We could all use a little extra dose of humanity right about now. Which was why I wanted to speak to Billy Bean.
Specifically, I wanted to get his reaction to a pretty amazing story dropped in the middle of The Athletic’s recent deep dive into the current state of MLB’s link to the LGBTQ community. (Their story is behind a paywall.)
According to Brittany Ghiroli and C. Trent Rosecrans’s reporting, last year while warming up in the Philadelphia bullpen, Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle was heckled by a leather-lunged fan repeatedly dropping the antigay slur that made Thom Brennaman a household name.
Obviously, that’s happened before in baseball. But what was different about this incident was that Doolittle’s teammates heard the bigoted vitriol and decided to do something about it by confronting the fan, calling security, and having him ejected. To my eyes, that feels like a noteworthy event in baseball’s relationship with the community. And it’s cause for rejoicing.
Bean felt uplifted by that moment too. Speaking from his official position with the league—first as MLB’s Ambassador for Inclusion and now as Vice President and Special Assistant to the Commissioner—he felt that this was evidence of not just the power of his message of inclusion but also of the growth of allies within the game...
“For me, that is the best example of our players absorbing the education programming that I am a big part of at MLB. And there’s no message, there’s no soapbox big enough for me to step on and talk about socially responsible topics that would have as big an impact as the one a current active player can make. When our players become our ambassadors, it really validates the time and effort.”
Having played from 1987-95, Bean’s career took place in a much different era — a time where he admitted “fans would say [slurs] whenever they wanted. We just weren’t at that place and time where we realized that that is not acceptable.”
Compared to the game of his era, the actions of Doolittle’s teammates served as evidence that baseball could be changing for the better. Bean went so far as to declare, “I don’t think anyone who has followed baseball for more than ten years can deny how much progress has taken place... all the while understanding we have a long way to go.”
To borrow a baseball metaphor, this incident feels a bit like the moment in a lengthy rebuilding effort when the next generation of players starts showing what they can do and you realize, “Oh my god, this is starting to pay off!” That’s one of the most exciting times to be a baseball fan and it’s fair to say moments like this are a similar reason to feel good about the direction in which the game is moving.
Regarding the inspiration behind this particular moment of hope, Bean gave a lot of credit to Doolittle for all the work he and wife Eireann Dolan have done to set a precedent for embracing the community:
“There’s no denying that Sean’s willingness to live his truth on his sleeve or his cleats and have his wife as an amazing champion for the same causes and their willingness to put it all out there on social media has an impact on his teammates. Plus he’s a great pitcher and he’s an All Star and he is a great teammate.”
In some ways, the visible solidarity from the allies in the Nats bullpen was reminiscent of the support Bean received from his straight friends in baseball like Trevor Hoffman and Brad Ausmus after he came out himself. The only difference is that Bean was only afforded the opportunity to hear that support after leaving the game, as he remained in the closet throughout his playing career for fear of putting the life he’d achieved in jeopardy.
It’s a regret that still gnaws at him, as he admitted, “I realized that I shouldn’t have quit on myself and that these guys were not only my teammates but they were like my brothers... it was healing but it was painful.”
However, his harrowing experiences hiding his true self during his playing days informed the person Bean has become at his current job. And the belated positive responses he got from his teammates served to give him a sense of mission in the present day:
“It can even make me emotional now. Because not only do I admire Trevor Hoffman and Brad Ausmus and Archi Cianfrocco and Dave Hansen and Chris Donnels and guys that I played with but [they reminded] me that, ‘You’re just Billy! You should’ve given us a chance.’ That’s where the inspiration for me comes from. Trying to encourage [today’s] players to understand what an amazing moment they’re living in and how fragile it all can be.”
Which is ultimately why Billy Bean’s work with MLB is so valuable. Because he uses his experience to educate modern players about his experience as a gay man in the game, he’s primed this generation of teammates to be the kind of visible allies who stepped up up against hatespeech in Philadelphia. And thanks to that resultant atmosphere of acceptance, hopefully at some point soon, the next generation of Billy Beans will not have to hide who they are until after their career ends.
That’s a remarkable achievement. While Bean looks back on his career and wonders “What if,” the fact of the matter is that he’s used that same career to have a huge impact on making the game a better place today. I’d even go so far as to say he’s done more for present-day baseball than most players who have reached the big leagues—even some of the greats.
It’s been an interesting year overall for the game in relation to its LGBTQ fanbase. On the one hand, MLB went the entire season without a single player dropping an anti-gay slur for the first time since 2016. In referencing that report, I feel a bit like channeling Jack Nicholson from “Mars Attacks” while adding “...and that ain’t bad!” But even Cal Ripken’s streak had to start somewhere.
Still, on the other hand: Thom Brennaman. Baseball definitely has a ways to go.
But after speaking to Billy Bean and realizing that MLB has more Amir Garretts and Sean Doolittles than ever before, it definitely feels like there’s reason to hope that it’s on the right path. Which was why I wanted to talk to him in the first place.