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Moment #7: Major Leaguer Billy Bean comes out, still regrets retiring early

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MARCH, 1994: Billy Bean #21 of the San Diego Padres poses for a portrait in March, 1994 in San Diego, California.
MARCH, 1994: Billy Bean #21 of the San Diego Padres poses for a portrait in March, 1994 in San Diego, California.
B Bennett/Getty Image

Part of Outsports’ series on our 100 most important moments in gay sports history.

Baseball, 1999: A restaurant review in the Miami Herald changed Billy Bean's life. The article, in an oh-by-the-way fashion, mentioned that Bean and his partner in the restaurant were also partners in life. The item caught the attention of the New York Times, which then did a front page article on Bean, making him a national story and spawning numerous TV and speaking appearances.

Twelve years later, Bean still has regrets about how his Major League Baseball career ended after six seasons in 1995. He says that while he loves baseball, he has a hard time watching it without thinking back on his career. I spoke with him for this story and he reflected about how his fears about being outed led him to prematurely retire.

If I had only told my parents, I probably would have played two or three more years and understood that I could come out a step at a time, not have to do it in front of a microphone. And I was completely misguided. I had no mentor. I think that's where the responsibility comes in for people who have lived that experience, and we take for granted that everybody's adjusted and gets it. I had no one to confide in and that was the biggest mistake of my professional life was to think that if one person knew, everybody knew.

Just having some kind of ally at that time, I think I would have changed and I think I would have played so much better. You can appreciate the degree of despair when you're hiding something and you're on the bubble as it is. It just was a really frustrating time for me.

After he came out, the response was nothing but positive and Bean became a sought-after speaker and activist. But one conversation post-coming out with a former teammate was unsettling.

I thought about telling [teammate] Brad Ausmus, and after I came out he said, 'I can't believe you didn't trust me to tell me.' It was very emotional. We were buddies. We roomed together for two years and he's a great guy. But I was so uncomfortable with it personally. I think that's one of the things people don't understand about athletes that might be gay is that they're athletes more than they are gay at that point in their life. It was a terrifying and really disappointing realization about myself. I didn't embrace it. I had sort of angry sex the first few times I played around with guys. It was a naïve unplanned … I just felt like I was driving into a tunnel with my lights out. I had no idea where I was going with it. I was just drawn to this sexuality part and curious but I felt I was dooming myself with my career.

Bean retired before cellphones and the Internet were part of our lives, which made him feel disconnected and isolated. When his lover Sam died, Bean -- then with the San Diego Padres -- felt he could tell no one and kept his grief to himself. He even went and played a game that day, something unthinkable for a straight player who lost his wife.

Bean has had some struggles since his coming out. The restaurant he and his then-partner Efrain owned went bankrupt in 2000 and Bean turned to selling real estate in Miami. "Not only was I being portrayed as this wealthy ex-big leaguer, I was hustling like nobody's business in real estate to pay our bills. It was a lot of pressure," he said.

He also wrote a terrific book, "Going the Other Way" in 2003 to counter some negative reaction he was getting, including from Outsports, for how he was addressing the issue of whether players should come out.

A of lot bloggers in the community are unforgiving to the varying degrees of self-acceptance and self-awareness. It's easy to judge. I think I got ripped on Outsports for endorsing people to stay in the closet, which was the furthest things from the truth. That was the impetus for me writing my book.

I was so upset because a lot of people thought I was parading around like I was the hero and I never said that. In my book, I said I was a coward. I said the people who are the heroes are those in junior high school in middle America when they're 15 and they tell the truth then. I was being sort of categorize as someone running around trying to make a living off of gay people, which never happened."

Bean, though, says he can understand the pressures that keep a pro athlete closeted or leery of publicly associating with gay people and brought up an anecdote involving Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees, with whom Bean helped look for real estate.

I spent a lot of time with Alex Rodriguez when he was married to Cynthia and the truth is, is that if you're seen with me and you are a jock, you will be accused of being gay. Us being out together, it is a risk. So I always told Alex you better bring your wife or your buddy. Alex is very comfortable being out with me.

One of the things I found quite ironic about my place in the sports world, from what I hear, everyone knows who I am. Maybe 1 percent of the people read my book. I'm the gay baseball player. That's it.

Bean, 47, is thinking about a life change and is considering leaving south Florida for Los Angeles, where he could be closer to his family (he was born and raised in Orange County, Calif.). He has been out of the spotlight for the last few years dealing with his breakup with Efrain, but has started to become more visible by using social media. One passion is writing and I encouraged him to start a blog. Bean is a sports pioneer and still has a relevant voice.

I feel like I'm reconnecting. But I feel I'm missing out in what I'm supposed to be doing. There's not enough of the type of voices that I think I have.

Related: Bean's video for the It Gets Better project.

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