(This article was published in 2002).

Is a major league baseball player ready to come out of the closet?

That’s the question being asked in response to comments by New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine that baseball is “probably ready for an openly gay player.” Valentine made his remarks in the June/July issue of Details magazine and they have become a hot topic after reports Monday in the New York Post.

“The players are a diverse enough group now that I think they could handle (a gay teammate),” the Post’s Neil Travis quotes Valentine as saying. Travis writes for the popular Post gossip column “Page Six.”

The speculation by Travis and some in the media is that Valentine is setting the stage for a Met to come out, though Valentine and general manager Steve Phillips denied this. Names have been bandied about privately within media circles and by several New York readers who contacted Outsports claiming to know the player.

Travis laid out this scenario:

“More to the point, some may think that Valentine is getting in first, before one of his big guns is outed. There is a persistent rumor around town that one Mets star who spends a lot of time with pretty models in clubs is actually gay and has started to think about declaring his sexual orientation.

“The rumor even goes so far as to say that the player and a still-closeted local TV personality recently purchased a house together in a ritzy New York suburb. (I’ve made a cursory check of the real estate rolls in that suburb and can’t find any documentation of the rumor. But even if it’s all nonsense, the story is out there and gaining momentum by the day.)”

On Tuesday, Mike Piazza, the Mets’ All-Star catcher, took the unusual step to publicly announce he was heterosexual. “I’m not gay. I’m heterosexual,” Piazza said in an account in the New York Times. “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.”

Piazza agreed with his manager that an openly gay baseball player would be accepted. “In this day and age, it’s irrelevant,” he said. “I don’t think it would be a problem at all.” Valentine accused the Post of sensationalizing and told the New York Times his comments to Details were in direct response to a question about whether baseball could handle an openly gay player.

I have no idea as to whether a Met or a Jet or a Net is ready to become the first active athlete to publicly come out from one of the big four North American team sports (NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball). At Outsports we hear rumors all the time and our reaction is always the same: We’ll believe it when we see it.

Rumors Not New

We’ve had false starts before. In 1984, rumors flew around the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles that two prominent U.S. gold medalists were going to come out. Pressure from sponsors allegedly kept them quiet. One of them, diver Greg Louganis, had a very public coming out a few years later, but the second athlete has still not made a public declaration. We’ve also heard from time to time more recently about jocks thinking about making the big plunge but getting cold feet. No one wants to be a pioneer.

There is no doubt the landscape would be more hospitable to a jock declaring he’s gay. Public attitudes toward homosexuality are more tolerant, popular entertainment is awash in portrayals of gays (mostly positive) and even the often-brutish sports media has given the subject a sympathetic airing.

While being interviewed about Valentine’s comments by Max Howell and Perry Laurentino from 680 Sports Radio in Atlanta, I was struck by their sympathetic, perceptive and non-hostile questions. I was expecting Don Imus and got Charlie Rose instead. It’s hard to imagine many in the mainstream media treating an athlete’s coming out as a reason to gay-bait. For example, the in-your-face Jim Rome gets high marks for his non-homophobic attitudes.

Still, there remain perceived big hurdles for any pro athlete willing to come out, especially in team sports. How would teammates react? How would management react? How would the fans react? How would the sponsors react? These questions are all relevant to an athlete’s calculation. Add in religious beliefs, societal views on sexuality (especially male sexuality), pressure to not upset team chemistry and still-strong stereotypes about gays and it’s easy to see why staying in the closet seems the prudent choice. Philadelphia Phillies manager Larry Bowa probably spoke for many in baseball when he told the AP:

“If it was me, I’d probably wait until my career was over. I’m sure it would depend on who the player was. If he hits .340, it probably would be easier than if he hits .220.”

Despite these obstacles it’s still possible to envision an athlete coming out. No longer do people speculate if there are gay jocks but rather who and how many. If Valentine’s remarks are foreshadowing, this tells us that many of the Mets players, coaches and management already know; their support would be an invaluable safety net in the ensuing public feeding frenzy.

It would be great if gays had their version of Jackie Robinson. This player would be an instant role model for young gay athletes, conflicted about how their sexual orientation can mesh with their love of sports. We wait and we hope.