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Kevin McClatchy tells Outsports: When gay pro athlete comes out, 'it's going to be fine'

Friday night was restless for Kevin McClatchy. His identity since his early 20s had been in part defined by the closet he hid in. With Saturday’s approaching dawn, that closet door would be flung open with a New York Times column by Frank Bruni in which the former Pittsburgh Pirates owner declared publicly for the first time that he is gay. In a few short hours, his public and private lives would transform.

While he’d seen others in sports come out before him, it didn’t calm his nerves. Rick Welts was a front-office team exec in the NBA when he came out, and he was embraced for his honesty; Billy Bean was a retired Major League Baseball player when he came out, and he was heralded for his bravery. In the previous 15 years, the former Pittsburgh Pirates owner hadn’t seen a single negative coming-out story in men’s sports.

Yet the same fear that has prevented an active pro athlete from coming out roiled in McClatchy’s mind that night as he went to bed; and then as it woke him up at 2 a.m.; and again at 3 a.m. Just about every hour of his scattered slumber, the anxiety awoke him.

When the closet door opened on Saturday, and the world knew his secret, McClatchy’s concerns quickly faded with the night’s darkness.

“An amazing amount of support came forward after [the story] hit,” McClatchy told me over the phone Monday. “I’m hearing from different folks from all walks of life. I’m hearing from a lot of my former baseball colleagues, which has been great, hearing from people I don’t even know, giving me positive shout-outs. It’s been great. It’s one of those things I had feared doing for 25 years, and I finally got to that moment and I felt like I was jumping off a cliff. But it’s been a positive experience.”

Never totally in

Like most folks who come out, McClatchy’s closet door hadn’t been locked tight. I met him two years ago at a house party in Sag Harbor, N.Y., where 90% of the people were gay. He told me he was a little concerned about being there with a journalist in the room, particularly one whose beat was gay sports. But since we don’t out people at Outsports, his secret was safe with me.

As he told Bruni, there was also the occasional trip to a gay bar when he was out of the country. A 2003 trip to a London haunt by McClatchy prompted Outsports discussion board member SportsJunky to post about the siting:

“I saw Kevin McClatchy the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates in a gay bar in London last year. He was with a guy and they left together after being in the bar for over two hours. I asked around but everyone protects the rich and powerful. No one wants to admit he is gay or talk about it.”

McClatchy told Bruni he saw the post on Outsports and quickly reconsidered that part of his social life.

If someone had been on the trail, a little Internet sleuthing would have discovered McClatchy’s Facebook page; He and I have 11 mutual friends, all of whom are gay. One of those people is Ryan Greenawalt, whom McClatchy called a dear friend.

“There are a few people I’d call if I needed advice on anything in my life, and Kevin’s at the top of that list,” Greenawalt said. “Whether it’s about a relationship or work, I think he has a unique perspective and he’s really smart.”

While the personal connections have been overwhelmingly positive in these last few transformative days, McClatchy has noticed a smattering of criticism across the Internet. The first is that he waited too long to come out. Virtually every athlete who has waited until he retired has caught the same flack; That’s nothing new.

The second piece of criticism: That he signed the recently retired Jason Kendall to a $60 million contract extension in 2000. Fans, after all, just want their team to win no matter whom the owner falls in love with. Unfortunately for McClatchy, the Pirates didn’t do much winning while he owned the team. They haven’t won much since, either: A second- and a third-place division finish while he was owner were actually the best performances the team has put forward in the last 20 seasons.

A new role in baseball

No longer a Major League Baseball owner, McClatchy still keeps his hand in the game. He’s working with some folks in Sacramento, where his company owns the Sacramento Bee, to bring a pro baseball team to the city.

But McClatchy feels he has a new role in sports. While his full-time job is managing The McClatchy Company, the third largest newspaper company in the United States, he sees his new role in baseball as an emissary for closeted athletes. Much of our conversation centered around his disappointment that no Major League Baseball player has felt comfortable enough to come out while still playing. That’s something he intends to change.

“Baseball is very proud of its civil rights history, and they should be,” he said. “Every year they have a civil rights game. My hope is one of these games they’ll be celebrating the first openly gay baseball player.”

Before Bruni’s article was published, McClatchy knew he had to have a frank discussion with Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig. Much like Welts’ recruitment of NBA commissioner David Stern and others in basketball before his coming out, McClatchy was already looking past his coming out: He had to rally key individuals for full impact.

“I had a good conversation with the commissioner,” he said. “I gave him a heads up this was coming out. We had a good discussion, and he understands this is an issue that needs more focus. Baseball, in the past, has been ahead of the curve, ahead of society, but we’re now behind on this issue. We need to acknowledge that and address it. There are some good people in the game of baseball, and I think they can tackle this problem.”

While committed to advancing the discussion, he’s not sure what his role will look like quite yet. It reminded me of my early conversations with Patrick Burke after his brother’s untimely death. Burke knew he was going to do something big, he just hadn’t mapped it out yet; He went on to found the You Can Play project.

Now, McClatchy is in the same position, new to the fight and ready to take some time to determine his most effective next steps.

“I haven’t laid it out in a structural way. I sort of want to take a deep breath and see where things lead and look at different opportunities. So I would like to be helpful, but I can’t give specifics right now on what that means. I have had many owners reach out to me and write some incredible things, so I think there are already some things that will be helpful.”

The dialogue itself is a big step. With every coming out, another corner of sports is affected. When former Tennessee Titan Wade Davis declared he’s gay in June, current Titans discussed the issue in the locker room. When Megan Rapinoe came out in July, the conversation shifted to soccer and the Olympic Games.

Now McClatchy’s story has invaded the front offices of pro sports teams and leagues. The power brokers of sports – the men and women with the big bucks who sign the hefty contracts – are talking about the issue again. One of their colleagues has come out into the light. And if he has anything to do with it, it’s just the dawn of a day that will soon welcome the first out pro athlete.

“Every one of my conversations, and every one of my emails, from within the game and outside the game, has been positive. I think it’s a fair statement to say that it will continue to be more positive as time goes on, and I think the first player who comes out will be amazed by the positive reaction they’re going to get. I’m hoping it’s not too far away. The more they can see the positive reaction these guys have received, it can only reinforce that when they do make that decision it’s going to be fine.”