Mom's the word

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SARASOTA, Fla. - Within the four walls of the major league

clubhouse, the concept of homosexuality fits about as comfortably as a pair of

mittens on a porcupine. For the most part, men who love men and women who love

women are not gays or lesbians, but "queers" and "dykes." Trip over a mitt and

you're a "faggot." As for ideas of civil unions and gay marriage - forget about

it.

"Baseball is very set in its ways," Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jacob Cruz

said. "Always has been."

Within these confines, there is a man who seems to hover above it all. He

is a 25-year-old righthanded relief pitcher with the Reds, a quiet Long Island

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kid with blazing brown eyes and a blazing 95-mph fastball. He is as open as he

needs to be, not afraid to tell the truth about his family but aware that its

implications might not sit perfectly with the 40 or so other young men who

surrounded him recently in the Reds' spring training clubhouse.

"I'm a blue-state guy in a red-state sport," Joe Valentine said. "But that

won't stop me from being proud of who I am."

Who is Joe Valentine?

He is a 1997 graduate of Deer Park High School.

He is a former All-American at Jefferson Davis Community College in Alabama.

He is a happily married North Babylon resident who wants to start a family.

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He is a potential future closer for the Reds.

One more thing. Consider the following dialogue, which took place on a lazy

spring training morning between a pitcher fighting to make the club and a

baseball writer wrapping up another run-of-the-mill Grapefruit League interview.

Joe, can I give your parents a call?

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"Sure."

OK, what are their names?

"Deb and Doreen."

That's right: Joe Valentine is the son of two gay women.

He tells you this without an iota of emphasis, almost as if he were

explaining the mechanics of a slider or giving directions to the nearest

7-Eleven. There is no additional explanation, no awkward pause for effect.

Nothing.

"It's no different than having a mother and father," he said. "These are

the two women who raised me, and they are wonderful people. It's just not a big

deal to me. Why should it be?"

In an enlightened world, it shouldn't. But major league baseball is to

enlightenment what Pauly Shore is to career longevity. It took until 1959 for

every team to have at least one black player. There never has been a female

umpire. And in the history of the league, no active player has ever come out of

the closet to express his homosexuality.

"I've got nothing against those people," Washington Nationals relief

pitcher T.J. Tucker said recently. "But I don't get why anyone would want to be

like that."

Moments after Tucker's comment, a Nationals front office employee

approached a reporter and asked him not to bring the subject of homosexuality

into the clubhouse. "Makes the players uncomfortable," the employee said.

Years ago, then-Giants second baseman Jeff Kent was changing out of his

uniform when he glanced at the nearby reporters and cracked, "There are no

queers here, are there?" The comment barely raised an eyebrow.

Valentine is aware of the stigma. That is why his family asked that this

story not be published until Valentine secured a spot on the major league

roster.

"We've almost never been treated badly," said Deb Valentine, Joe's birth

mother. "But we live in the real world, and you don't 100 percent know how

people will react."

Here's the startling thing: Thus far in Joe Valentine's life, few have

reacted.

Born in Las Vegas on Christmas Eve 1979, Joe is the biological son of Deb

Valentine and a man she prefers not to discuss, a man Joe does not know. Deb

declined to discuss the circumstances of the pregnancy, but when she delivered

Joe at Sunrise Hospital, the person by her side was Doreen Price, her life

partner since they first met in a bowling alley in 1975.

At the time, homosexuality was an unacceptable lifestyle in approximately

99 percent of America. Las Vegas was the 1 percent.

"Vegas was Vegas," Deb said. "Open-minded. Accepting. Embracing. Doreen was

my coach in the hospital, and nobody there raised an eyebrow. Vegas was 10

times more liberal than New York is even today. Being gay just wasn't a big

deal."

The couple operated a hair salon in Las Vegas, and in 1982 moved to North

Babylon, where they opened Hair Studio 231, which lasted four years. When Joe

was just 16 months old, Doreen was throwing him a baseball. At 2, he fielded

his first grounder with his nose.

"Blood all over," Doreen said. "But we wiped it off, and he was back

looking for the baseball."

At age 5, Joe signed up for Little League, and by 8 he was one of the best

athletes around. His gift was a strong right arm. His Little League coach for

two seasons? Doreen, who had played competitive softball.

"Joe could always throw," she said. "I mean, he had a real powerful arm.

And he kept working and working to get better. I think we knew he was a special

kind of baseball player."

Remarkably - and against all hardball logic - Valentine rarely pitched. He

was a catcher whose greatest joy came from nailing a hapless runner trying to

swipe second. Young Joe loved everything about squatting behind the plate. The

power of calling a game. The dirt crumbling between his fingers. The

pop-pop-pop of rawhide meeting leather. The collisions at home.

"I wanted to be in the middle of the action," he said. "Not making random

appearances here and there."

By the time he arrived at Deer Park as a sophomore in 1994 (Joe attended

St. Anthony's in Huntington as a freshman), Valentine was one of the better

young ballplayers on Long Island.

"He was exceptional," Deer Park coach Carmine Argenziano said. "Even when

we had pitchers who had poor moves and couldn't hold anyone on, no one would

run on Joe. He was a weapon back there."

In fact, Argenziano once said, "He used to throw it back to our pitchers

harder than they threw it to him. It was scary."

Meanwhile, Deb and Doreen attended every Deer Park game. People in the

stands assumed Deb was Joe's "mom" and Doreen his "aunt," and none of the three

would argue.

"If it eases what people need to believe," Doreen said, "so be it."

Joe swears he never has been embarrassed by his family. It is all he has

ever known. But the unpredictability of facial expressions that greet "These

are my mothers" is, well, awkward.

