Taking One for the Team

As baseball season kicks off, gays are left wondering, where’s our #42?

While the pace of a baseball game may be too sluggish for some, the sport—as a reflection of American culture—has progressed steadily, remaining if not ahead of the social curve then certainly in line with the times. 

Babe Ruth served as the poster child for the conspicuous consumption of the 1920s, and Ted Williams, by giving up his prime years to enlist in the war effort, embodied the type of sacrifice that many Americans were willing to make in the 1940s. Sometimes the National Pastime has been socially brazen and downright progressive, like when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, years before the Warren Court desegregated schools “with all deliberate speed.” And international ballplayers have long found a friendly home in the States even as our immigration policy remains as much of a Cold War relic as Vladimir Putin. So with progress a part of the DNA of MLB, it is befuddling that the boys of summer are poised to become the last men standing in the closet.

With public opinion of the LGBT community riding high, each theory put forth to justify baseball’s great gay rain delay rips as hollow as Alex Rodriguez’s hopes for the Hall of Fame.

The money? Some players may fear the repercussions of Madison Avenue more than those of Main Street, but with an average baseball salary of $3.39 million, this excuse is getting stale.

The Locker Room? Sure, the culture of the clubhouse will undergo a few adjustments, but given what we’ve learned from the NFL bullying fiasco, that may not be such a bad thing.

The Distraction? The perceived ill effect of being “that guy”—the one whose sexual revelation detracts from the team’s mission—has precipitously faded in the past year. Robbie Rodgers shook up the soccer world by coming out in his blog, and soccer is no less boring since his revelation. Jason Collins has spent more time graciously handling questions from the press about the basketball court than he has the locker room. Michael Sam will soon find his sexual orientation does little to detract from his placement in the NFL draft or his prowess on the field. Still, there is no gay player standing in the on-deck circle, and the absence is conspicuous.

Ironically, Major League Baseball is perhaps the best situated of all major league sports to handle the attention—and to ease the assimilation—of a gay ballplayer, and the league is covering its bases to prepare for the inevitable. More than half of major league baseball teams—even the Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves, and including L.A.’s own Dodgers—host annual LGBT nights for fans. Last summer, the league issued a new code of conduct that strengthened its stance against discrimination by including provisions on sexual orientation. Last fall, MLB honored GLAAD’s Spirit Day by turning all teams’ Twitter avatars the requisite purple for the day. And just last month, Justin Verlander and David Ortiz vocally supported a prospective gay teammate with a Seinfeldian “not that there’s anything wrong with that” nonchalance. Perhaps these players understand that only baseball—with its Norman Rockwell imagery and deep hold on the American psyche—can unequivocally banish the stigma of a gay player. Or maybe they are just keeping up with the times.  Either way, baseball is ready for an openly gay man to waltz up to the plate.

It has been 11 years since Richard Greenberg’s play Take Me Out—the story of a popular baseball player who comes out of the closet—bowed on Broadway. Mason Marzac, the player’s accountant memorably portrayed by Denis O’Hare, ultimately comes to recognize the transcendent power of the sport when he opines, "Baseball is better than democracy—or at least democracy as it’s practiced in this country—because unlike democracy, baseball acknowledges loss and that the seemingly pointless, time-wasting home run trot is a vital ritual that honors our desire to show respect for one another. For what we can be.” And we can be better than this. 

It is time for one brave gay man to put an end to this game of ‘hide and seek’ in the MLB. Come out, come out, whomever you are. If history is any indication, your teammates will be waiting for you with a high five—or maybe a pat on the ass.