When Billy Bean was hired by Major League Baseball as the league's first Ambassador for Inclusion in the summer of 2014, he had every reason to celebrate. He had been out of the league for two decades and had in recent years been looking for a way to help LGBT people in sports. The job was perfect for him. Yet instead of celebrating in those first few weeks on the job, Bean kept his eyes focused on his important work ahead of him.
"I'm excited. Now I've got work to do." That was about the extent of his celebration. He knew the celebrating would come with his accomplishments in the position, not in landing it.
In retrospect, Bean was always the perfect person for a job like this because he knows intimately what's at stake. As a player he famously skipped his deceased partner's funeral lest someone with the San Diego Padres suspect he's gay. He has, in a way, been trying to make amends for that mistake ever since by ensuring that no one else ever has to make that choice again.
In his 18 months with Major League Baseball, Bean has vaulted the league ahead of the other Big Five leagues in addressing LGBT issues. What set him and his program apart this year are three main components.
The visibility he brought to the game last spring by suiting up for batting practice or a game with several clubs - including the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets and Detroit Tigers - was a genius move by him and the teams who welcomed him. While Bean may not have an out player in the Big Leagues to work with, he knew the power of putting on those jerseys and taking the field. By doing so he created conversations in each of the locker rooms and the fan bases and demonstrated an opportunity for gay players in the closet. He didn't come out while he was a player, but this was as close as he could possibly get.
Bean has also been working with people in MLB to come out publicly. Minor League player David Denson wouldn't have shared his true self with the world if he hadn't had Bean to talk with and lean on, or if Bean hadn't had the weight of the league front office behind him. Bean also worked with Washington Nationals executive Steve Reed to find the right way to step out of the closet. Bean is working with more as you read this.
His most brilliant stroke has been with the front offices. While he can't push athletes or managers out of the closet, he can identify front-office opportunities for people already out and help them get jobs. For the last seven months Bean has been on a campaign recruiting LGBT attendees for MLB's Diversity Business Summit, which will open doors with MLB team front offices for attendees. This is huge.
All of this has been in addition to the countless presentations he's given to players, managers and team front-office executives across the league, and his work helping the league front office set policy and procedure.
This year Bean has demonstrated a deep understanding of how to truly shift the culture of a sports league, and Major League Baseball has given him all the resources and access he needs to execute it. The result of his efforts? In the last 18 months, four front-office executives, on ball boy, one umpire and two Minor League players -- one current and one former -- have come out publicly. That bests the other four Big Five sports leagues combined. Bean has been at the center of it all, creating a support network within baseball - and reaching other sports - that will bear fruit for years to come.
For his tireless work for equality in 2015, Billy Bean is Outsports' Male Hero of the Year.
Our runners-up for Male Hero of the Year, all of whom helped LGBT people in and out of sports in 2015:
- Chris Mosier. We debated whether to put Mosier in the Athlete or Hero of the Year category. Having earned a spot on the U.S. Duathlon team, Mosier had an impressive year in competition. Yet few terms describe Mosier better than "Hero," not just for his athletic success but for the visibility he brings trans athletes and the poise and smarts with which he tackles the issues facing athletes like him.
- Phil Claudy. The Dartmouth runner wasn't content finding his way out of deep depression. He wanted to give back, so he decided to run the Philadelphia Marathon to raise money for The Trevor Project, which hosts a suicide hotline for LGBT youth. He ultimately raised over $8,500 for the organization.
- Braeden Lange and Andrew Goldstein. It seems these two may be tied together for the rest of their lives. When 12-year-old lacrosse player Lange came out to his parents, he was beaten down by despair. Former lacrosse player Goldstein came to the rescue with a helmet and words of encouragement. Out of their friendship grew The Courage Game, and now Lange has started a non-profit to help homeless LGBT youth in Philadelphia.