Making things easier, the two women never held hands, kissed or hugged at

the games. Partially to avoid controversy, but also because it's not who they

are.

"We went to watch baseball," Doreen said. "We're not trying to make

statements."

By the end of his senior year, most of his teammates and their parents knew

Joe was the product of a gay relationship. Heck, the kids used to hang out at

Joe's house.

"One day I heard a teacher talking about Joe, and that he had two mothers,"

Argenziano said. "I was shocked, truly shocked. But you know what? I also

didn't care. Those two women did a helluva job raising one fine man. A helluva

job."

College recruiters began showing up during Valentine's senior season in

1997. Not bigtime schools like Arizona State and Miami, but local colleges

willing to overlook his so-so hitting ability.

After batting .370 as a senior and making his second All-County team,

Valentine played for the Bayside Yankees, a summer-league team that has

produced more than 20 major league players. During Valentine's first summer

with Bayside, coach Marc Cuseta often was frustrated by his catcher's refusal

to take the mound.

"You know how high school kids are," Cuseta said. "They wanna be the star,

bat third and be in the lineup every day. Joe was no different."

But when it finally became clear to Valentine that his future as a catcher

was limited because of his hitting, he relented. In the summer of 1998, Bayside

turned him into its closer, and after several weeks of just throwing mid-90s

fastballs and hoping they sailed over the plate, Valentine picked up the slider

that's now his major-league "out" pitch.

Valentine accepted a scholarship to Dowling College but grew frustrated

with the program and left during his first semester. Eventually, Cuseta called

an old pal, Keith Griffin, the baseball coach at Jefferson Davis CC in Brewton,

Ala., and told him about an under-the-radar pitcher with an infinite upside.

Joe Valentine was moving to the heart of the Bible Belt.

With his gay parents.

They expected the worst. When Deb and Doreen followed Joe south and settled

into an apartment in nearby Pensacola, Fla., they envisioned one hostile face

after another. This was Alabama, after all, onetime home of church bombings and

tree lynchings. Perhaps if they played it cool, nobody would notice. But

inevitably, someone would get the picture, that Joe's "aunt" (wink-wink) wasn't

his aunt.

It didn't take long.

"I remember people finding out and thinking it was something to joke

about," Valentine said. "They'd say, 'Oh, so you must be gay, huh?"'

"What?" Valentine would reply.

"Well, you must be gay," one person said. "But how come you don't act all

foo-fooey? You're not elegant. You're just a regular guy."

"What the hell is 'foo-fooey?"' Valentine says now. "People can be so

incredibly narrow-minded. But I'm not someone who starts fights over this

stuff. I'm a patient guy."

Deb and Doreen attended every Jefferson Davis game that season, becoming

unofficial team mothers as their son compiled an 8-1 record and was named to

the NJCAA All-Region XXII team. They'd invite Joe's teammates out for lunch and

dinner. Sometimes even cook. Gay? Straight? Most of the players were just

happy to be looked after.

"If you're a good boy, I don't care if you're from Mars," Griffin said.

"And Joe was as good a boy as I've ever had around. He's hard-working, he's

very competitive and he's got a big heart. I'll tell you, very few seemed to

care that his parents were gay. They were wonderful people. And Joe - he's a

man's man."

Valentine's decision to attend Jefferson Davis was a good one. In June

1999, he was selected by the Chicago White Sox in the 26th round of the amateur

draft.

Throughout his six-year, four-organization professional baseball career,

Joe Valentine rarely has volunteered information about his parents. Again, it's

not that he's embarrassed. But why risk starting trouble?

Every so often, however, when he's comfortable, Valentine lets his guard

down.

Three years ago, while playing for the Double-A Birmingham Barons,

Valentine roomed with Gary Majewski, a righthanded pitcher from Houston. One

night they were watching TV, shooting the breeze. "I don't remember how we got

on the subject," said Majewski, now with the Nationals. "He just sort of told

me. I was like, 'Um, OK.' Joe is a cool dude."

And Valentine can play. After bouncing from the White Sox to the Tigers to

the White Sox to the A's to the Reds, he made his big league debut with

Cincinnati in 2003. He pitched in 24 games last season, going 2-3 with four

saves and a 5.22 ERA. He initially struggled in spring training this year but

made the Reds out of camp. Valentine pitched the eighth inning of a 6-1 victory

over the Mets on Thursday, striking out two, and pitched a scoreless seventh

against Houston last night, retiring Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Morgan

Ensberg on grounders.

Deb and Doreen, who are retired and live in North Port, Fla., plan on

seeing Joe pitch as often as possible. And when they show up in the family area

after games, surrounded by the brigade of wives and husbands and kids, their

son will, as always, proudly greet them with a hug. They are his loved ones.

His moms.

"I don't see myself as an activist for gay rights, although I will speak up

if I need to," Valentine said. "I think people need to judge others for who

they are. Not by any prejudiced ideas or thoughts. I'm a baseball player who

was raised by two wonderful, loving mothers. How can anyone criticize that?"

THE JOE VALENTINE FILE

Born Dec. 24, 1979 in Las Vegas ... was a catcher at Deer Park High School,

from where he graduated in 1997 ... drafted by the White Sox in 1999 ... after

second stint with Chicago, was traded with Keith Foulke to Oakland for Billy

Koch (West Babylon) ... traded from Oakland to Cincinnati on July 30, 2003 ...

allowed a run and two hits in MLB debut Aug. 24, 2003 ... career record through

Friday: 2-3, 5.65 ERA, has converted all four save chances.

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