Billy Bean makes me proud to be a baseball fan. Which isn’t the kind of thing usually said about career .226 hitters. But he turned out to be that rarest of athletes—a player whose true impact on the game began after he quit.
For starters, Bud Selig did a great thing when he brought Billy Bean back into Major League Baseball in an official capacity. That, in and of itself, is already a story. Usually, the greatest accomplishment of Selig’s tenure as commissioner was when you could say, “Hey, you made it to the end of the World Series without canceling it! Good job!”
But since 2014 when Bean was first named as MLB’s Ambassador for Inclusion and in his current role as Vice President and Special Assistant to the Commissioner, he has become one of the game’s most prominent advocates for diversity and the LGBTQ community.
“It’s funny because when I came back to baseball, I had such a low opinion of myself as a player. And as I’ve been around a lot of my colleagues from the times when we played, they always remind me that I should’ve had a great career.
“And it makes me smile and it makes me cry almost at the same time because I have tremendous disappointment. And because I didn’t know where to look for any kind of guidance... I wasn’t in a place where I felt comfortable with myself. It was a different time and place.”
Like many aspects of Bean’s tumultuous playing career, that’s heartbreaking. It’s got to be tremendously hard for Bean to look back on his time as an active player with that much regret. But when you hear him tell his story about the lengths he went through to keep his sexuality a secret in the outright hostile climate of late-80s and mid-90s MLB and the all-consuming fear he experienced every day, you certainly understand why he didn’t reach his full potential at the highest level of the game.
You also begin to view Bean’s professional disappointment with compassion. And hope that one day, he’ll be able to do so as well.
Another important thing to realize: one aspect that all ex-players struggle with is the transition from the end of their baseball careers to living a life in the “real world.” But in his role as the head of MLB’s inclusion efforts, Bean has led one of the greatest and most fulfilling post-playing careers of anybody in baseball history. He was able to do so in large part because his life as a player was so harrowing that he wanted to make sure that no one who followed him would ever have to go through a similar experience.
As Bean further related on LPF, “If I was a player now, I know for a fact that I would be able to play with a sense of love in my heart for myself and confidence. I’m not saying that I would be strong enough to play out and open but I know that I would have a huge support group that knew about me.”
The fact that Bean is able to articulate how much better his experience would be in today’s MLB is a credit to all he has accomplished during his time in baseball’s front office. He’s put in years worth of work from sharing his story with other players at spring training camps and on MLB Network to overseeing MLB’s current Shred Hate program even to displaying “Joey Votto working the strike zone”-level patience in trying to find common ground with Daniel Murphy. All of it has made the sport a better place.
Later in the podcast, Bean recalled a poignant moment with Dale Scott, the former major league umpire who came out in 2014:
“Dale Scott is like a brother to me. A couple years after my story came out, he sent me an e-mail and we met—this was in the early 2000s—and we just looked across the table and it was like, how could not have known that each other...? We could’ve been a source of strength for each other...
“I just told him, if I would’ve had just you to talk to, I would never have quit. Because I didn’t want to, I just felt like I was supposed to. And it took years from me to heal from that.”
When a gay player and a gay umpire couldn’t even feel comfortable enough to confide in their shared experiences, it was yet another reflection of how baseball in the 1990s was light years from the way it is today.
But once again, Billy Bean turned a regret from his playing days into an opportunity in his current role. A big part of his job is to be a visible ally for any player who needs it so that no one in baseball ever again has to feel like they would have to quit the game in order to live their truth openly.
Instead of being consumed by missed opportunities in his on-field career, Bean has used them as fuel to improve the game he loves. Since he hung up his uniform, he’s become a more complete person and a true credit to baseball. And at an age when many old ballplayers become caricatures out of a Bruce Springsteen song, Billy Bean continues to demonstrate that his glory days are happening right now.
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