(This story was published in 2002).
By: Bill Konigsberg
"For a ballplayer to acknowledge otherwise, of course, would be committing professional suicide."
This is a statement made by Jim Litke, columnist for The Associated Press, on the subject of Mike Piazza, who quashed rumors that he is gay at a news conference on Tuesday.
Litke's statement begs for closer examination. The issue of gays in team sports has been a hot subject each time it comes to the surface, and while the gossip regarding who is and who isn't gay seems to be the main reason that it's always news, underlying this is a really intriguing question of what would actually happen if a major league baseball player were to come out publicly.
"I'm not gay. I'm heterosexual," Piazza said, after a New York Post gossip columnist claimed that a New York Mets player who hangs out with models is actually gay and about to come out of the closet. "I can't control what people think, that's obvious. And I can't convince people what to think. I can only say what I know and what the truth is and that's I'm heterosexual and I date women. That's it. End of story."
Fine with me. I see no huge problem with the fact that Piazza had to proclaim his heterosexuality. As much as I'd like to think otherwise, if I were a heterosexual ballplayer faced with such rumors I'd probably say the same thing.
There is no news here. The story came from a gossip columnist for the New York Post, and if journalists jumped on all things written in those columns, we'd all be in trouble.
What is newsworthy, however, is the issue of what would happen in such a case. Opinion is all we have.
Litke claimed that it's not a good climate for gays at this time.
"I came to that conclusion from talking to players over the years, so it's an opinion that I've formed," he said in a phone interview. "I think it would split some teams up. Baseball is a funny sport, there are still a bunch of guys who didn't spend much time in school."
One year ago, Out Magazine editor Brendan Lemon added fuel to the fire by writing a column in which he claimed to be having an affair with a major league ballplayer. He described the player as playing for an East Coast team, not the best player on his team but still a good player.
Litke said that Lemon must have been living on another planet to have written last year: "But I'm pretty confident there'd be more support from the team than he imagines."
I spoke with Lemon today and while he agrees that a year later he thinks he was being overly optimistic, he still believes his boyfriend will be able to publicly come out when he's ready.
Reversing His Views
When prodded to examine his statements, Litke seemed to change his tune a little.
"It would be hard at first, but a lot of guys will be ready (to deal with it)," he said.
Litke then said he really agrees with remarks made by Mets manager Bobby Valentine near the end of a long article in the June/July issue of Details magazine. Valentine said he felt baseball was ready for an openly gay player.
"I think Valentine is basically right," Litke said.
In his article a day earlier, Litke called the comments "hopelessly optimistic."
What's at work here? Is Litke talking out of both sides of his mouth?
Actually I think it's the subject matter that creates the confusion. I believe Litke is like most Americans on the periphery of this subject. He has mostly benevolent feelings for those dealing with such a difficult issue, but has trouble grasping the realities of it.
It's simply so hard for people to grasp what might happen if one of baseball's macho idols were to admit liking men instead of women, that few people can claim to have a solid understanding of what would happen.
People ask me constantly what I think, and as much as I enjoy hearing myself talk, I have to admit I have no idea what will happen. I consider myself a realist and have no reason to believe it wouldn't be incredibly difficult, but I also believe most people would try to reach out to a person brave enough to do such a thing.
It Will Happen
As a gay man immersed in the world of sports, permit me to make my own predictions.
First of all, it will happen. This is not a pie in the sky argument. It's only a matter of time. Litke said he wondered if it might be a younger guy who is openly gay and makes it through the ranks to the pro level, who has grown up in a generation which is less hostile to homosexuality.
"Kids are cooler now," he said. "A kid will get through."
When this happens, I guarantee there will be a media circus. Some of the coverage will be enlightened, some of it not. There will be players who say they don't agree with the "lifestyle," and others who say it simply does not matter.
But mostly, it will all come down to what team sports is built on: teamwork. When a teammate is struggling with something, an issue on or off the field, a good teammate will back that person up, no matter what. I believe in my heart that all other issues aside, teamwork will prevail.
Might it be Lemon's friend, the man he claims to be dating? Lemon said that a year after his column on the subject, his friend is still pondering whether to come out of the closet.
And will Lemon or gay activists pressure a player to make such a decision?
"I can't do that, I can't force the timing," said Lemon. "So much has to happen, there are so many people who need to be told first, and that's why it's taking so long."
Litke said he hopes activists don't pressure a player to do something he's not ready for.
"Some player will probably declare himself as gay pretty soon, but it should be in their own time," he said. "I say let him do it. It just shouldn't be someone like Brendan Lemon pulling the strings."
Bill Konigsberg is a former editor at ESPN.com. His coming out column on ESPN is a finalist for a GLAAD media award.