When Major League Baseball held its first Diversity Business Summit in 2012, not a single attendee identified themselves as LGBT on their application. It was a surprise for Wendy Lewis, MLB's senior vice-president of diversity and strategic alliances. The annual event was created to increase the diversity of people in the front offices of MLB teams and to provide opportunities for minority business owners to win contracts from teams. The summit's environment celebrated diversity, yet the LGBT people there still didn't believe it was safe to be out.
Lewis knew some of the gay and lesbian attendees at that first summit and felt a tinge of disappointment that the aura of pro sports made them feel uncomfortable sharing that piece of themselves up front.
"Some people were guarded about that," Lewis told Outsports last week, "because they were afraid that would make a difference in a negative way."
It was a wake-up call for Lewis and Major League Baseball. For years "diversity" in sports had meant inclusion along the lines of race and gender. Other colors of the spectrum, including ability and veteran status, were certainly in the mix. Sexual orientation? Gender identity? In the professional sports atmosphere of 2012, they weren't on the radar screen. Those pieces of a candidate's identity were, they believed, reason to hide.
Oh how times have changed in just three years. Over the last six months MLB's ambassador for inclusion, openly gay former player Billy Bean, has worked with Lewis to build a more proactive program of LGBT outreach. Earlier this year Bean suited up for batting practice with some teams, including the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers, all part of a key visibility campaign to demonstrate the welcoming environment of the league's teams.
When Bean heard about the Diversity Business Summit, he saw a unique opportunity to forge concrete opportunities for LGBT people in baseball. Even if he doesn't have an active player ready to come out to the world, the summit is his opportunity to build visibility and inclusion from within the front offices. He has personally recruited LGBT attendees for next year's summit and has been reaching out to various individuals and organizations to make sure a multitude of LGBT candidates attend.
"With Billy coming on board, that makes a critical difference in how we want the discussions to go and what the outreach is," Lewis said. "With him participating full-scale on this, there is now much more outreach to the LGBT community. We anticipate in 2016 and '17 that we will have more people self-selecting that."
Royals playoff run inspires gay team exec
Matt Schulte didn't want to be gay. That was the revelation the lifelong Kansas City Royals fan arrived at two months ago as his team — who is now also his employer — was fighting for a playoff spot.
The message: Baseball wants openly gay people in team front offices, and the teams aren't shying away from it.
Since launching the program in 2012, MLB teams have made 130 offers to a wide range of applicants from the diversity summit, 115 of which were accepted (at .885, a fantastic batting average). Lewis knows of at least one privately out LGBT person amongst that 130 who has been placed with a team from the summit, the others representing different races and genders.
All 30 MLB teams will be present at the next summit, to be held March 8-9, 2016, in Phoenix. That means opportunities for people no matter where in the country they want to work.
GLAAD, the country's leading LGBT media and visibility organization, has already committed to supplying five young people with roundtrip airline tickets via Southwest Airlines to make sure cost isn't a barrier to full inclusion.
"GLAAD is always excited to work with our friends at Major League Baseball to support LGBT inclusion," said Zeke Stokes, vice president of programs at GLAAD. "And the upcoming Diversity Summit provides a unique opportunity for us to connect LGBT students looking to work in baseball with key decision-makers who can help guide them as they begin their careers."
MLB, with Lewis and Bean at the helm, is kicking down the closet door to team front offices. Truth is, that door has been quietly open for some time.
A growing network of out MLB executives
A year ago, Outsports featured one of those young people just starting on his career path, Kansas City Royals employee Matt Schulte. At the time he was afraid of possible negative reactions inside baseball and in the larger Midwest community. In the 12 months since that piece ran, Schulte said he hasn't had a single negative response from coworkers, fans or anyone else. Not one.
Oh, and his team won the 2015 World Series.
One of Schulte's most welcome surprises has been a small but growing network of out gay MLB team executives who are quickly coalescing into a very informal support group, each of them boasting strong support from their own teams.
"Having that network of people like me in Major League Baseball helps a ton," Schulte said. "It gives me more stability and reassurance. I can utilize them as a resource. They're older than I am, so it gives me the chance to see the future for me. I feel like someone might have my back, someone who might be a friend and not just a coworker."
For any LGBT person looking for a career with Major League Baseball, it's increasingly clear they will not be alone.
When Greg Bader first joined the Baltimore Orioles as an intern in 1994, the idea of merging his personal and professional lives was an impossibility. A student at Trinity College in Connecticut, his dream job had always been to work for his lifelong favorite hometown team. Cal Ripken, Jr., was fast approaching baseball's "iron man" record of consecutive games played, and the sport's attention trained more and more on "Charm City." Working for the Orioles at that time was truly a dream come true.
Being open about his sexual orientation at work wasn't a dream Bader felt he could entertain.
