By Connie Wardman

As Major League Baseball (MLB) celebrated Jackie Robinson Day on April 15, the 68th anniversary of the iconic No. 42 Brooklyn Dodger taking Ebbets Field and breaking the color barrier in professional sports, MBL has another historic first to celebrate. This year marks the first time its recently-appointed inclusion ambassador, Billy Bean – former major league player and now openly gay man – spent the five-weeks of spring training flying between Arizona and Florida, working to change the culture of baseball from one of homophobia to one of acceptance and inclusion.

He’s only visited the teams that have invited him, the Mets, Tigers, Phillies, Yankees, Cardinals, Red Sox, A’s, Reds, Astros and Angels to name a few. But with 30 major league teams, over 200 minor league teams, league administrators and coaches with MLB’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program, Bean has his work cut out for him. Understanding that changing a culture doesn’t happen overnight, his approach isn’t based on immediate change – Bean is in it for the long haul.

Billy Bean’s love for the game he played professionally from 1987 to 1995 has never changed, never lessened in intensity. But he had to play as a closeted gay man since being openly gay at that time would have undoubtedly ruined his career; adding to that was the fact that he hadn’t yet come out to his family. And when his partner died of HIV-related causes, he felt he couldn’t let people know he was gay.

In shock, he abruptly retired from the game and moved to Florida so he could privately grieve the loss of the man he loved and come to terms with his own identity. Then in 1999 Bean finally came out to Dianne Sawyer in a TV interview and followed it up with his book, “Going the Other Way: Lessons From a Life In and Out of Major League Baseball.”

When I first interviewed him in 2013, Bean had recently moved to West Hollywood and was selling real estate in the Beverly Hills area. He also had been asked to be a special guest for San Diego LGBT Pride’s Out at the Park event at a Padres game, something that thrilled him. He said, “I keep thinking that if there is a gay player in either one of the dugouts that night, and if they see me, how it might affect them? If I had seen a former player walk on a major league field who was openly gay while I was playing, I know that I would’ve never quit.”

Of all the teams he’d played on and places he’d played, Bean really loved both the team and the area, saying it was where he felt most at home. After the event he posted the following on his Facebook page: “I couldn’t help but wish I had been strong enough to reach out to this community when I was on the team. … I would have never quit playing for the team and city I love so much. Thank you for allowing me to share such a wonderful day with all of you.”

Around the same time a similar idea was brewing in the mind of MLB’s Paul Mifsud, a labor relations attorney who had just read Bean’s book. Earlier in 2013 the New York attorney general’s office had requested a meeting with all New York-based sports leagues to discuss how to handle LGBT inclusion. MLB decided it was time to make “meaningful steps” toward inclusion of its LGBT players and employees so Mifsud invited Bean to visit MLB’s New York headquarters to “give his opinions on some things.” Bean had hardly gotten back to Los Angeles from the meeting when Mifsud called and asked if he’d consider working with the league.

While the job of inclusion ambassador is new, the truth is that Bean has always been an advocate for positive social change. Seeing this as a full-circle moment, Bean understands that as the only openly gay man who has played professional baseball, he’s the one who can bridge both worlds. Understanding the world of baseball and all the pressures involved, he’s the one who can start a conversation about what it means to be a gay man playing baseball. Bean feels a huge responsibility to the players to show them “a constant, relatable image” of a gay man, realizing that for some, this may the first conversation they’ve knowingly had with a gay person.

Far from trying to influence closeted players to come out as some have speculated, Bean’s real goal is to create a culture of acceptance. Noting that “it’s still uncomfortable for players to want to talk about this,” Bean isn’t surprised that they aren’t asking many questions in a group format. But he went on to say that “players and off-field personnel are reaching out individually. They have to know,” he said, “that acceptance is part of the job of playing in the big leagues,” they have to understand what it means when they put on a big league uniform that there is a workplace code of conduct.

He also wants them to understand the importance of straight allies, particularly to LGBT youth trying to find sports heroes who aren’t homophobic but instead are accepting of everyone who loves baseball. With MLB’s already-proud heritage of Jackie Robinson, Bean wants players to take this new opportunity to step up to the plate and become great leaders.

Having heard all the hateful, derogatory and marginalizing remarks about gays while he was playing, Bean says “players have to know that’s not OK. It’s no different than it was with women in media and women trainers.” But he also wants players to know that he’s protective of them. He’s hoping to open minds so that strong, healthy, supportive relationships without regard to sexual orientation become the rule so the best person to do the job is the one who is chosen, saying “we’ve got to take away the stigma.”

Not everyone agrees with Bean, such as Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy who said as a devout Christian he thought he could accept an openly gay teammate but couldn’t agree with Bean’s homosexual lifestyle, saying, “We love the people. We disagree with the lifestyle.” In spite of criticism of Murphy’s remarks from others, Bean’s reaction on his blog was to appreciate that “Daniel spoke his truth. He was brave to share his feelings,” he said, “and it made me want to work harder and be a better example that someday might allow him to view things from my perspective, if only for just a moment.”

While Bean has been speaking to various people within the league since his appointment, spring training is really just the early stage of his work with teams and players one-on-one. Through their common passion for baseball, Bean’s goal is to bring the MLB and LGBT communities together in a supportive, mutually respectful way.

Fortunately for us all, Bean understands the old proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. He asks players to think about the influence they have on the kids who look up to them as heroes – “Are we raising bullies, or are we raising leaders?” Both profound and provocative, Bean’s question is one for all sports organizations to ponder. Once again the leader after 68 years, thanks go not only to MLB and what Bean calls the “great visionaries” in the commissioner’s office but also to Bean, himself for taking this important new step forward in the sports diversity movement.

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