Monday was a milestone date in professional sports history, as NBA player Jason Collins became the first active athlete in a major American team sport to reveal that he is gay. His announcement, which came via an exclusive in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated, reverberated throughout not only basketball but other sports as well. Within hours, many baseball players — including big-name stars — and organizations came forward to voice their support of Collins and to embrace the prospect of playing with a gay teammate.
That's important, because while the day when baseball has its first openly gay player has yet to arrive, it is surely coming. Maybe not in the spring of 2013, maybe not in 2013 at all, but soon. Baseball won't be the leader in this particular social change in the quite same manner as it was when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. Even so, there's little doubt that whoever's first in the sport that occupies the longest stretch of the calendar — eight and a half months a year from pitchers and catchers reporting in mid-February to the final out of the World Series in the last week of October — will be under intense scrutiny, and will need to muster a significant reserve of courage if he chooses to go that route.
That person, and those who follow in his footsteps, may encounter some ugly reactions and closed-minded people along the way. So when stars such as CC Sabathia, David Wright and Ryan Braun, or well-respected veterans such as LaTroy Hawkins and Jerry Blevins speak up, they makes it known that teammates will have those players' backs, that they won't bear the burden of being out in the majors alone. When managers such as Don Mattingly, Bob Melvin and Joe Girardi voice their support, they demonstrate an understanding of the unique sensitivity that will be required when such a player comes along — and they do so with the weight of their respective organizations behind them.
Via Twitter, the reactions to Collins' news came rolling in on Monday afternoon. Among the most heartening ones came via the official feed of the Red Sox (Collins played for the Boston Celtics for part of the 2012-2013 season): "We salute you,
@jasoncollins34 for your courage and leadership. Any time you want to throw out a first pitch at Fenway Park, let us know."
MLB's official feed acknowledged Collins' announcement as well, passing along positive responses from Braun, Wright and Hawkins. The MLB Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities feed chimed in with support as well.
Collins was a hot topic in many clubhouses around the majors. In Oakland, Melvin and Blevins both emphasized that the diversity of the A's organization made it a hospitable place for such a player to come forward. Melvin told the San Francisco Chronicle's Susan Slusser, "A person is a person to me… If you’re a good person and a good baseball player, you’re welcome here. We welcome all kinds here and embrace that as an organization." Said Blevins, the team's player representative in the union, on the prospect of a player coming out, "I think baseball would be a lot more receptive than people think… Especially on this team – we’re very inclusive. We’ve got pretty much every kind of person in here. It’s great."
In Los Angeles, Mattingly invoked the example of Robinson. Prior to Monday's Dodgers game, he told Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register that Collins' announcement was "a little bit of a Jackie Robinson thing to me" because he is "crossing some barriers." On how his players might react to a gay player, he said, "I would think a lot like Jackie [Robinson] he would be making it easier for anyone else who wants to step forward."
In New York, Girardi told LoHud's Brian Heyman, "No matter what it is in our world, any time it happens for the first time, it’s a little bit of a shock. But I believe baseball would handle it well… as far as me personally, he’s a player; he’s a man. My job is to be his friend and love him. And if I was his manager, it’s to get the most out of him. I always felt as a player, it was to be the best teammate that I could be. And that’s the bottom line."
Several members of the Indians were particularly vocal, with Vinnie Pestano and Nick Swisher among the first MLBers to chime in via Twitter. Elder statesman and future managerial hopeful Jason Giambi was the most articulate, telling MLB.com's Jordan Bastian:
"I applaud [Collins]… That's probably been weighing on his soul for a long time. I'm happy that he's happy, because life's tough enough. If that's what makes him happy, I'm excited for it. I definitely think times have changed, there's no doubt. There's a place for a gay baseball player, or an alternative lifestyle, however you want to put it. There's room.
"I know this is a good ol' boy's game, but it's definitely changed. Society has changed. People have opened themselves up more to it."
Said Pestano, "If I had a gay teammate, the only thing I'd worry about is can he hit, if he's a position player. Or does he get outs, if he's a pitcher. That's the only thing that matters to me. What somebody does in their own personal life is their business."
"Obviously it’s a different sport, (but) if you can play the game I don’t care about the color of your skin, sexual orientation, religion… If you can play the game, come on in. you’re welcome. All that matters to me is you go out there and you can compete."
…"Hopefully this allows individuals to express themselves. I don’t pass any judgment on anyone expect for when you play come out here, play on a team and play winning baseball. If you can do that, a teammate is a teammate.”
In the Mets' SNY broadcast booth, hosts Gary Cohen and Keith Hernandez (a former major league first baseman) and field reporter Kevin Burkhardt spent more than five minutes during Monday night's game discussing Collins' announcement and their own conversations with some of the Mets players, including Dillon Gee, Robert Carson and Ike Davis. The latter two were particularly grateful to Collins, telling Burkhardt that they had gay family members.
(I taped the audio of the SNY booth conversation and uploaded it here).
The Mets' crew mentioned the late Glenn Burke, an outfielder for the Dodgers and A's from 1976-1979 who roomed with current Mets manager Terry Collins in the minor leagues. Burke, who's remembered as the inventor of the High Five, was known to be gay by teammates and by management in part because he was close friends with Tommy Lasorda Jr., who was also gay. Burke's sexuality didn't become public knowledge until after his playing days came to a premature end, as he was driven from the game. Sadly, he died of AIDS in 1995.
Fortunately, baseball and the rest of American society have come a long, long ways since the days of Burke. Any player who comes out will have a much greater support network available to him, and will make it that much easier for the next player to do so, again and again and again until the presence of gay players in the major professional team sports will be no bigger a deal than elsewhere in society. Professional athletes may be well compensated, but performing at the highest level is difficult enough as it is. Someday soon, such players will be able to shed the additional burden of concealing their true selves from their teammates and fans as they cope with the pressure of keeping their jobs. When that day arrives, it won't mean an end to homophobia in or outside of professional sports, any more than the integration of every major league team meant that racism was banished to the dustbin of history. But it will be a huge step in the right direction, one that owes a significant debt to Jason Collins and the courageous athletes who will follow in his footsteps.