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On Being Gay in Baseball

A discussion on coming out and the idiocy of John Rocker

(This story was published in 2002).

Billy Bean and Outsports co-founder Jim Buzinski appeared together on CNN's "TalkBack Live'' show Aug. 7 to discuss the issues of gays in sports. The host is Arthel Neville.

ARTHEL NEVILLE: Welcome back to TalkBack Live everybody, I'm Arthel Neville. We are turning our attention now to sports. We'll talk about coming out in pro sports in just a minute, but first though, I want to talk about John Rocker's latest controversy. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation is calling on the Texas Rangers to reprimand the pitcher. The brouhaha is over a confrontation Rocker had with other diners at a Dallas restaurant over the weekend. Rocker is accused of making anti-gay comments to two men at a neighboring table and yelling a transgender customers outside. Rocker acknowledges he said some things he probably shouldn't have, but says he and his girlfriend were badgered first. Ok, here to talk about it, former San Diego Padres outfielder Billy Bean. Hey Billy.

BILLY BEAN: How you doing, Arthel?

ARTHEL NEVILLE: I'm good, nice to see you.

BILLY BEAN: Nice to see you.

ARTHEL NEVILLE: Alright, and Jim Buzinski, co-founder and publisher of Outsports.com, an Internet site for gay sports fans and athletes. Welcome to both of you.

JIM BUZINSKI: Thank you.

ARTHEL NEVILLE: Alright Jim, you're up first. What do you make of this Rocker stuff?

JIM BUZINSKI: Well, I think we all kind of know that John Rocker's an idiot, so at a certain point you take what he says with a grain of salt. I think if the Rangers wanted to be creative in reprimanding him, they would force him to pitch on a gay softball team. I think that'd be a fitting punishment for someone who seems to go out of his way to insult gay people and people of all different ethnicities.

ARTHEL NEVILLE: Billy, how do you see it?

BILLY BEAN: Well I think you have to kind of, I mean we've all come to learn that John Rocker speaks probably before he thinks, and whether he believes that, which obviously he does, I think if you look at the big picture, maybe somehow in the long run because of the comments he makes, it makes people realize how silly and prejudiced they are, and some good will come of it. Whether it comes at his expense, it seems like that's his choice he has to make.

ARTHEL NEVILLE: That's interesting. You know what, let's take a look at a little bit more of the statement from Rocker. He said "I was eating in a restaurant with my girlfriend yesterday, and some customers at other tables began badgering and pestering us. It seemed as if they were trying to bait me with some suggestive comments. It was uncomfortable, but we finished our meal quickly and got up to leave. At that point," he says, "they followed us out of the restaurant and made an obscene gesture to me. At that point I admit I was angry and said some things I probably should not have said, but I wanted to make it clear their attentions were unwelcome. I'm a regular customer at Breadwinners, and this is the first time something like this has ever happened."

Hmm, ok, so now GLAAD has something to say. GLAAD says "This isn't an isolated incident, it's simply the latest of Rocker's homophobic remarks, and Rangers General Manager John Hart's claim that Rocker 'acted appropriately' would be laughable if it didn't indicate that anti-gay abuse is still acceptable in Major League Baseball. The Texas Rangers and Major League officials have an obligation to hold their players, managers and teams accountable for actions like these that disgrace the profession."

Well Billy, you were in the profession, what do you say to that?

BILLY BEAN: Well I think that John Rocker has invited this kind of judgment upon him everywhere he goes. He's offended a tremendous amount of people, not only gays and lesbians but African-Americans, Latinos...

ARTHEL NEVILLE: You name it, he...

BILLY BEAN: He has opened the door for everybody, and that's something that he's going to have to experience probably for the rest of his life. If someone wants to stand up for some abuse that they were indirectly given, that's up to that person, but you know what, I probably would have something to say to John Rocker myself, so...

ARTHEL NEVILLE: Ooh, ok. Well listen, in the meantime, Bill from California is calling in on the telephone, and I want to hear what Mr Bill has to say. Go ahead, Bill.

CALLER: If no one denies that those people followed him out of the restaurant and accosted him, then why would you be criticizing him? Is it because homosexuals and lesbians can get away with anything, but someone exercising their first amendment rights is in the wrong?

JIM BUZINSKI: Well no, totally not, that's his version of events, the people in the restaurant said it was unprovoked. John Rocker has pitched before 55,000 people in a World Series game, and if he can't handle a few people taunting him, he's not a professional, and it's just disgraceful if he can't control his emotions and has to engage in gay-bashing. That's pretty disgusting.

ARTHEL NEVILLE: So do you think that because he's a professional athlete that he shouldn't get emotional in situations like that?

