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Out at ‘The Q’

The Padres’ Ryan Klesko talks about the prospect of an openly gay ballplayer

(This story was published in 2002).

By: Travis D. Bone (Gay and Lesbian Times)

Reprinted by permission to Outsports

There are three "S’s" that baseball players and management are reluctant to talk about these days: steroids, the strike and sexual orientation. The Gay and Lesbian Times joined the Padres during batting practice at Qualcomm Stadium (The Q) before their game against the Colorado Rockies on Monday, July 15, to discuss the topic of gays in professional sports and how the team might handle a player coming out.

Ever since Mets manager Bobby Valentine did an interview for Details magazine where he said that he thought baseball was “ready for an openly gay player,” players and coaches alike have been on guard and careful about what they say on the subject of gays in sports.

For example, the Times approached several Padres’ players July 15 on the subject, including Bubba Trammell and Brett Tomko, who both declined to comment. Team Manager Bruce Bochy deferred questions to Padres General Manager Kevin Towers.

The recent fear stems partly from a column in the New York Post where Neal Travis took the Details’ story and ran with it, saying that Valentine was trying to open the doors up for a prospective Mets player to come out of the closet. Rumors were rampant about the sexuality of a particular Mets catcher, Mike Piazza, which prompted him to hold an impromptu press conference to come out as a heterosexual.

With 1,200 players making up the 40-man rosters of the 30 major league baseball teams in this country, Kinsey statistics suggest that some 120 of them would be gay — making for approximately four gay players per team. Yet with odds like that, there still isn’t a single openly gay baseball player in the league today.

“I think the most difficult thing is there is this ‘macho’ type of persona these guys have to uphold and there’s fear that if they come out, they are not going to be looked at the same way,” Towers, the general manager, said. “I would like to think we’re all mature enough in professional sports to realize that sometimes they don’t have a choice and we shouldn’t hold that against them.”

It’s one thing to have the support of the management, but it’s an entirely different story when it comes to the reality of dealing with teammates who may have different feelings about having a gay player sharing their locker room with them.

“It’s one of those things; no matter what, you’re going to have your guys that aren’t going to be happy about it,” Padres first baseman Ryan Klesko told the Times. “Obviously you shower together and do a lot of stuff together. For a lot of guys, they would be somewhat tentative about it.”

Klesko, a California native, has been with the club for three years and previously spent four years in the big leagues with the Atlanta Braves (including two seasons with noted homophobic pitcher John Rocker). Now a team spokesperson for the Padres who has been awarded the community relations department’s Chairman’s Award for the past two years, Klesko knows the realities of what goes on in the locker room and on the field.

“In general you’re gonna have your guys that aren’t really gonna care. It’s just like anything; some guys are prejudiced and some aren’t,” said Klesko. “On an overall team basis it’s going to be a tough thing, and over time you’re going to have your small problems, but you never know.”

Beyond the dugout there is also a fear of how fans will respond to a player coming out, which could place lucrative sponsorships in jeopardy. But Klesko said he feels that the responses would be varied.

“In general, each city is different,” Klesko explained. “If you go to a place like New York or Philadelphia, the guy is gonna get hammered pretty good. You’re going to get your guys who drink too many beers and heckle, but you get heckled in this game whether you’re gay or not anyway. You have to learn to deal with it. It really depends on the player.”

The Padres are unique among Major League Baseball teams in that they have had a gay on their team who has since come out of the closet. Three years ago, former Padre Billy Bean turned the baseball world on its ear when he came out of the closet four years after retiring from the game. The idea that there could be gay professional ballplayers has since since taken center stage on sports pages and in news reports across the country.

“Billy Bean was one who was a former Padre who came out,” Towers recalled of the Padres alum. “Hopefully this game will turn around to where guys will feel like they have the freedom to come out and express if they are heterosexual or homosexual and it really shouldn’t matter. What they do on the field is what matters.”

During his days with the Padres, Bean was in a relationship, and in various interviews he has talked about the difficulty of hiding his gay relationship from teammates and how the lack of focus drove his batting average down from .350 in the minors to a career average of .228 in the majors.

“When you come to the park you’ve got a job [to do],” said Klesko. “Whether Billy had problems hiding it or not, a lot of guys have problems with their wives and family issues. That’s personal stuff that guy is going to have to learn to deal with on a personal basis.… when you jump in this ballpark you’re ultimately here to win.”

Towers said he sees the issue as a gradual evolution, noting that people’s opinions about gays and lesbians are changing daily.

“I think that if you have more than just one individual and it becomes accepted that players can come out and be open about [their sexual orientation],” Towers said, “then it won’t be held against them by fans or the management and the industry and they will be able to feel comfortable and approach the game from a business standpoint and not be afraid of how they will be perceived.”