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Teammates' gay jokes were sign of acceptance for minor league pitcher after he came out

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'In baseball, they represent a strange sort of progress,' writes one of the executives who signed Sean Conroy.

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Sean Conroy in 2015
Sean Conroy in 2015

Last year, Sean Conroy, a minor league pitcher with the Sonoma Stompers of the independent Pacific Association of Baseball Clubs, came out publicly as gay, the first active pro baseball player to do so. While he was outwardly accepted, it wasn't until teammates started joking with him about gay stuff that he knew he was truly one of them.

"In a normal workplace, these comments would be grounds for a lawsuit, or at the very least a sensitivity seminar. In baseball, they represent a strange sort of progress." These words are from Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller from their new book "The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team."

Lindbergh and Miller were two writers who became novice baseball executives. The Stompers let them run their baseball operations and use analytics to build a team. Among the players they discovered and signed was Conroy. They signed him for his baseball ability and had no idea he was gay until Conroy came out prior to starting last June on the team's Pride Night.

Initially after Conroy came out, the language in the clubhouse became "almost Victorian," they write in an excellent excerpt on Slate. Conroy was self-conscious and wondered if his teammates were being totally open with him about their feelings. Then things changed, as they write:

Gradually, though, the language loosens. During a pregame Smash Bros. [video game] session about a week after the announcement, Jon Rand, who’s one of Sean’s closest friends on the team, makes a joke about "playing Smash with fairy boy." He’s talking about Link, the hero of The Legend of Zelda and the character he’s controlling in the game, but he’s also talking about Sean, who’s seated beside him. By the time everyone turns toward Sean to gauge his reaction, he’s already smiling.

That smile seems to open the offensive floodgates. In the dugout one day, Jon brags about how his butt looks in baseball pants, and someone else says Sean’s looks better. "Hey, buy me dinner first," Sean responds. On another night, Sean is pitching against San Rafael and working so quickly that he can’t wait to return to the mound after a half-inning off. "Sean, slow down and let me put a dip in my mouth," [catcher] Isaac [Wenrich] says. "That wasn’t a gay reference. I said dip." On still another night, [Fehlandt Lentini], the Stompers’ manager, yells, "At least lube us up, at least give us some K-Y" at one of the many umpires he thinks is squeezing the Stompers.

And during a cold, windy game in Vallejo, I sit in the bullpen, listening in on a conversation in which the other relievers ask Sean about "signals," or ways to tell whether someone is gay. Reliever Erik Gonsalves suggests the silliest signals he can think of — flight attendants with crooked name tags, or drivers with their side mirrors fully extended. Isaac, serving as the bullpen catcher on a scheduled rest day, observes that the right fielder is wearing sunglasses on his hat even though the sun has long since set. He asks if that’s a signal. I look at Sean and see that he has multiple sunglasses on his hat — his own, and also Jon’s, since the lefty left his with his friend when he entered the game. "That’s the signal," I say, pointing at Sean’s hat. "Two pairs of sunglasses." He laughs. Now even I’m doing it.

In a normal workplace, these comments would be grounds for a lawsuit, or at the very least a sensitivity seminar. In baseball, they represent a strange sort of progress. "You can kinda tell when people are holding back from jokes they would make, so the more days that go by, the more every once in a while people start to be OK with it," Sean says. "And I’m trying to jump right on and be like, ‘OK, yeah, yeah, that’s fine. Keep doing that.’ It’s what makes me feel comfortable."

This is spot on. We have heard the same from many other gay athletes who have come out. Once teammates mocked their fashion sense or tried to play gay matchmaker or asked for hair care advice, the comfort level grew dramatically. The jokes and teasing are a sign the player is now family, and nothing is off-limits with family.

Conroy will be on the Stompers' roster this season and he can expect the jokes to continue. He wouldn't want it any other way.

The Slate excerpt on how Conroy was signed — "We picked Sean Conroy off a spreadsheet. We didn't realize he'd be the first openly gay player in pro baseball history" — is wonderfully detailed and well worth your time.