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Hitting a Home Run for My Lover

(This story was published in 2003).

By: Billy Bean with Chris Bull

(From "Going the Other Way: Lesson From a Life In and Out of Major-League Baseball."

Reprinted by permission of the author. Copyright 2003. From Marlow and Company publishers).


(Editor's note: This is an excerpt from Billy Bean's new book "Going the Other Way." We pick up the story in San Diego in 1993 when Bean is playing for the San Diego Padres. He has just moved in to a condo with Sam Madani, an Iranian who fled the downfall of the Shah and settled in the U.S. The two had met a short time before at a Maryland health club and agreed to live together discreetly. Bean had just separated from his wife. Madani would die of complication from AIDS in 1995).

The house came together quickly. I gave Sam my credit card, and when I was on a road trip, he made use of the free time to pick out furniture and all the little things it takes to make a house a home. He set up the kitchen first, stocking it with Iranian spices and a peculiar pot for his beloved tea. Then he selected casually elegant furniture and contemporary art for the walls. He created a flower garden on the terrace.

Sam had impeccable taste. When it came to decorating the house, the benefits of my new “lifestyle” suddenly became clear. My wealthy teammates complained when their wives lavished money on their decorators, but I certainly didn’t need to worry about that. I had one living with me.

The most wonderful addition to my home, however, was Sam himself.

“As long as I’m living in this house, you’ll never have a bad meal again,” he declared.

Boy, was he right. Every night was another adventure in Persian cuisine. Like a hurler working on a new pitch, he would spend hours perfecting a recipe before he even began to prepare the meal. I lacked the patience for that kind of stuff, but it isn’t hard to respect the fine art of good food, especially when you’re the beneficiary of it.

“Americans and their fast food,” he joked. “You never rest. You’ve no idea how to enjoy life.”

He did his best to teach me. After all these years in the desert of heterosexuality, Sam was an oasis. Our sex life had been robust from the first steamy moment in the gym showers. I’d known for a while I could enjoy sex with a man. But it was reassuring to discover that this was only the start of a solid relationship, not the relationship itself. We were just like any married couple. We had dinner together. We shopped. We argued about politics. We loved to rent three or four movies and hang out on the couch in the TV room and watch them.

Sam filled the house with music and lots of love. He seemed to wake up every morning in a good mood, and his natural cheerfulness soothed my competitive angst before I headed to the park. I remember wanting to freeze time right there, fretting that it couldn’t possibly be this good forever.

“Oh, my Billy, you worry about worrying,” he said to soothe my fears. “Everything is going to be all right.”

I didn’t believe him. When the clock struck one, and it was time for me to go to work, I could feel my body tensing up. I was living a double life, and I reminded myself to monitor my secret as closely as the Russian embassy in the middle of Washington, D.C. One slip of the tongue, one unguarded moment, could cost me my career.

My new life still blew my mind. Could I actually pull this off? It wasn’t like there was a hotline number I could call for advice. As far as I knew, I was the only one in the bigs living this way. Changing in and out of my uniform in the locker room, I would examine my body and remember our lovemaking from the night before. I still couldn’t figure out how I’d ended up with desires so different from my teammates’. Or were they? Sam insisted we were all the same under the skin.

But neither of us understood the toll of this furtive way of life until we were already living it, and then it was far too late to turn back.

Appreciating Baseball's Beauty

By the middle of my first summer with the Padres, Sam began following my games by radio and television. At first, he had a hard time wrapping his mind around baseball, and he wondered why players ran around the bases counterclockwise. But he caught on fast, and soon became our biggest booster. When I arrived home, he would question me about how I’d played—if I’d seen any action at all. He would erupt in mock rage if he felt someone wasn’t hustling or flubbed a play.

I chuckled at his comments, trying to explain that players were no more perfect than cooks, and that errors were part of the game. Since I was basically a role player, I didn’t get much chance to make mistakes. You can’t throw to the wrong base from the bench. Sam was my biggest fan, and if you asked him, I should’ve started every game.

Sam began to appreciate baseball’s beauty. He listened to me talk about the mental combat between pitcher and batter, and how every game is really just one battle in a grueling, season-long war of attrition. At first, it was hard for him to understand the day-to-day pressure of playing what is essentially a kids’ game. I explained that every father wants his son to grow up to be a ballplayer, and that thousands of talented athletes competed for a few spots. He could see that, unlike some players, I respected the game and that I’d been groomed by the best coaches and managers to honor it every day I stepped on the field by playing as smart and as hard as I could.

After a game, he could see its effects on my body. He cleaned and bandaged my knees, skinned and bloodied from sliding and diving. He massaged the deep bruises I would get when I took a 95-mile-per-hour fastball in the ribs, hip, or forearm. He marveled at the calluses on my hands, hardened from swinging a bat hundreds of times every day for twenty years. He made fun of me each morning when I dragged my stiff joints and cranky back carefully out of bed, wincing. As I hobbled around the house or stood under the hot shower to wash the tension out of my muscles and joints, he would express his concern.

“Billy, you look like a boxer, not a baseball player.”

Sam knew that the aches and pains were a small price to pay for living my dream. He also knew that our relationship posed great danger for my career, and he loved me for trying to make both work. His pride in what I did gave me a sense of strength, support, and belonging I’d never known.

After a workout at Jack Murphy Stadium one day, I invited Sam into the locker room. Waiting until everyone had left, I met him in the parking lot. As I led him through the corridor into the clubhouse, we traced the steps that I took each and every day on my way to work. He lit up on seeing my name printed in bold letters over my locker and my uniform hanging inside, and the pride he took in my accomplishment made it all worthwhile.

