“.440 Hitter as a Person-No Longer a .226-hitter”
by Lee ‘Hacksaw’ Hamilton
He played because he loved the game, and was good at it once upon a time.
He got his time in the game, though his career never really took off, and his stats showed he was just another guy.
But he wasn’t.
Meet Billy Bean, former Detroit Tigers, Angels and San Diego Padres outfielder. He is back in the game, not as a coach nor a manager; not as a scout; but maybe something much more important.
A Baseball Ambassador for the Gay and Lesbian Community. MLB realized it had been too silent on the sexuality issues, even if it was 2013.
It is quite a tale, of a talent, whose life changed, once his sexual priorities changed. His career was one of highs, lows, and terror.
He was forever terrified he would be outed in the game, by a teammate, by a media member, by anyone, as being gay.
Bean lost his happiness and he lost his marriage as decisions took him different directions in life.
I sat in the dugout at Petco Park and talked. It was a baseball conversation, but not about the Pirates nor Astros, not about the trading deadline, all important things in the baseball pennant race world, but rather about something equally as important, helping other players, who might be gay, and how they should cope with life.
The conversation was free and easy, just like as if I were talking to an Orioles scout, or a Yankees beat-writer, or the Mets manager.
But the depth of the Billy Bean chat was moving.
“The hardest part of who I was, was fear, that somebody in baseball would find out”. His teammates did not know. His parent did not know. The woman he married did not know.
“It was never a happy time, this secret I kept my entire career”, he said, in a tone that could have been equal to a guy talking about a (2-31) slump.
Of course in the 1980’s and 90’s, that conversation would never have taken place. The shadows of his life extended beyond the closet he was in, thru the clubhouse, and to every other public place he went. Maybe the 9-innings of a game was the only safe-place haven he had.
“Off the field I was miserable”. He didn’t know whom he could trust, talk to, who might understand. In a career that stretched from 1986 into 1995, not one player suspected his tendencies, not one teammate nor close friend in the clubhouse was allowed inside the circle.
It took the death of his partner in 1995, that led to the courageous decision for Bean to say ‘”this is who I am”. It cleared up his mind, it freed up his heart.
But there was a complication. He feared he would win up with the “Triple Crown”. “My partner had died HIV-positive. Did I have HIV, how would I cope with the grief, would I be outed?.
The reaction was mixed and harsh. The macho side of baseball clubhouses surfaced. Of course he had left the game, so what they said, thought, reacted too, was not really his concern.
Everytime he started a conversation, he ‘armored up’, to protect his hidden secret. Somehow, someway, he decided to reach out, to become a public speaker. Talking to groups, companies, families.
He authored a book, and got all types of reaction.
In the glare of the light, he started to find reward, where fear once lived. He started to feel positive, “fortified by my life” as he put it.
Society and culture has changed in its view to sexuality. Maybe it has to do with the greatness of Martina Navratilova, or the tragic blood tainted death of Arthur Ashe. From those few came others, including Hollywood actors, team execs, and more lately an NBA players, Jason Collins, and a Brewers shortstop David Denson.
He re-linked with Major League baseball, who had heard of what he was doing. The knew about the book about his life. They knew of his credibility as a person.
From that came the created position, as MLB tried to take a step forward, where no player, organization, or sport, had gone before. Have an advocate. Have someone with this experience. Have a victim, who became a pioneer, be the point man.
Bean now travels around baseball, meeting with people like the Padres and Tigers, amongst the 26-teams he has spoken too. He is available for 1-on-1 conversations with players about their concerns or needs, in a clubhouse atmosphere, or a family situation.
“Coming out an revealing yourself is important, because you want to be a player and teammate and succeed. Once you rid yourself of the burden, all things change”.
On this hot-humid day, he met with the entire front office of the Padres. Then a closed door session with the Padres players. “It wasn’t a lecture, it wasn’t really about me, it was just about society, and how we might cope with it.”
His sales pitch, ‘don’t be afraid to have that lst conversation. Do not have a negative image of yourself any longer.” It is surprising, in his chat with the Padres 25-man roster, not one player asked a question. “Their theory is I’m not attached to that, and I do understand.”
Bean is now making himself available on a need basis to all clubs. He spoke numerous times to the Brewers and then to the young infielder Denson, about his life, and helped him with the decision.
He’d like to meet with every team and its players in a spring time tour of the Cactus League and Grapefruit circuit, when there is more free time, rather than during the heat of the pennant race.
Imagine the impact he could have with a message that would reach the 150-or-so players a club has under contract. You touch one who has a need, a concern, you hit a home run.
“It took me 33-years to accept who I am, and I believe I can be a big brother to those in need”. His road traveled should help players who want to speak out and don’t know how. It should clear the way of fear, and help strengthen a resolve to be the person they’ve turned out to be.
He’s there to help them talk to family members, and teammates. He wants to counsel youth, caught in the web of bullying, who don’t know how to deal with it. What was once a taboo subject is being spoken about in all forms of life.
And he believes he is making progress, with the guidance of Commisioner Rob Manfred. “Baseball is past the emotional stigma of being gay.”
“When I told teammates Trevor Hoffman, Brad Ausmus, Archi Cionfrocco, they responded ‘if only we would have known we could have helped’.
He smiled, at ease with his life, and headed out of the dugout to his next stop on a baseball road trip of a different sorts. The outcome of the Padres game could be read in a boxscore. The impact of his story and how it helps others, is still to be told.
His book ‘Going the Other Way’ is out. The MLB Network did an extended piece on him. MLB needs to market him and his availability more.
“The reason I left baseball, is now the reason I am back in baseball.” Good is about to come out because of a gay player.
Billy Bean might have been a (.226) hitter in his major league stops. What he is doing now, how he will help, the end result of his work, is like hitting (.440) in life.