It was a simple photo of a kiss, but it meant a lot to a closeted sports fan for what it said about sports in 2022.

On Sept. 8, UPI photographer Bill Greenblatt took this photo with this caption: “St. Louis Cardinals [hitting coach] Turner Ward gives outfielder Lars Nootbaar a kiss to the cheek to celebrate Nootbaar’s 25th birthday before a game against the Washington Nationals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on Thursday, September 8, 2022.” (Outsports does not have the rights to the photo, which is why we are linking to UPI’s site.)

The photo prompted an email exchange I had with a gay baseball fan, whose identity or details I won’t disclose because he is in the closet. But he did agree to share his thoughts on why the photo spoke to him:

It is of super cute St. Louis Cardinals rookie outfielder Lars Nootbaar on his 25th birthday getting a big kiss on the cheek in the dugout by the assistant hitting coach, Turner Ward. What is so striking about this public display of affection is that there is so much homophobia in pro sports and yet this assistant coach doesn’t care. He is going to show his affection for this young player on his birthday.

The look on the young man’s face is that he is obviously embarrassed (like all kids are when they are kissed by an elder) and probably doubled embarrassed because his macho major league teammates are seeing this happen in the dugout. Note the coach hooks Lars around the neck and head with his right arm so the birthday boy can’t escape his kiss — nice! (and it’s a very sincere kiss!)

Pro sports has been incredibly homophobic for decades. Male athletes, whether straight, bi, or gay, have been forced to hide behind a wall of macho perception and maintain a certain image of macho to all. This photo shows that hopefully that wall is crumbling when an assistant coach is not afraid to show his love (of any kind) for a young player on his birthday and bestow a sign of affection (whether it be straight, bi, or gay) on him in plain view of everyone in the dugout (and obviously with photographers present.)

It represents progress and growth. And, I think it’s just a plain cute photo. Young people always hate to be kissed by an older person and that is obvious in this case by the expression on the player’s face. It’s almost a Norman Rockwell moment!

What I like is that my emailer does not assume the coach is gay (Turner has a wife and three kids) but that we should celebrate public displays of affection between men given how we are hard-wired from a young age to avoid them. It reminded me of how then-University of Texas football coach Tom Herman used to kiss his players. We need much more of that in sports, because gestures matter.