Tyler Dunnington, for the first time, felt the crunch of the Busch Stadium warning track under his feet.
The St. Louis Cardinals’ 28th round pick in 2014 wasn’t wearing baseball pants, spikes, or a jersey.
Instead, Dunnington walked from the Cardinals’ first-base dugout to behind home plate Friday night wearing black jeans, light brown dress shoes, and a white Nautica polo shirt.
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound former right-handed pitcher walked on the field flanked by Billy Bean, MLB vice president of social responsibility and inclusion, and John Mozeliak, the Cardinals president of baseball operations. Bean, a former MLB player who in 1999 came out publicly as gay, and Dunnington were Friday’s honored guests of the Cardinals for the organization’s first official LGBT Pride Night.
“It’s a little bit of a surreal feeling knowing that I was once part of this organization and then to know that they’re hosting a Pride Night,” Dunnington told Outsports. “It’s a testament to show that baseball is for everyone, especially Cardinals baseball.”
Dunnington, who in 2016 came out publicly as gay, felt driven out of baseball by homophobic language used by his teammates during his first year in the Cardinals’ Minor League system, and he retired from baseball and left the Cardinals organization after the 2014 season.
“Given the events of tonight and, more importantly, being an ex-Minor League player in the organization, we wanted to welcome him back, and more importantly, we want him to feel welcome any time,” Mozeliak said Friday of Dunnington. “That’s what I hope to convey, and more importantly, that’s what I hope he experiences.”
Pride Night and the Cardinals’ embrace of Dunnington certainly created good will with the St. Louis LGBT community. But for many, it was somewhat offset because of the franchise’s decision to have Lance Berkman speak in July at Christian Day.
Berkman, a member of the 2011 Cardinals World Series team, has campaigned against LGBT rights, and the Cardinals didn’t announce Friday’s Pride Night until they were in the midst of backlash for having Berkman speak.
“It’s about time,” St. Louis resident Sandy Hille said. “They do Christian night. They might as well do this, too. We can be Christian and gay, too. What’s the big deal?”
Hille, who is Christian and gay, attended the game with Cheri Simher, who is also gay. They decided to come to the game to show the Cardinals that they have LGBT fans. They were two of the 3,000 or so fans who bought tickets through the Cardinals for Pride Night. The official attendance Friday was 40,050, for a game the Tampa Bay Rays won 7-3.
More than a hundred people took a different approach and held a protest outside the stadium. Grace Burghoff, a protest leader, said part of the protest’s goal — along with drowning out the six people with anti-LGBT signs from Westboro Baptist Church — was to show their displeasure with what he said was the Cardinals’ flippant treatment of the LGBT community.
“We don’t want Ballpark Village or Busch Stadium to be taking our queer money and pandering to us in this way — Sorry we invited that bigoted speaker, but here’s gay pride night, come spend money,” Burghoff said. “They win no matter what, and we’re not about that. We are not a commodity. We are not to be bought and sold like that.”
Before Friday’s game, Mozeliak was asked if the backlash to Berkman led to the Cardinals having Pride Night.
“When you have somebody being singled out or a group being singled out, it doesn’t make sense for our business model,” Mozeliak said. “We have to think about all our fans. We don’t want to get into a spot where you’re pushing and pulling.”
Mozeliak explained the reason the Cardinals had Pride Night.
“We as the Cardinals want to be an inclusive organization and want to welcome everyone. I felt like, and I think we as an organization felt like, we don’t want to get pigeonholed into — you only do this group and you don’t do that group. … We want to be welcoming to everybody because we like people to wear Cardinal hats and Cardinal shirts, and we want them to feel welcome at this ballpark.”
Acknowledgements of Pride Night around Busch Stadium were few and far between. The only rainbow flag displayed in the stadium was at a small trailer on the fourth level that distributed hats with a rainbow STL logo for people who bought tickets through the Cardinals for Pride Night. The Cardinals had no bisexual or transgender flags displayed in the stadium.
Mozeliak was in front of a microphone for more than 30 minutes before Friday’s game, and he never said lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or LGBT. He did say “homosexual” once.
“Whether it’s somebody that is homosexual, whether it’s someone that is from a foreign country, you don’t want them to feel like they’re pushing the rock up a hill and they’re not going to be successful because of their fear and intimidation of what might be going on in the clubhouse,” Mozeliak said.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, who spoke ahead of Lance Berkman at July’s Christian Day ceremony, also didn’t say lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or LGBT when speaking to the media before Friday’s game. He also reaffirmed his comment in July that being Christian “isn’t publicly acceptable” and to talk about it “takes a great amount of courage.”
“Speaking out about your faith is one [thing] that doesn’t seem to have as much acceptance,” Matheny said Friday.
While the Cardinals’ Christian Day included a 45-minute postgame ceremony, fans did not have the opportunity to hear from current players, Bean or Dunnington at Pride Night.
St. Louis starting pitcher Mike Leake was the only active player Outsports had the opportunity to interview Friday, and he was excited to be on the team for the Cardinals’ inaugural Pride Night.
“It’s part of this nation and part of this world. It’s part of us,” Leake said of the LGBT community. “I’ve been around lesbian, gay and transgender [people]. It’s not a big deal to me. … I’m happy to be part of the first [Pride Night] here in St. Louis.”
Dunnington said it felt great to be at Busch Stadium while sitting in the dugout before walking on the field. He waved when he was introduced to the crowd, and he continued to stand with Mozeliak and Bean as St. Louis transgender performer Tassandra Crush threw out the ceremonial first pitch from a major league mound, a spot Dunnington had tried to reach throughout his youth, high school and college baseball career.
When he walked across the warning track to leave, Dunnington had spent 13 minutes on the Busch Stadium field. He had a watch on his left wrist instead of a glove on his left hand.
It was a brief return to baseball before going home to Olympia, Wash., where he said he works on the business side of the physical-therapy profession.
“I’m just glad to be here and feel welcomed by the Cardinals,” Dunnington said as he left the field.
Erik Hall is a member of the Associated Press Sports Editors, National Sports Media Association, and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. He can be reached on Facebook, Twitter @HallErik, or by email at email@example.com