JIM BUZINSKI: No, what I'm saying is that we have his version of events that he was taunted, but if you can get rattled by a few people saying some things at a restaurant, you've gotta show some self control. We all do it in our lives every day, there's unpleasant situations, but we don't react by lashing out at the person's perceived ethnicity or sexual orientation.

ARTHEL NEVILLE: This is true. According to the information I read, the waiter also said that those people did not say anything to Rocker and his girlfriend. That's what I read.

JIM BUZINSKI: Yeah I mean John Rocker's giving his version of events that make him look in the best possible light.

ARTHEL NEVILLE: Ok, listen, Lauren?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I think he's dumb, blind and ignorant, and he's basically digging a hole for himself because in our society now it's basically impossible to be homophobic because you don't know who's gay and who's not. Your best friend could be gay and just hadn't told you yet, so he needs to just deal with it.

ARTHEL NEVILLE: Well you know what Lauren, that gives me a nice segue because you know what, we're going to move on now and talk about this. Is baseball or for that matter any professional sport ready to embrace openly gay players? Now Billy, you find yourself at the center of controversy after a cameo on HBO's Arli$$. You know what, let me show everyone what has some in the gay community calling for your "excommunication", so to speak.


FILM CLIP --

BILLY BEAN: Yeah, I hate to say it, but I don't think he can come out.

ARLISS: Neither do I, but he's being pretty idealistic.

BILLY BEAN: There's a big difference between being idealistic and being realistic.

ARLISS: Meaning?

BILLY BEAN: Meaning this guy's life will be under a microscope tomorrow. No matter how much progress we think this country's had, there's alot of people out there who are going to want him to fail.

ARLISS: Don't you think there's a chance that America might embrace him?

BILLY BEAN: Not as long as fathers are taking their sons to the ballpark. They don't want to hear "Daddy, I want to grow up and be just like him."


ARTHEL NEVILLE: Hmm, now Billy, you were playing yourself on that program, clearly this is what you believe. If you wouldn't mind, tell us why.

BILLY BEAN: First of all, I want to congratulate Jim Buzinski. He created a great platform and environment at Outsports.com. It let's people talk about issues and things that are topical in nature, much like this John Rocker incident. That being said, the last couple weeks, the sound bites coming off of the show, the question that was directed towards me was about this person's career, and the theme of the show really was about Arliss Michaels, who is the star and creator, and Robert Wuhl who plays that character, showing compassion for his athlete whatever his decision is. Now the difference between me being supportive of athletes, professional or not, wanting to come out, is completely different. I'm a living example of that, that I believe that this is the way to live. My life has improved in too many ways to count, but the idea that is baseball ready is another question altogether, and I'm speaking just from my personal experience, not my politics. I've dedicated the last three years of my life traveling around the country speaking to students, young athletes, adults, about the empowering ability of coming out to family, parents, friends, and feeling a sense of belonging, and using sports as that platform. So it's something that's, it's too, it's an apple and it's an orange. I mean, in a perfect world, I wish every major leaguer who is a homosexual would be able to come out, which I would have done when I played.

ARTHEL NEVILLE: But they feel that they can't come out

. Billy, I want you to tell me why after this break. TalkBack Live continues in a moment.

[break]

ARTHEL NEVILLE: And welcome back everybody, we're talking about whether the pro sports world is ready for openly gay athletes. Billy Bean is here with us, and you say "No." Why do you say no, Billy?

BILLY BEAN: Well, Arthel, I don't say emphatically no, I say that the thing that is vital is that an athlete needs to understand what that decision is going to entail, and how that will change his career overnight. I mean, ask Mike Piazza, just via a rumor, how his life turned New York City upside down for a month, and that's just an unfounded rumor that a writer was suggesting, and it's something that in my opinion I look at it from the player's standpoint first, the individual, and how difficult it is to get to the major leagues and how wonderful and how much of a privilege it is to be in major league baseball, and the idea that from that day forward, his career is really not about the ball, it's about the ramifications of his personal life.

ARTHEL NEVILLE: Billy, I want to be specific here, and I want to talk about you, if you don't mind, and I want to know, how long were you in pro baseball?

BILLY BEAN: I played for ten years professionally.

ARTHEL NEVILLE: Ten years professionally, for this entire time you did not say anything about being gay.

BILLY BEAN: Not to anyone.

ARTHEL NEVILLE: And you did not say that because, what were you afraid of?

BILLY BEAN: Well I was really coming into my own and trying to understand it majority of that time. Really the idea of me feeling confident enough to come out was never even a part of my life. If this person, theoretically a player is ready, I would love to meet him and talk to him and I would applaud that, because where I was, and the security of my career as a player, I just felt like I would be putting that in jeopardy. I have no objection to the idea that it would be a visible person in the gay and lesbian community and probably promote change. That player, his life would be kind of in an uproar overnight.