My First Home Run

During a July 15, 1993, home game against the Philadelphia Phillies, I hit my first major-league home run, a towering shot against Larry Andersen, a tough right-hander. Sometimes sluggers stand at the plate for a few seconds longer than necessary to admire the ball as it disappears over the fence. My sprint around the bases, however, was the shortest trip I’d ever taken. I made sure to touch all the bases, but it felt like my spikes never hit the ground. After the game, all I could think about was sharing it with Sam. I sped home, eschewing the usual clubhouse celebration.

Sam gave me a big hug when I walked in the front door. I had to leave soon after on a long road trip, so we planned a private celebratory dinner for when I got home a few weeks later. Sam pulled out all the stops in preparing a gourmet dinner to honor this milestone in my life. As we sat down to enjoy the candlelight meal, he asked me to relive the moment over and over so he could know how it felt. I was embarrassed because this homer was only the first of what I hoped would be many, but I took him through the at-bat anyway. Andersen, who may have lacked a good scouting report on me because I was new to the team, had tried to sneak a fastball by me low and inside. I got all of it.

I’d barely picked up my fork when I heard a knock on the door. I assumed it was a neighbor or a solicitor. Before opening the door, I peeked through the eyehole. Brad Ausmus and Trevor Hoffman, my best friends on the team, were standing there, each holding a six-pack. They were surprised I’d zipped out the clubhouse door on my big day, depriving them of a chance to celebrate with their buddy. They’d decided to surprise me. Somehow, the’d chosen the same night Sam had selected.

I couldn’t pretend to be out. They could see my car in the garage and hear the music playing on the stereo.

“Guys, just a minute, I just got out of the shower,” I yelled through the door. Since I’d just showered in the locker room after that day’s game, the excuse didn’t make much sense. But I didn’t have enough time to figure out a more convincing lie.

My heart pounding, I rushed Sam out the back door and into the garage, making sure to close the door behind him. Then I raced back into the house and covered up the dinner with dishtowels, pushing the table and all the plates into the corner of the kitchen out of sight. By the time I got back to the front door to let my friends in, I was sweating. They probably assumed I had a girl in my bedroom.

“Hey, Babe Ruth, you can’t get away that easily,” Brad said, holding up the beer like a trophy. “That was probably your first and last home run, so we’d better enjoy it.”

I counted the minutes as they sat there in the living room shooting the bull, drinking, and watching the game highlights on ESPN, and then another game on television, for almost three full hours. As they tried to create a party atmosphere, I kept glancing at my watch, always the sign of an unhappy host. As proper ballplayers, Trevor and Brad stayed until the last beer had been consumed before announcing it was time to go.

“I’ll see you guys tomorrow,” I said, practically slamming the door behind them.

I’m sure they must have been taken aback by my lack of enthusiasm, and maybe even a little puzzled. I loved these guys for their gesture, and I was dying to celebrate with them. But I couldn’t bear the idea of doing it at Sam’s expense.

When they finally drove away, I found Sam sitting quietly in the front seat of the car reading a book. As usual, he took my panic stoically, but I could see the hurt on his face when I “allowed” him back into his own home.

I hugged Sam tight, apologized profusely, and tried to reassure him of my devotion. But my proudest individual accomplishment on a baseball diamond had turned into an occasion of sadness and shame. That night was one of the few times I ever cried myself to sleep. I’d left Anna in part because I felt my emotional distance was causing her pain. Now my shame and secrecy had found a way to hurt Sam, too.

Bringing My Lover to the Game

Later that summer, [Padres manager Jim] Riggleman told me I would start a night game against the Colorado Rockies. I decided to throw caution to the wind and make it up to Sam by getting him a ticket. This was his first trip to the park, and it promised to be a special night. Tony Gwynn’s career hit total sat at 1,999. The stadium was packed in anticipation of his 2,000th. The sky was crystal-clear, and the San Diego fans were festive and uncharacteristically boisterous. ESPN televised the game to a national audience.

Warming up before the game, I located Sam in the stands and waved. He was sitting next to the parents of my teammate and good friend Phil Clark, and he flashed me a big grin. Beer in one hand, hot dog in the other, he was clearly enjoying himself. I was starting that day in center field, right next to Tony. He got his big hit, putting him well on his way to 3,000, where he would join an elite group of Hall of Fame hitters.

In the first inning, I came to the plate with runners on first and second base. The Rockies’ pitcher, Willie Blair, missed with two consecutive curves. Enjoying a hitter’s count, I sat on a fastball and got one right down the middle. I turned on the pitch as quickly as I could, belting it into the night air. It landed probably twenty rows above the right-field fence. It was one of those times when you know the ball’s gone the moment it meets your bat.

As I rounded third base, I glanced toward Sam in the family section. He was standing in the aisle, giving me an ovation. It was as if I were back in Little League, hitting the winning home run in front of Mom. But this time I pumped my fist into the air and allowed myself, if only for a moment, to enjoy the reverie that Billy Bean, the gay baseball player, had just hit a three-run homer as his proud male lover cheered him on.

In the locker room the next day, Phil asked me, very casually, about my “friend Sam.” Apparently, his parents had enjoyed spending the game with him. They simply wanted to know a little about him. They wanted to sit with him again in the future. It had been a completely innocent evening, like the hundreds of social interactions that take place among ballplayers and their friends and family every season. But I became convinced I was about to be exposed. When I got home that night, I told Sam it was the last game he could ever attend.

“That’s okay, Billy,” he said, looking away. “I like hearing the games on the radio, too.”

As usual, Sam was a good sport. I only wish I could have said the same for myself. I was torn between two worlds, and both kept imploding.