Billy Bean kept a painful secret when he played in the Majors, but now he's trying to help baseball -- and the whole world -- take a step forward
By Jon Schwartz
Yankees Magazine |
Standing before a large group of Yankees Minor Leaguers, Billy Bean delivers his version of the Golden Rule: "If you are to wear the jersey, there's a responsibility that goes with that. Understanding what you say and what you do is going to matter more than before you wore the jersey."
It's almost too simple, in a way that might, in the hands of lesser orator, betray the words' weight. Is it hard to keep listeners' attention when you're projecting a message they've literally been hearing since kindergarten or before? But Billy Bean has played, and therefore, he has standing in this room -- and most others, as well.
Bean's shared past unites him with his audience, but it's what makes him different that has brought him to this stop on his journey. As one of just two players to have played in the Major Leagues and then publicly come out as gay, Bean, not to be confused with the Billy Beane of Moneyball fame, now goes around the baseball world spreading the message of diversity and acceptance as part of his role as Major League Baseball's vice president of social responsibility and inclusion.
This past spring, as he circled the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues, Bean covered a long and not-particularly-well-trodden road. He is a lonely traveler, traversing territory long thought off-limits for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. But as messengers go, Billy Bean comes bearing credentials. And people are listening, no matter how simple the lesson.
Baseball, which famously desegregated seven years before Brown v. Board of Education, has been known to cut a sharp figure on many social issues, but these are still alpha male athletes playing competitive sports in sheltered cultures that don't always evolve at everyone's preferred rate.
"Every single athlete who has ever competed in any sport is conditioned to hear homophobic dialogue," Bean said. "That's just the way. And it's going to take a while to change that. Just like it took a while to change the way we talk about guys racially. It didn't happen in a year. It wasn't done in 1948."
But Commissioner Rob Manfred is unwilling to let the game's successes carpet over its shortcomings.
"I think sometimes people are too inclined to say, 'Sports is different; we have to tolerate it,'" Manfred said. "I don't believe that. I think we have a very good sense of what an appropriate environment is for our sport, and quite frankly, I think it is shared among all the major constituencies of the game."
So Bean faces the Yankees' Minor Leaguers -- a group featuring top prospects such as Aaron Judge and Jorge Mateo, as well as players who may never come close to reaching the Majors. Baseball, he tells the group, has a zero-tolerance policy that covers all kinds of discrimination, including race, color, religion, national origin, gender or sexual orientation. To drive home the message, he keys on negative examples from the sports world, highlighting anti-gay slurs from NBA star Rajon Rondo and boxer Manny Pacquiao, among others. He talks emotionally and practically of the repercussions they faced, punishment inflicted on their reputations -- and their wallets.
Since he took the job with MLB two years ago, after nearly two decades away from the game, Bean has spent most of his time serving as the elephant in a variety of different rooms. His goal isn't to reach those in the crowd who are not yet open about their sexuality, to use his example to coax them to speak up. Rather, he's trying to promote an environment that makes everyone feel included, whether players, coaches, employees or fans.
Like so much else in the Minor Leagues, the session is intended to be part of a larger education.
"We try to do everything we can to put them in a position to have success," said Gary Denbo, the Yankees' vice president of player development, who runs the club's Minor League operation. "That includes feeding them the right foods, trying to create a great workplace environment here where they come out every day and they've got everything they need to be able to go out and have success. And part of that is what happens off the field. The lessons learned in baseball are great life lessons. We hope they're taking all these things that they've learned throughout their baseball careers, and it makes them better people."
What Could Have Been
It's no small thing for Bean to be playing the role he is now. Over a six-year Major League career spent mostly in emotional hiding, the last place he ever expected life to take him was on a pioneering mission of this kind.
A fourth-round pick by Detroit out of Loyola Marymount University, Bean wasn't able to hold down a full-time Big League job, topping out at 192 plate appearances with San Diego in 1993. But he was a useful guy to have around -- smart, personable, with good baseball instincts. He could have had a long life in the game.
But the secret that he was keeping consumed him. He tried to keep up appearances by acting the ladies' man and was even married for three years before he secretly began a serious relationship with a man. Then on the day before the 1995 season opened, his partner, Sam -- whom Bean had kept hidden from all of his teammates to the point of refusing to let Sam stay at the home they shared when he would be on the road, lest anyone get suspicious -- passed away suddenly from HIV-related causes. Soon after returning home from the hospital, Bean had to drive to Anaheim Stadium for the Padres' final exhibition game, after which he was told he was being sent down to Triple-A. It was too much to handle, and what made it worse was that he felt he couldn't even tell anyone what he was going through.
Bean stuck around the sport for that last year, playing four games for the big club, then quit before the next season started. He was just 31.
"A lot of times, people ask, 'If you could go back, would you have come out?'" Bean said. "I say, 'If I went back as the same person, I wouldn't.' Because I wasn't healthy. I didn't have anybody in my life that could help me look at myself in a positive way. It wasn't until I stopped lying that I met those people, and I started to get more and more comfortable. But that took time, too."
Looking back, the unanswerable questions are the ones that pain Bean most. He recognizes that he, himself, might have broken the pact of the clubhouse. By spending so much time worrying about whether his teammates would accept him, wasn't he taking away their own agency on the matter? Players such as Brad Ausmus, Trevor Hoffman and Archi Cianfrocco were more than teammates; they were great friends. Why didn't he give them the chance to accept him?
"I have had that conversation with myself many times," Bean said. "Everything would have changed. I beat myself up over it for a long time. I feel like I underestimated my value as a player so much. I was blind, literally, and coming back, I think one of the rewards was to hear players like Ausmus, Harold Reynolds or Mark Grace talking about me as a player.
