SB Nation

Cyd Zeigler | November 19, 2014

Royals playoff run inspires team executive to come out

Matt Schulte didn't want to be gay.

That was the revelation the lifelong Kansas City Royals fan arrived at two months ago as his team — who is now also his employer — was fighting for a playoff spot. Despite sharing his sexual orientation with a couple close friends and family, Schulte felt shame for being gay. He believed he was letting his family down. His would not be a "traditional" family. He would forever be first and foremost "different."

Growing up in Kansas City, he was born two years after the Royals were last in the World Series. He grew up hearing stories about that 1985 championship, an iconic moment for the Heart of America. The Chiefs have always been a nice sideshow for Schulte, but it has been for the Royals that he bled blue.

While older fans had to wait two years longer to cheer on their beloved Royals in the World Series, the 27-year-old's wait was compounded by stories of the 1985 magic he heard since he can remember.

"That's all I heard about, 1985, 1985," Schulte said from his home last week. Having not been alive to experience the Royals' championship run made the years after that much worse. "Frankly, I was tired of hearing about it."

Since he was a kid, watching a Royals home playoff game has been at the top of his "bucket list." Just a playoff game — win or lose — for the Royals was bigger for him than a Chiefs Super Bowl. He got his wish eight times over this year, as the Royals blazed an impressive trail all the way to Game 7 of the World Series, where they lost to the San Francisco Giants.

At this point, attending Royals games isn't a big deal for Schulte: It's his job. As marketing coordinator for the team, he helps execute giveaways and theme nights for the team, among other duties. He even works with the very same Blue Crew Kids Club that helped jumpstart his fandom when he was a kid.

As the Royals made their improbable run through the playoffs, Schulte began exploring the idea of coming out.

Yet despite attending 81 home regular-season games his season, those home playoff games — in truth, the entire playoff run of the Royals — had as big of an impact on Schulte as they did on anyone else.

As the Royals made their improbable run through the playoffs, Schulte began exploring the idea of coming out. Through conversations with other out LGBT people in sports — including Major League Baseball Inclusion Ambassador Billy Bean — he saw a side of sports he didn't expect, one that was inclusive of gay people like himself. As the Royals victories mounted and the elusive World Series drew near, Schulte's confidence grew.

As part of the team beyond fandom, Schulte began to find inner pride in a way he had never experienced before.

Yet lingering in his head has been a discomfort within himself not just with being gay, but with the idea of simply sharing that side of himself with other people. There isn't a manual to coming out to your family, friends and colleagues.

His father and stepmother had made it easy for him. Late last year they sat Schulte down to discuss his future. When they asked him about his future family plans, Schulte said he saw himself with a wife and kids. His parents paused.

"Are you sure about that?" His father asked.

He told them he was. They paused again.

"Are you totally sure about that?"

He knew where they were going with the questions. His secret already out, he reluctantly confirmed it. For his father and stepmother, the writing had been on the wall: His two best friends were girls, he never had a girlfriend, and he had posted a couple things on Facebook that gave them pause. Their response gave Schulte some hope for an open, honest private life.

"They were so happy," Schulte remembered, "they started crying."

Yet coming out in the workplace — in the macho environment of Major League Baseball — was a whole different matter. There are painfully few out LGBT people in the front offices of pro sports. Schulte knew none. He had even missed the much-hyped coming out of former Pittsburgh Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy. There's no script for it, no precedent, no one to assure him that everything would be OK, that his sexual orientation wouldn't impact the future of his career.

"To walk into my boss's office, how do I set it up? Do I give them a warning? Do I spring it on them? I'm still not even totally comfortable with saying the words, 'I'm gay.'"

Through the Royals' magical October run, that discomfort was replaced more and more by confidence. Like so many fans in places like Kansas City, Cleveland and Buffalo desperately hungry for a championship, Schulte's whole demeanor — even his self-worth — has been affected by decades of sports disappointment.

While baseball is relegated by some to simply a "kids' game," for Schulte the last two months have been cathartic.

"I had family at all of the home games. I got to spend time with them. It was an awesome experience. We've all been Royals fans all of our lives. To go through the connections with the team, the city and my family, it made me realize it's time to take a step forward myself and put myself out there. I had been in a rut, with the Royals and all of their difficult seasons and what I was struggling with inside.

