STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Baseball's Major Leagues want to bring America's pastime into the present - not that the game will change that much. Chicago's Wrigley Field is under renovation, but it's still Wrigley Field. New rules are meant to make the game move faster, but it is still that timeless game with no clock. Baseball also faces pressure for a deeper change - making those in the LGBT community feel more welcome. David Greene has more.
DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Big-league baseball has never had an openly gay player. A couple of players did come out after leaving the game, and that includes Billy Bean - not to be confused with the Billy Beane from the movie "Moneyball." This Billy Bean retired in 1995, came out in 1999. And now Bean has returned to Major League Baseball as the ambassador for inclusion. He spent the last few months shuttling around to different teams during spring training. We recently spoke to Billy Bean about his new role leading LGBT outreach. We also discussed his time as a player for teams like the Dodgers, the Tigers and the Padres and why he kept his sexuality completely hidden from his teammates.
BILLY BEAN: You need to have a mutual respect with your teammates in order to succeed. And I guess for me, the greatest fear - much like it was for me to look into my father's eyes and the thought of having that conversation, the thought of changing the dynamic with my teammates was paralyzing.
GREENE: And the end of your playing career - I mean, it's the mid-1990s. I know it was a really painful time. Tell me exactly what happened.
BEAN: Well, I was starting my third year with the San Diego Padres. And my partner, Sam - we came to find out that he was HIV positive. And he became extremely ill. And he died about two months after we found out - died the night before the season started in 1995. And I realized when I was about to leave the hospital at 7 a.m., there wasn't one person in the world that I could tell that my partner had just died. And I had a game at 1 p.m. that next day. And I just went home, showered up and went to the park and played and...
GREENE: You went and played that game, holding all of that in, you know, out on the field with these teammates who you're very close to but could not speak about, I mean, the pain you were feeling at all.
BEAN: Right. So when the season ended, I just sort of collapsed emotionally. I just was - I was lonely. I was sad. And I've learned just from my return to baseball that people in my own organization - my former manager, my former teammates - they all were like, you should have said something to us. Everyone deserves a fair chance. And I just didn't believe that 'cause I was so messed up about being gay and what I thought people would think about me.
GREENE: Are there a lot of closeted players in the league who you are talking to? Do they come to you and talk about life?
BEAN: Athletes that are closeted are secretive from everyone.
GREENE: So there's no way to know, you know, how many closeted baseball players there are. And it is your job, I mean, to sort of open the door for players to feel comfortable and come out. And then we'll learn about, you know, what the challenges might be.
BEAN: Absolutely. I mean, let's look at the situation with the military - don't ask don't tell. There's no way to know how many LGBT people were in the military because they had a job to do, and there was a fear that that job would be taken away from them. And now that we see that that has been eliminated, you're seeing more and more people feeling the security and safety to come forward.
You know, baseball is a little less serious than war. But I'm interested in making sure when those people are ready, whether they work for a front office, or they work at a stadium, or they aspire to be a general manager or own a team someday or president of a team - that they are in a workplace that mandates fairness and equity so they can be judged solely by their talent, which is what every baseball player or football player, basketball player's always going to be judged by.
GREENE: One reaction that you got was not exactly like that. And I want to ask you about Daniel Murphy, who plays for the New York Mets. When you were doing some visiting with that team, he made some comments. He said that because of his Christian beliefs, he disagrees with your lifestyle, as he put it. How did you react to that?
BEAN: Right. Well, I came to the to the defense of Daniel Murphy after I heard those comments. I was there for two days. He treated me with absolute respect.
GREENE: You said essentially you share baseball and that that's at least a positive thing.
BEAN: Yeah. And part of my job as a - you know, to create this culture of acceptance is to defend his right to believe what he believes. And I feel like the nature of our one or two days together - he got to know a little bit more about someone like me. And I'm sure he doesn't have a lot of gay and lesbian friends in his life. But I know for sure it was the first time he ever met a gay man who played in the Major Leagues - a person at least admitted that he was gay. So I think we need to give the Daniel Murphys of the world a little bit of a break.
GREENE: You're saying it was important that he was honest and expressed these feelings.
BEAN: Absolutely. There's nothing worse for me - the thought of walking into the clubhouse and everybody trying to be politically correct and just saying the right thing and checking this off the list. I want some real movement in a way that we're getting to know each other. And you can't blame baseball players or baseball for not having addressed this prior because they've never had a player come out while they were on the field.
GREENE: Does it ever worry you that baseball might be seeing you and putting you in this job as flipping a switch and saying, OK, we've got Billy Bean working on this issue. We're doing what we need to do. That'll just sort itself out.
BEAN: I don't think I would have taken the position if that way. I have always known that in some way or another, even without returning to the sport, I was an ambassador for baseball until there is another two or three or 10 or a hundred guys that are like me, that may have played. And they see that the world doesn't stop spinning when a gay man walks through the clubhouse.
GREENE: That moment when an openly gay man walks through the clubhouse - you're saying that that in itself is very powerful.
BEAN: It was amazing for me just to be my true, whole self and walk in there and, you know, with the Mets and the Tigers and the Phillies. They asked me to suit up and go on the field and throw BP and shag fly balls. It was galvanizing because...
GREENE: That's batting practice, I guess, for people who don't know baseball.
BEAN: (Laughter) Yes it is. And it's the most wonderful part of baseball - the sound, the players all happy and running around and getting ready to play and the stands filling up and just the sound of the game. And it felt like I, you know, took a huge, huge weight off of my back. And I know whether someone says thank you or not, that some of these players can see it's getting better. And some day, it's going to be fine for me to be my whole self.
GREENE: Billy Bean, thanks so much for spending some time with us. We appreciate it.
BEAN: I appreciate the chance to talk about it, David - very much.
INSKEEP: Billy Bean is Major League Baseball's ambassador for inclusion, including the league's LGBT outreach efforts. He spoke with our own David Greene on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.