"I think I just had this darkness over me. I had no value as a human being, let alone as a player. I was so mired in it all. I broke a marriage up. My wife was devastated. It was devastating for me. I felt guilty about it every day. And then I confided all of my love and energy toward a person, and then he died, and then I felt completely alone. The degree of depression, I don't even know what level I must have been in. To not talk to anyone, to not show up at Spring Training, I look back and I think, 'That can't happen to anyone else.'
"And it took 15 years for baseball to even remember me! I had moved on. And it made me sad all the time, and I think that's why, as soon as the guys that I played with stopped playing, it was easy to disconnect from baseball. It just hurt too much. And I was mad at myself. It was never like, 'Baseball owes me,' or anything. It was just that I should have trusted people. I did develop relationships. And that's the core of my belief, why I know that I'm the right guy at this time to at least be an image. If I walk through a clubhouse, if there's one player in there on one of the teams during the season, and they're like, 'Man, I can relate to that guy. He looks like he could be a general manager, or he could be a manager.' If he respects me just for that, then I feel like not only did baseball pick the right guy, but it allows me to believe that my whole [damn] life was not thrown away."
When he left the game, Bean was actually mostly content. He began to live his life openly in Miami, getting involved in the South Beach restaurant scene. When he came out publicly, the second former Big Leaguer to do so (after Glenn Burke, who played for the Dodgers and A's in the 1970s and passed away in 1995), it made national news. But he didn't realize the role he had to play until shortly after, when he sat on a panel next to Judy Shepard, whose son Matthew's brutal murder in 1998 changed the course of hate-crime legislation in America.
"She's looking at me," Bean recalled, "and she said, 'Billy, you have a chance to change the dialogue. To change the way people act. And, hopefully, no other parent will ever experience what I have been going through.' This was literally 10 months after Matthew had died.
"I could barely contain myself. I don't know if I was overcome by shame, or caught up in the emotion, or feeling so badly, or living my truths of Sam dying and not going to his funeral, just pretending that relationship didn't exist. I thought, 'Here's this kid who was 115 pounds, 20 years old, and he had the [courage] to be his best self, to walk through the halls out and open in Laramie, Wyo. And I'm a Big League guy who was a coward, lying about everything. Trying to please people. Who's the hero? Who's brave?'
"In that moment, I just said, 'Tell me what you want me to do.'"
Best Foot Forward
During his session with the Yankees' Minor Leaguers, which came a year after he met with the club's Major League players, Bean was particularly gratified by two faces in the crowd: Brian Cashman and Jean Afterman. Having the Yankees' general manager and his top deputy in the room helped add heft to Bean's message. Cashman addressed the group after Bean, driving home that all members of the organization would be held to a high standard; there would be no exceptions.
"When you come here and suit up and put the Yankees uniform on," Cashman said, "we're going to demand that you create an environment of inclusion, one where people feel comfortable while they're here working."
Ever since MLB reached out to Bean in 2014 and asked him to come aboard as the league's first ambassador of inclusion, he has marveled at the ways that Cashman and the club's front office have embraced the push. The first time Bean attended MLB's general managers meetings, Cashman formally introduced him to the group. And Cashman and Afterman have joined Bean's efforts around New York, including a visit to the Harvey Milk High School at the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a fully accredited New York City public school that serves predominantly LGBT high school students, many of whom have been kicked out of their houses. The Yankees executives spoke to the students, passed around their World Series rings, and left them with plenty of Yankees hats and shirts, a small but meaningful gesture to help bridge what has historically been an uneasy relationship between athletes and LGBT youth.
For Cashman, the issue is really academic. Sure, there are business and PR benefits to reaching out to all underrepresented groups, but it goes beyond that.
"I want the Yankees to be better," he said. "I 100 percent believe in what Billy is providing. He's truly trying to help society progress. Obviously, the Commissioner's initiatives aside, it's just the right thing."
On the Road to Change
Bean's spring was anything but a break. He estimates that he spent about 25 straight days on the road -- from March 20-25 alone, he met with three different teams and spent time talking with students at the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida. If highway miles were currency, Bean would be Mark Zuckerberg.
"My staff is Billy Bean and a rental car," he joked.
It's a long month, and lonely, but nothing like what Bean experienced when he was in hiding. Most of the time, the work is extremely gratifying. David Denson, a young prospect in the low levels of the Brewers' organization, leaned on Bean for help before he publicly came out last year. And while examples from other sports, such as Michael Sam or Jason Collins, show that society is moving forward, it's still a long road.
So Bean focuses on the less visible victories. Within the next 10 years, he'd like to see 100 employees from the LGBT community among the thousands of staffers under baseball's umbrella. And he makes a point to take his message outside the clubhouses, whether to diversity summits, anti-bullying initiatives or other groups.
Bean knows that he can't get back the years when his mental torment kept him from living up to his potential -- "I can't change what's going on on the field; my days are done with that" -- so he moves down the road. Baseball has been at the fore of social progress before, and he's proud to be a part of continuing that legacy. It could be a coach watching his tongue in ways he never considered before, it could be teams directing marketing dollars toward LGBT causes, or it could be a star player publicly professing that he is gay. Whatever the progress looks like, the baseball establishment is behind the effort.
"I am confident that we are in a place where it can change," Manfred said. "And I'm really optimistic about the fact that it is changing as we speak."
Jon Schwartz is the managing editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the May issue of Yankees Magazine. Get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at yankees.com/publications.