"When is that damn baseball player going to come out of the closet?!"
I've been receiving some form of that e-mail for the past 15 years or so. Usually several a week. Sometimes more often. In fact, lately there's been a resurgence, in light of Michael Sam's and Jason Collins' high profile coming out events over the past year.
I'm not a sports agent for some in-the-closet MLB player, who I am somehow forbidding to reveal his sexual orientation. Actually, I write & draw a comic strip called Kyle's Bed & Breakfast, which features a gay, in-the-closet, minor-league baseball player, Brad Steele, as one of the lead characters. The comic strip is syndicated to a number of LGBT gay publications across the USA, and has a large readership on the Internet. From the beginning, Brad's story has been an integral part of the comic strip, and he's certainly become one of the most popular characters with readers, (the fact that he has a tendency to walk around the B&B in his gym shorts or tighty-whitey briefs hasn't hurt his popularity either. Or so I'm told).
In all honesty, though, the comic strip owes its very existence to Brad, and to baseball itself. Back in the 1990's, after I'd graduated college and was trying to break into the comic book industry, one of my first jobs I got hired for was drawing a comic book called "Baseball Superstars," a monthly comic book that featured a different major league baseball player's biography in each issue.
It wasn't the job I'd dreamed about, (I wanted to be drawing superhero comics for DC or Marvel), but it was good training. And I did have an extensive knowledge of baseball, having grown up in probably the most sports-crazed neighborhood in all of Long Island, NY, so I was able to portray baseball players and sports scenes pretty accurately. I had an interesting year or so drawing biographies of players like Pete Rose, Jose Canseco, Nolan Ryan, Ryne Sandberg, and a number of others.
What dawned on me during this time, (the early to mid-90s), as I was chronicling the lofty, (and occasionally sordid), tales of these various ballplayers, was that there was zero mention of anything gay in baseball. Although apparently Glenn Burke's teammates knew about him being gay while he was playing, it certainly wasn't reported in the media until well after his retirement. (Sadly, Glenn Burke was not one of the baseball players whose biography I got to draw). And certainly there were no officially out players in the 1990s (this was pre-Billy Bean. In fact, he was still playing in the major leagues at that time, in the closet).
I started wondering what life would be like for a gay player, and how he would navigate the ins and outs of the major leagues. Ever the cartoonist, pretty soon I was writing and drawing a little comic strip on the side about a gay baseball player named Brad Steele. Not thinking it would ever be published, it was more something to keep me amused during what was a not-very captivating job.
Fast forward about six months, and things had changed. I finally was drawing superheroes, for another company, (with a quick detour drawing one last sports comic book. This one for the NFL, who hired me for an eight-page story about NFL quarterbacks to run as an insert in some Marvel Comics issues. Yeah, when the NFL comes calling, it's kind of hard to say no). More importantly, though, I was still drawing the exploits of gay baseball player Brad Steele on the side. Only, now, I'd fleshed out the concept to have him living at a gay B&B with a bunch of other gay characters. It didn't take long for it to dawn on me that this comic strip was what I really needed to be doing, and in 1998, (after a few more detours), Kyle's B&B was launched, first running in Genre magazine and then gradually being picked up by a bunch of different regional LGBT gay publications across the country as the new millennium arrived.
Almost from the outset, the e-mails began: "When will Brad come out?" Some were angry. "How can you realistically portray an in-the-closet character in this day and age?" (Easily, considering the fact that there are NO out gay major league baseball players in the world today, it's the height of realism). Some readers are torn: they love Brad, because they think he's a super-hot dream guy, (I'll admit, he is pretty hot!), but they hate him because he's refused to come out to anyone outside of his friends at the B&B. Many readers, though, seem to feel empathy for Brad, despite his reluctance to come out publicly, he's a decent guy who's trying to navigate his way in a very high-pressure situation. A great many readers have envisioned Brad having a big coming-out story arc and have written me with florid story ideas about how they'd like to see it happen.
And still, he has not come out of the closet.
What am I waiting for? Actually, I can't believe no one has realized why I don't want to go there. The reason is this: I'm waiting for the first real-life baseball player to come out before Brad does. And why is that? Because I don't want Brad to be the first. Because when it does happen in real life, when baseball gets its first Michael Sam or Jason Collins, that will entirely negate any stories in Kyle's B&B about Brad being the first player to come out. At which point, I'll be forced to ignore or "retcon" a large chunk of the comic strip's history, omitting any details about Brad being the first out player.
If I have him come out now, I'll have to write him going through all of the sorts of insanity that Michael Sam just endured. The CNN interviews, the presidential calls, even the ESPN boyfriend kissing moments, (and ensuing uproar). Don't get me wrong, I think it would be a lot of fun to write and draw all of that, and have Brad be the first out and proud gay baseball player. But then, look at what would happen. If a real-life baseball player comes out next year, (or in two years, five years? It has to happen sooner or later), all of the story lines featuring Brad as this "historic" first player to come out won't make any sense. This is especially a concern because many folks first exposure to Kyle's B&B is through the book compilations that have been published, (three so far, I'm working on Book 4 right now). Those readers will be especially thrown if they read Brad's coming out story as the first gay player, after the fact of a real-life player coming out.
I really hadn't planned for things to go on this long. If you'd told me in 1998, when the strip debuted, that by 2014 there still wouldn't be an out gay baseball player, I probably wouldn't have believed that. I figured within about five years, at least one MLB player would've come out, made history, and then I could've worked Brad's own coming out story into the comic strip without all the fictional fanfare.
But it hasn't happened. The good news is, the passage of time in Kyle's B&B, (like most other comic strips and comic books), is in what is commonly known as "Comic Book Time." Like Superman, Batman, even Archie, (how long has he been in high school?), comics characters seem to have an extremely slowed-down rate of aging. Some time has certainly passed since the debut of Kyle's B&B, but Brad is still in his early '20s, and judging from the storylines, he's only been in the minor leagues for a few years. So, he's got a whole lot of future ahead of him, and plenty of time to come out to the masses.
I hope that I've cleared up for everyone who writes me, (and for those who don't write me, but who are wondering), just why Brad hasn't come out yet.
And if there are any in-the-closet minor or major league baseball players reading this, please come out, already! Let Brad have a life outside the closet! Honestly, I think the real story here is how statistically improbable it is that there hasn't been one single out player in the majors or minor leagues yet.
There are 750 baseball players in the major leagues. And in the minor leagues? 6,125 players, (at least, according to the data I could find). That makes a total of 6,875 baseball players in the major and minor leagues combined. Now, if you apply even an outrageously low percentage to that figure to determine gay players, let's say1%, that makes 68 players who are gay. I would think, even on a purely mercenary level, one of them would do it just to cash in on the cachet of being the first out gay baseball player in history. But, so far, no dice.
I hope it happens real soon. Because if it doesn't, I may change my mind about all this and let Brad have his big moment. I'll let him be the historic first out active gay guy in baseball, even if it does make things wacky in my comic strip's timeline.
Only then, I'll have to figure out just whose face he's gonna smash that celebration cake into.
Greg Fox is the writer/artist of Kyle's Bed & Breakfast, of which there are three book collections in print (one of which was a Lambda Literary Award Finalist for "Best Humor Book" of the year). He is currently working on the fourth volume, while continuing to pump out new episodes of the comic strip biweekly. The comic strip can be viewed online at www.kylecomics.com.