Every team will play 162 baseball games this year. That, in and of itself, is a gigantic win.
Unfortunately, if you root for the Rockies, Orioles, Tigers, Mariners or Pirates, that’s about the only win your team will be trying for in 2021. And it sure doesn’t feel like you’ll be seeing much more effort from the Diamondbacks, Clevelanders, Red Sox, Cubs, Reds, Giants, Rangers...
You get the idea.
In spite of the best efforts of MLB ownership, there are still no sweeter four words in the English language than “Welcome to Opening Day.” Coming off a year where the pandemic made it impossible to enter a ballpark if you existed in three dimensions, today those words are hitting my ears like the Freddie Mercury glory note in “Somebody to Love.”
For LGBTQ fans, it feels like we’re picking up right where we left off: we’ve got a few Pride Nights to look forward to and, of course, we’re still waiting for an active MLB player to come out. But considering the state of the game today, a player coming out would turn into a gift that MLB could really use.
Above all else, baseball in 2021 needs more humanity. And seeing players and fans embrace an out gay or bi player in a major league clubhouse would be one of the best humane sports moments I can think of.
Entering the new season, both ownership’s inability to market the game’s greatest stars and front offices shifting their focus from “winning” to “payroll flexibility” have combined to create a dilemma. At a time when baseball players are as athletically skilled as they have ever been, it feels like Commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB owners are doing everything in their power to prevent us from getting interested in them.
What’s worse, if a player of this generation dares to combine generational talent with a compelling personality, there’s a better than even chance that ownership would just as soon run him out of town than pay him like the franchise-defining figure he is. Ask Mookie Betts. Or Francisco Lindor. Or... (dear God, it is physically painful to type these words)... Anthony Rizzo.
Sigh. I guess those sick kids at Lurie Children’s Hospital will just have to make do with a visit from Payroll Flexibility. It reminds me of that famous baseball story of the bedridden child stricken with rheumatic fever asking, “Please, *cough cough* Mr. President of Business Operations, could you *cough* trade your Cy Young runner-up in a blatant salary dump to reset the team’s luxury tax threshold... *cough cough COUGH*... for me?”
Sorry, I got distracted there for a moment. But that’s the thing! In 2021, MLB is so consumed with late-stage capitalist business maneuverings off the field and cold motionless statistical efficiency on it, that it’s too easy to let your attention drift away from the players and obsess over a terrible roster decision made because some e-trader’s dumbass kid is pretending that he isn’t a billionaire.
And this is precisely why an active player coming out would benefit the game immensely. In a situation that would require immense quantities of bravery and vulnerability, the only option we’d have would be to focus on the best parts of his humanity.
Because a player coming out during his career would be a first for the game, baseball would have the biggest story in sports. And it wouldn’t be bogged down with talks of roster fire sales, impending labor disputes, or time of games that suggest the last out should fade out to “A Film by Stanley Kubrick.”
Even in such a notoriously conservative sport, we have indications that the response would be enormously positive. As I found out on the 3 Strikes, You’re Out podcast a few weeks ago, you just have to talk to Dale Scott. The retired umpire figured his coming out story would consist of a brief caption in Referee Magazine, and it turned out he heard from fans about how inspirational he was for the rest of his career.
As a gay baseball fan, it would make my year to see something like that become the sport’s biggest headline. Just as happily, it would force MLB and the sports media to focus on that player’s qualities of courage and determination, rebalancing the scales between on-field statistical feats and the human story underneath those numbers.
Until that day comes, we’re all just waiting to celebrate. In the meantime, we can still bask in the glory of two more words that encompass everything that’s great about the game:
Oh yeah... and “Play Ball!”