BILLY BEAN: Padres hero returns to San Diego for ‘Out at the Park’Around the City, Feature Story Thursday, March 28th, 2013
There are some very serious gay baseball fans out there who rank players by batting average and wins above replacement (WAR). The rest rank them by attraction and aspiration: who’s hot, who might be gay and who must be gay.
Most gay Padres fans in the early ’90s no doubt put boyishly handsome outfielder Billy Bean on the first two lists. Those who had him on the “must be gay” list share a unique status among baseball observers: they are sure they were right.
In 1999, a few years after retiring from the Padres, Bean came out of the closet in an interview with Dianne Sawyer, followed by his book Going the Other Way: Lessons from a Life in and out of Major League Baseball. 14 years later, he remains the only openly gay current or former Major League player.
In April, Bean is coming back to San Diego as a special guest for San Diego LGBT Pride’s Out at the Park, where he will be at the tailgate party and later on the field. It will be the first time Bean has been on a major league field since leaving baseball. I got the chance to chat with him about his visit, his life and the status of gays in professional sports.
San Diego LGBT Weekly: How did you choose to do Out at the Park?
Billy Bean: [LGBT Weekly publisher] Stampp Corbin called me … and said, “Do you want to do it this year?” I said, listen, whatever I can do to help the San Diego community. I’m excited about it, and I’m happy to sort of be there with life turning around instead of hiding like I was 20 years ago.
Is San Diego the city you played in that you connect with the most?
Absolutely. I have some fond memories of Detroit, but I think San Diego sticks out because I got to play the most and I felt like I believed in myself as a Major League baseball player, and unfortunately the loss of my partner.
When I look back and think about my career, I usually think of myself wearing a Padres uniform. I had some very close friends on that team, and have remained close to a few of them, so it is definitely the most special memories that I have.
I also had a couple of wonderful experiences when my book first came out, with turn out and support.
Can you talk about the day of your first home run?
I was at home … [a couple of guys on the team] wanted me to go out and have a few beers and celebrate. I lived in a place in Del Mar and my garage was on the basement level. When someone knocked on the door, I told my partner Sam, “You gotta go downstairs and get in the car,” and he sat in the garage for a couple of hours by himself. It was a stinging reminder of the way I looked at my own life, either lying or hiding something.
The story for me is that the happiest moment of my professional career turned into one of the worst days of my life, and in minutes. Unfortunately, I was posed a decision, and the one I made wasn’t kind. My partner understood, but I hurt his feelings and hurt my own feelings at the same time.
In a perfect world, or my world now, my partner and I would be sitting there, and if someone knocked on the door, we would have them come in. It would have been a great moment.
Was there backlash from players when you came out?
No, none at all, but that’s not really a fair assessment of what it would be like for a player who is still playing and walking out on the field.
I had been out of baseball for a couple of years, and I was kind of a good old guy when I played, and I was happy with the response of players. Definitely there were a few religious, like right wing, born again Christian kind of athletes who said they would not have been comfortable with me on the team; not because of me, but because I’m gay. They seemed to be in that mindset that if [someone is] gay, [they are] going to want to be with you just because you are the same sex. Dealing with that kind of antiquated mindset … there is nothing that any of us can do to change those people except live our lives the way we do. That part didn’t bother me.
The comments that I got from guys that made it to the big leagues that I played with in college, that knew me for years, and then my teammates, it was 100 percent [positive] across the board.
The guys who said they wouldn’t have been comfortable with me … I had never played on the same team as any of those guys, so it was really kind of a theoretical question about a gay teammate, not Billy Bean as your teammate.
What about the fans?
The aggressive nature of fans, that’s part of baseball, regardless of what your sexuality is. The fans rag on players. In San Francisco, they have great fans, they rip on players there, and in New York City, San Diego, wherever. Dodger stadium has become a very difficult place for visiting players to play.
Do events like Out at the Park help teams make space for openly gay players?