"My assumption at the time was that I would have to keep those two lives separate, and the sports world wasn't necessarily where someone could be open with who they were," Bader said last week, a month after the Orioles' season ended and already juggling the increasing demands for next season. "A lot has changed a great deal, and much in part due to Billy's hiring and MLB's clear stance on this issue from the league and team levels. You are welcomed for who you are and what you bring, and your diverse backgrounds are seen as a positive."
Yet it was well before Bean's hiring 15 months ago that Bader's eyes first opened. When he came out to coworkers in 2007, he received nothing but warm support. While it would be five years before Maryland legalized same-sex marriage, the team front office embraced Bader and his now-husband, with whom he has been in a relationship for 15 years, from the get-go.
"Since I first told them, the environment here has always been very welcoming, and I've never felt uncomfortable," Bader said. "My coworkers and the media have known for a while, and we're all learning more and more about each other. That encourages those who are LGBT to get into the world of baseball."
Bader, the team's vice-president of communications and marketing, often works closely with the players. Mirroring the reaction from the suits in the front office, Bader said he hasn't seen even a raised eyebrow from any of the players, some of whom come-and-go in the often turnstile world of MLB rosters, and some of whom have stuck around for years.
"At the team level and with the MLB front office and other clubs, the same societal changes that have taken place so dramatically have taken place in sports as well. Baseball is not immune to that. Changes for the better are being mirrored within baseball."
Steve Reed has had a similar experience being out in one of baseball's 30 team front offices. Two years ago the human resources executive pursued what he called "a great opportunity" to match his skill set with a job with a Major League Baseball team. While it wasn't with his hometown Kansas City Royals, the lifelong baseball fan embraced the sudden chance to live out a dream and took a job as the Washington Nationals' director of human resources.
It wasn't long before Reed stepped out of the closet with his new team. Engaged in a conversation with his new boss about an upcoming holiday party, Reed took the opportunity to organically come out.
"Would it be a problem if I brought my boyfriend to the holiday party?" He asked. Reed had previously been married to a woman, who is now one of his best friends. He had lived life in the closet for most of his adult life, having dated men for only a few years. He didn't want to go back into hiding just because he was suddenly working in professional sports.
"No, not at all," his boss replied. "He's welcome."
Having worked for The Walt Disney Company before heading to the Nationals, Reed had become accustomed to acceptance from coworkers at one of the world's largest entertainment companies. The nonchalant embrace by his new baseball boss may not have been a surprise for Reed, but it was a relief.
"People still perceive that Major League Baseball teams are close-minded organizations," Reed said. "That's not the case at all. You see a lot of diversity in color and sexual orientation."
While these three men -- Reed, Bader and Schulte -- are the only men to talk publicly about being gay with a Major League Baseball team front office (Laura Ricketts, part owner of the Chicago Cubs, is an out lesbian), they have all connected with other current and potential future employees. Nationals bat boy Spenser Clark, who seeks an MLB career, came out publicly on Outsports last week and has already connected with Bean and these men.
With MLB's concerted efforts, there are more coming. The network is growing.
Billy Bean is pushing MLB fast into the future
At the center of all of this is Bean. In his high-profile diversity role with MLB, he has become the hub of a once-fractured gay community inside baseball that is now coalescing around MLB's very public embrace. Bean is connecting these people with one another, strengthening the support structure he is now expanding with the Diversity Business Summit and other initiatives.
While other major professional sports leagues have released statements of support for LGBT athletes, or engaged in relationships with a couple LGBT organizations or individuals, MLB's hiring of Bean and their ensuing proactive initiatives have set the league ahead of the other men's leagues on these issues.
"I do think Billy's hiring changed things for me personally," Bader said. "It wasn't seen as just a statement that 'we're simply going to add language about sexual orientation protection.' This was a genuine effort to make sure LGBT people knew they were protected and accepted.
"Billy's hiring and having the chance to talk with him was a huge step because we have someone in the commissioner's office tasked with real jobs and to provide opportunities for others. That reality really set in when Billy came on board."
The building of LGBT visibility in team front offices has been a huge priority for Bean. While he would love to have more players come out publicly, he knows it can be a longer journey with returns in the future. What he can do right now is connect these LGBT people in front offices, raise their visibility within the league and the public at large, and deliberately seek more qualified LGBT candidates to join MLB teams.
"Everyone has been waiting for the next player to come out," Bean said, "but I want to have huge numbers of diversity on the business side of the sport, so baseball becomes a result of what it is on the business side."
MLB's Diversity Business Summit in March will be a real test for the league. Eyes will be trained on the 30 teams, eager to see who will give a chance to out LGBT candidates and LGBT-owned businesses. With so much invested in the program by Lewis, Bean and the MLB front office, the next six months will be their time to deliver on their promise. Lewis welcomes the scrutiny.
"If you're trying to create true engagement, the only measure is what happens to the folks involved," Lewis said. "We constantly look toward what happened to the people. If we want to be taken seriously, we need to hold ourselves to accountability."
You can follow the MLB Diversity Business Summit on Twitter @MLB_DBS. For information on applying for the summit, head to MLB.com.