"The Royals' success just made me decide to be proud and just own it, to just be who I am."

Still not knowing how to address the topic with co-workers and friends, he decided to share his story publicly with the whole world.

Still not knowing how to address the topic with co-workers and friends, he decided to share his story publicly with the whole world all at the same time via Outsports. He did give a heads-up to his supervisor on Monday — he just didn't feel it was right to spring this on her with no warning.

"A person is a person," she said to him, sharing her belief that he'll be accepted in the office.

The vast majority of the rest of his co-workers and the baseball world are learning a bit more about Schulte today along with everyone else.

He has had fits and starts at this in recent years. He attended NYU, in the heart of the gayest island in the world: Manhattan. There he dabbled with dating other men on occasion, venturing into online dating sites. Even while he was exploring his sexuality he kept wondering, maybe in part hoping, that he would just find "the right girl."

"The problem with that," Schulte said, "is that I'm not attracted to women."

He had stuck a toe out of the closet in New York, but he pulled it back in when he returned to Kansas City for a job with the Royals. If he wasn't ready to come out while he was in New York, the Heartland certainly wasn't ready for him to come out in baseball.

Gradually, with the probing by his father and stepmother about his future plans, he shared with a select few close friends. He even joined the local gay softball and tennis leagues. Not exactly a face of the franchise, it was easy for him to keep baseball and a gay softball league tucked away neatly in separate corners of his life.

"That's helped me a bit, to meet other gay people who are into sports," said the former high school rec baseball player. "It's been nice to be back out there playing."

Schulte has kept his two worlds so separate that when I asked him about the Royals having a "gay night" next season, he said he didn't think baseball was ready for it. He had no idea that the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs have had a "gay night" for over a decade, or that most MLB teams have had a similar event at least once. It's a typical dynamic for LGBT sports people in the closet to have a negatively distorted view of the sports world's acceptance of LGBT people.

"For me being gay in sports has been a hard thing to open up to," Schulte admitted.

He recently traveled to Dallas to spend the weekend with openly gay TCU assistant athletic director Drew Martin and his partner. Finding another gay man in sports administration has been a powerful revelation for Schulte. In Martin he saw an out executive at the top of his profession with a program aiming at a national championship. Having a loving relationship and living his life openly in the world of elite sports has been suddenly possible for the young executive.

"Matt realizes it's important for him to be himself, as well as have the job of his dreams," said Bean, who was not able to bring those two worlds together until this summer when he was appointed to his current position by MLB. "Bringing those two worlds together will be huge for him. He will be better for it. He's going to become a great leader in that office."

On April 6, Schulte will be busy readying the team for their home opener against the Chicago White Sox. He'll spend much of the day running around the ballpark. He'll be at his desk for the opening pitch, on alert for any last-minute problems for guests.

In the first or second inning he'll venture to the field. He'll walk down to the lower level amidst throngs of Royals fans and find his seat — he has access to as many as four every game. He may have family with him, maybe a couple guys from the softball league. He'd love to have a new boyfriend by his side.

At some point during the game he'll look around the stadium, the first time he's been back for a game since that World Series that transformed his self-worth and the pride of an entire city. Instead of worrying about who knows his secret, he'll find comfort in realizing...everyone knows. And he's still part of the Royals family.

"The Royals postseason run changed me. I've realized it's time to come out of my shell. I'm ready to grow up. I feel more comfortable in my own skin.

"I want to be who I am and live my own life."

For a man who two months ago didn't want to be gay, more powerful words have rarely been uttered.

You can follow Matt Schulte on Twitter @Schulte_Matthew.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Photos: Steve Puppe Photography/NYU

About the Author

Cyd Zeigler is co-founder of Outsports.com. He has contributed to the Huffington Post, Out magazine, Playboy and The Advocate and appeared on CNN, ESPN and in Sports Illustrated and the New York Times.

His book, Fair Play, explores how LGBT athletes have claimed their rightful place in sports. You can get the book on Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/buyfairplay

His latest book, My Life On The Line, tells the story of gay NFL player Ryan O'Callaghan: https://tinyurl.com/myliferyano

323-841-8293 | cydzeiglerjr@gmail.com | @cydzeigler