I think if there is a gay person in the dugout on either one of the teams that night, they are going to see someone like me and see that I played. If I had seen that, I wouldn’t have quit. I would have been like, “OK, someone else is going through what I [am] dealing with, and I can still make it.” My biggest regret in my life is feeling that I didn’t belong out there after 10 years.
I think when fans see the team embracing a group of people that are just as much a part of their fan base as any other group, it lets the air out and it makes people a little bit closer. I think that part is what makes me feel like it is worthwhile to come down here. San Diego people can put a face to baseball and a bridge between the two worlds, and I think only good things can come from it.
Will we see you in San Diego again soon?
I love San Diego very much … it is somewhere that I would entertain living for sure.
Actually, I was out in Palm Springs two weekends ago for the Indian Wells tennis tournament. I love tennis, and about 10 guys came up who are tennis players in the gay community from San Diego playing in the tournament. I got to meet a lot of guys, and I know a couple of guys that run the gay tennis summer tournament down in San Diego, and the guys were great and it was fun. I think I might even consider playing in the tournament this summer, which would be fun, and a homecoming of sorts.
When someone comes out in baseball, will it be a great college player who is out, someone already on a team, or will it have to be a superstar?
I have always thought of it as a player who is already there, and given the sort of interested nature we all have, [probably from] somebody wanting to out people. I would love for it to be a superstar of some magnitude, to make that decision on their own, to be able to play comfortably. I hope it is a positive environment and experience for people. For a player on a day to day basis, if you ask any player, [coming out] is a lot. It’s going to be a heavy weight to carry for a while. So he’s gonna need a lot of support.
There were recent reports of NFL teams asking draft prospects about their sexuality. Do you think baseball works subtly, or overtly, to keep people in the closet?
The secret, I think, is that most teams would still prefer not to deal with it, but nobody is going to come out and say it. We’re sort of evolving in the right direction, which sounds odd … where we are “If you can play, you can play”, and with the athlete allies, we’re seeing progress toward inclusion.
I think it’s still a little nervous for teams to deal with because it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe the third or fourth experience is going to be nothing. The first one is going to be interesting because nobody can see how it will play out.
I played almost 11 years, and nobody knew I was gay because I was a baseball player and I wasn’t going to do anything to compromise that part of my life. It’s very hard to get to the big leagues. Anyone who makes it to the top of their world, in whatever profession, I don’t think they put their sexuality in front of their passion. That’s why I think most athletes are still afraid to do it. It’s just a big question mark.
When you were playing, how did you meet guys? Did you go out in Hillcrest?
No, I was married early in my career to a girl I went to college with, and I met my partner Sam in a gym in the off season.
My name was really easy to remember, and we did a lot of public service announcements for the Padres, and appearances, and charity stuff. I thought I could never go to a bar because someone would see me or might find out. [Also] in those days, when you were an athlete, you didn’t go out drinking. I was as fit as possible, and a night out for me was one margarita with Mexican food. Now, I enjoy more than anything going out and being around lots of people and sharing things, but at the time I didn’t know what I was missing out on.
Assuming that there are some gay players, do you think that the media looks the other way? Should they do more or less than they do?
I think any writer would love to be the first to find out [that a player is gay]. I just think guys are very, very careful now. If they wanted people to know, it would happen. If they don’t, [they] just find ways not to put [themselves] in those situations. I never talked about gay stuff … if I saw the Oprah Winfrey show on in the trainer’s room and she was talking about gay things, I walked out of there.
I know that people don’t understand the pressure for an athlete if he’s single and he doesn’t have a girlfriend … and doesn’t like to go to strip bars or whatever players do. People are going to talk. So you cover it up. I know I did. I was ashamed of it.
I don’t think there’s the meanness, like in Hollywood, where they want to out actors who pretend that they’re straight because they want to stay famous. When I was playing, I felt like most of [the writers] wanted to stick to baseball. The superstars who had troubles, like Darryl Strawberry, who I played with on the Dodgers, they obviously did write about that. Each situation is unique.
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