ARTHEL NEVILLE: What's the problem, Billy, why wouldn't that be accepted, being openly gay?

BILLY BEAN: I think we're, what are we opening the show with today, about people, players like John Rocker, and the idea of homophobia that's still involved in sports. I could be wrong, Arthel, I'm just saying from my experience, what I experienced, I wish it was different...

ARTHEL NEVILLE: Tell us a little bit about what you experienced. I want to get this story, bring it on a personal level here.

BILLY BEAN: Right, well the idea of what all young male athletes have been trained to understand is that really, homosexuality is like the last link in the chain, stereotypically to weakness and bad athletes, if a guy drops the ball they'll say an epithet that says he's gay, or if another player on another team, if he's injured and he won't get up, it's just constant reminders...

ARTHEL NEVILLE: I get the picture.

BILLY BEAN: ...that homosexuals are weak and not strong, and that is not true, but what I'm saying is for the thousands and thousands of young athletes behind this person at the major league level, if indeed that experience is not positive, it's gonna sway them backwards. So we're going to lose, in the big picture, the majority, we're getting so close to becoming so mainstream and being be accepted by the content of our character and not the orientation of our sexuality. We're almost there, and I'm afraid that one negative, highly visible experience could set us backwards, and I want us to keep moving forward, and that's what I've dedicated my life to.

ARTHEL NEVILLE: Jim, I haven't head from you in a while, I'd like to know what you're thinking about this.

JIM BUZINSKI: Well I mean I think there's always a possibility of it being negative, but that's not a reason to not advance rights, and I think anybody who would do this would have really strongly considered the consequences, I mean they would know their own situation, and so I think this person would have done enough groundwork, you know they wouldn't spring it on their team kind of just haphazardly, so I think someone who had the courage and the strength to do that would be someone who could succeed, because you'd have to live in a cave to not know what society, how they might react to it. I've heard Billy say, and I agree with it, that it's more likely to be a star that can do this, who can weather the storm, someone who's so valuable to his team that...

ARTHEL NEVILLE: That everybody will look the other way...

JIM BUZINSKI: Well, because they have to, I mean if someone the equivalent of Pedro Martinez came out as gay, that team would not cut him, he's just too good. Now someone on the margins...

ARTHEL NEVILLE: But you're not saying that though, you're saying hypothetically speaking.

JIM BUZINSKI: As I said, that someone of the caliber of Pedro Martinez, yeah. So I think that's the issue, it's kind of who it is and how they do it, and it's nice to hear Billy be very supportive on this. That's one thing I haven't heard from him in the last year is sort of this more nuanced thing that he'd be right there giving this person support, because whoever comes out is going to need alot of it.

BILLY BEAN: Absolutely Jim, you know I've spoken to alot of ex-players, and the idea is that for someone to be there is vital, but it's the dynamic of the people around that player, and what you said is exactly true, the player will have had to think long and hard, and this is basically a life-changing decision. Most athletes, I think, are so consumed with their sports, their career, the ability to be successful...

ARTHEL NEVILLE: Well it's their livelihood.

BILLY BEAN: It's their livelihood, exactly.

ARTHEL NEVILLE: Billy, I've gotta get Latoya in here but maybe you can come back and answer this another time, but I would love to know what you had to go through to keep that a secret for 10 years.

BILLY BEAN: It wasn't easy.

ARTHEL NEVILLE: I mean, you had to have like fake girlfriends and things...

BILLY BEAN: I was married, Arthel, for a portion of that time, and then afterwards, like I said, I was in the big leagues at a very, very young age, I grew up in Los Angeles where every player on the team, when I was with the L.A. Dodgers, was married, alot of pressure to get married and be a part of that big engine of professional sports. It's a very sexy environment, and the sexuality, and the prowess, and the strength, and the look of athletes, it's all rolled into one...

ARTHEL NEVILLE: And you felt you had to get married in order to fit in.

BILLY BEAN: Absolutely, I mean I grew up around sports, and having a beautiful woman on your side after a game-winning home run, it's like having a beer, part of American folklore.

ARTHEL NEVILLE: Hang on, I want to talk to you about alot of stuff but I've got let Latoya here...

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I don't think anyone should think they have to hide their sexuality because it's basically living a lie, like he felt he had to get married to fit in. I don't think that's fair. I don't think anyone should have to hide their sexuality, 'cause that's a part of who you are. It's not a huge part of who you are, 'cause I don't feel I have to tell people I'm heterosexual, so I think it should be your choice, and I don't think you have to hide it.

ARTHEL NEVILLE: Thank you very much. Listen, Billy Bean, thank you so much for coming here and sharing a really personal story, really appreciate that. Jim Buzinski, thank you as well for joining us here on TalkBack Live

JIM BUZINSKI: Thank you, Arthel.