Of all the heartbreaking emails I've received through Outsports over the last several years, this message from former Minor League Baseball player Tyler Dunnington is one of the most heartbreaking:
After visiting Outsports a few times, I wanted to share my story with you.
My name's Tyler Dunnington, and I was a 28th-round pick by the St Louis Cardinals in the 2014 MLB Draft. I was one of the not-so-many players to be given a chance to pursue my dream of being a Major League Baseball player.
I was also one of the unfortunate closeted gay athletes who experienced years of homophobia in the sport I loved. I was able to take most of it with a grain of salt but towards the end of my career I could tell it was affecting my relationships with people, my performance, and my overall happiness.
I experienced both coaches and players make remarks on killing gay people during my time in baseball, and each comment felt like a knife to my heart. I was miserable in a sport that used to give me life, and ultimately I decided I needed to hang up my cleats for my own sanity.
After a little over a year of being gone from the game I've come to realize I thought I was choosing happiness over being miserable. That is not necessarily the case. My passion still lies in baseball, and removing myself from the game didn't change that. Most of the greatest memories I have are with this sport. After gaining acceptance from my friends and family I realized I didn't have to quit baseball to find happiness.
I not only wanted to share my story but also apologize for not using the stage I had to help change the game. Quitting isn't the way to handle adversity, and I admire the other athletes acting as trailblazers.
Dunnington's college career spanned three institutions. The pitcher spent two years in the community college ranks at Skagit Valley College outside of Seattle and College of Southern Idaho. Then his career took off at Division II Colorado Mesa College. Keeping his sexual orientation from his teams, he heard homophobic language in the locker room, the members of the teams having no idea there was a gay man in their midst. While his overall experiences with each team were positive, the anti-gay comments didn't help.
It was comments from a member of one of the coaching staffs - yes, a coach - that have lingered with him the longest. Somehow chatter one day brewed about gay people, and the coach made a bragging reference to the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard.
"We kill gay people in Wyoming," the college coach said.
The comment killed Dunnington's spirit.
In 2014 Dunnington left Colorado Mesa and headed to the Gulf Coast League Cardinals, a Florida-based affiliate of the St. Louis team that had drafted him. Between that team and the State College Spikes, Dunnington finished the season with a 4-2 record and two saves with an ERA of 3.09.
"He had a good season, statistically, though he was a couple years older than the average player in his league," said Grant Brisbee, senior baseball writer at SBNation.
Also along the way came an unfortunate locker-room conversation. One teammate with the Cardinals mentioned that he has a gay brother. While there was some supportive talk, two teammates in particular questioned their straight teammate on how he could possibly be friends with a gay person, even his brother. They even mentioned ways to kill gay people.
When it came time a year ago to head to Spring Training, Dunnington bowed out. He was done with baseball. His family was bewildered. Baseball had been part of Dunninton's identity for most of his life. Not knowing his sexual orientation or the language he had heard in college and pro locker rooms, they were dumbfounded.
As Dunnington said in his email to me, he felt he had to choose between being an out gay man or playing baseball. He was increasingly miserable in the latter, so he chose the former and retired from baseball after just one Minor League season.
Homophobic language had driven an MLB prospect from the sport he loved and the sport at which he excelled. The makings of a Shakespearean tragedy.
Coming out to people in his life over the last 12 months, reading the stories of other out athletes, and watching the work of Billy Bean in Major League Baseball, Dunnington now realizes he didn't have to leave baseball to be openly gay. Even with some harsh language from coaches and teammates, he sees a community of people like him who provide support. He also sees the shifting tide in sports and the disconnect between the anti-gay language "jocks" sometimes use and their deeper adoration for their teammates.
With his playing days behind him, Dunnington is now looking to get back into baseball in a team front office. He attended the MLB Diversity Business Summit in Phoenix last week, thanks in part to some last-minute wrangling by Bean and the Sports Equality Foundation. To return to baseball as an out gay man would, like Bean felt two years ago when he returned to the sport he loves, be the ultimate validation of his true self.
You can reach Tyler Dunnington on Facebook, or on Instagram @Tyler_Dunnington. You can also email him at Dunnington.email@example.com.