Every day in October we’re looking back at the athletes, coaches and events that made LGBTQ sports history. Twenty-two years ago this week: New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza signed a 7-year/$91 million contract. He would hit .289/.367/.534 with 160 doubles, 197 home runs, and 579 RBIs.
And in 2002, Piazza held a news conference to declare, “I’m not gay. I’m heterosexual.” In doing so, he made many think he is, in fact, gay.
By Cyd Zeigler
In the June/July 2002 issue of Details magazine, then-New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine said he believed baseball was ready for an openly gay player. The New York Post, as they so often do, ran with it and wondered aloud if Valentine’s remarks were preparing everyone for one of his own players to come out. From the May 20, 2002 New York Post:
There is a persistent rumor around town that one Mets star who spends a lot of time with pretty models in clubs is actually gay and has started to think about declaring his sexual orientation.
Amidst swirling rumors that the gay player is him, the next day New York Met catcher Mike Piazza held a press conference to declare, “I’m not gay. I’m heterosexual.” And in doing so made many think he is in fact gay.
Piazza’s comments that day were actually rather respectful. He agreed with Valentine that baseball players, nine years ago, would accept a gay teammate:
In this day and age, it’s irrelevant. I don’t think it would be a problem at all.
Yet many people, particularly gay people, took offense. Whether Piazza’s comments were supportive or not, the implication to many was that being called gay was deemed so bad that you had to clear up the rumor. Either way, it’s hard to claim the press conference did more good than harm. “He plays for the Mets” quickly became shorthand for “he’s gay.” And the Piazza-gay rumors only intensified after the press conference. To this day, many think Piazza is gay based exclusively on that press conference; One mainstream sports Web site said in 2004: “When we think of gay athletes, the first one who comes to mind is Mike Piazza, then there is Olympic gold medalist diver, Greg Louganis.” Interestingly, Piazza’s Wikipedia page has been stripped of any reference to the controversy.
Piazza married a woman in 2005 and retired from baseball on May 20, 2008, six years to the day after the New York Post’s blind item ran. — Cyd Zeigler
“I found it hugely insulting that people believed I’d go so far out of my way — living with Playmates, vacationing with actresses, showing up at nightclubs — to act out a lifestyle that would amount to a charade,” he writes. “If I was gay, I’d be gay all the way.” — Jim Buzinski
Look for another story celebrating LGBTQ sports history tomorrow and every day this month.