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Dug Funnell Holding Up a Mirror to Baseball's Homophobia

(This published in 2004).

``I love baseball, but the majority of baseball hates a faggot.''

Dug Funnell doesn't mince words. This sentence was one in a long letter Funnell, a baseball fanatic, has sent to more than 5,000 players, managers, owners, front office officials and broadcasters in the past 15 years. It's been his way of trying to open the minds--and hearts--of those involved in the game he loves.''

"I was speaking from my heart as a gay man who loves this sport, but felt I've been bashed over the years by it,'' said Funnell, 46, who lives in Cleveland, one of the great baseball cities in the country.

For his efforts in raising the consciousness of many in baseball, Dug Funnell has made a difference for gay men who also happen to love sports..

Funnell started his letter-writing, consciousness-raising campaign in 1985, but it became more urgent for him after umpire Dave Pallone was fired in 1988. Though baseball has denied it and said his dismissal was job-performance related, Pallone and others claim it had to do with the fact that he was gay.

``Baseball has kept players on who have been charged with assault, felonies, solicitation, statutory rape and illegal financial doings. And not to forget all the players who admitted to selling, buying and using illegal drugs,'' part of Funnell's letter read. ``The message here is--drugs, rape, assault and solicitation are more acceptable than being gay. What's wrong with this picture?''

Funnell estimates he has received more than 100 responses to the letter. While that may seem like a low number to some, he's thrilled. He estimates maybe half never reached the intended party due to being screened out for one reason or another. And he takes great pride in the supportive responses he's received back.

``Dug, my message is: Be yourself,'' wrote Turk Wendell, a relief pitcher who pitched in the World Series with the New York Mets. ``... Don't be sensitive ... about not getting responses from players; most of them are jerks. They forget where they came from and what got them there.''

Wendell, who sent a hand-written, three-page response, was not the only player who signaled his support. Pitcher Jerry DiPoto, who spent most of the 2000 season on the injured list with Colorado, had this to say in a beautiful, seven-page letter:

``I agree with your point of view 100%. Baseball and the world in general are imperfect places. I know it is a difficult thing to ask, but I will ask you to remember that baseball is a game made up of individuals. Don't condemn the game itself or question your passion for the game because of the ignorance or bigotry of the masses. There are a number of individuals who feel just as you and are fair-minded.

``...I can't ever know just how difficult the world can be for a gay man. I just try to make it a little more livable for all of us. I hope that your letter opens some eyes around baseball because, as you said in your letter, baseball is a reflection on life in America.''

Funnell was so touched by DiPoto's letter that the two have kept in touch.

``When (DiPoto) was in Winterhaven (Fla.) while with the Indians, he had to have surgery to have his cancerous thyroid removed,'' Funnell said.

``I called the hospital in Lakeland to ask his room number so I could send a planter with some flowers to help cheer him. I was stunned when the operator simply connected me to his room and he answered the phone!

``It was right after the surgery, and I didn't want to bother him with a call, but it was done. I spoke of my concern, thanked him for being himself, told him that I'm sending prayers for a fast recovery and let him know that I care, and I'll write to him soon. He was so kind and thanked me for the call.

``That afternoon, I went to the florist to send them. When straight guys like him are so good to us, I feel overwhelmed. What a man!''

Management has also responded to Funnell. He has received letters of support from, among others, Peter McGowan (San Francisco Giants owner); Lee Thomas (then Philadelphia Phillies general manager); Dave Dombrowski (Florida Marlins GM); Mike Illich (Detroit Tigers owner); Larry Himes (Chicago Cubs special assistant to the general manager) and John Harrington (Boston Red Sox owner).

The media has also weighed in. Ed Randall, of ``Talking Baseball,'' took note of Funnell's job as a teacher for hearing-impaired and handicapped children:

``It is people like you that are the real heroes today. I commend your work teaching dance to retarded children. You're worth the $7 million dollars Barry Bonds gets paid.''

Funnell said he's received very few negative letters from players and just files those away. ``I just say a little prayer for them,'' he said.

Writing letters is just a part of Funnell's outreach. He has also conducted dozens of auctions of sports memorabilia from different sports to raised money for an AIDS hospice.

For example, Al Leiter, a pitcher who started Game 5 of the World Series for the Mets, has sent a pair of autographed cleats and 40 signed baseball cards. A set of shoes from the classic baseball movie ``Field of Dreams'' has also been auctioned. Brady Anderson, a favorite with many gay baseball fans for his shirtless poster, signed 18 baseball cards. Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner autographed a baseball. And golfers Hal Sutton and Jack Nicklaus each donated signed golf shoes.

The public climate for attitudes towards gays in baseball, and all sports, has warmed somewhat, Funnell said, and he gives credit to--of all people--John Rocker. The Atlanta Braves pitcher's xenophobic, racist and homophobic comments last year in Sports Illustrated caused an outcry.

``Since John Rocker we've seen a positive change,'' Funnell said. ``He wound up working for us rather than against us.''

But this increased tolerance doesn't mean Funnell would encourage any big leaguer to come out of the closet. He stills thinks it's too risky from what he hears as he travels around to baseball card shows and talks to people with access to players.

``If someone wanted to come out, I would say to him: Lie,'' Funnell said. There's still too much homophobia in the sport, especially in the locker room, he adds.

On balance, though, Funnell is cautiously optimistic that attitudes towards gays by those in the sports world are changing for the good.

``The fact that I've gotten these letters of support shows things are changing. We've got some allies out there. ... I was really touched by the beauty of the response. We do have support out there and we're not alone.''