judge the book by its cover. I think that's what makes the sports world so great." 


All quotes and information obtained firsthand except as noted. Stats courtesy of Pointstreak.

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