What would young Billy Bean have made of his team hosting a Pride Night when he was a major league player in the late 1980s and early 1990s?
First of all, the concept would not have occurred to him. But if it had existed, it would have meant the world to him.
“It would have been a life-changing experience for me to walk out to the ballpark and see my employer – the Padres, the Dodgers or the Tigers – making a statement,” he said. “I couldn’t even imagine telling my own family at that time.”
Times have changed. Bean, now 52, is two years into a role with Major League Baseball that expanded in January along with an expanded title: vice president of social responsibility and inclusion.
And more and more teams are scheduling events such as Pride Night, including the Mets’ inaugural version Saturday night against the Padres.
Bean, one of only two openly gay major league players on record – neither of whom came out publicly while active – said part of the idea is to send a message to everyone in the community, from players to fans.
“I think whether we have players coming out or not, or whether that’s not going to happen for a while,” he said, “at least we’re creating an environment where employees of major league clubs, fans, players, the minor leaguers, are going to hear about the game and say, ‘Wow, look at the Mets; everybody is welcome.’”
About 5,000 fans are expected to participate by accessing three discounted seating areas, with a portion of those proceeds benefitting the LGBT Network and its Safe Schools Initiative to stop bullying on Long Island and in Queens.
Bean said more and more teams are adding such events after “seeing there’s really no downside to dedicating one day over the course of the season to another part of the diversity spectrum of their fans.”
Everyone is welcome to participate, regardless of sexual orientation, he said.
“It’s really just being supportive of the message,” Bean said. “It’s the same for players. It really should not be of importance what a person’s private life is as a player. It’s really: Are they going to be a role model? What do they stand for? If they’re asked a question do they want to be an accepting role model or do they want to divide?
“I think a player has to make that decision for themselves. We’ve seen players go both ways in those decisions and at the end of the day they’re grown adults and they have to make those decisions for themselves.”
Part of Bean’s mission is to help wary players see the light when it comes to acceptance, something that at times can be a challenge even in a relatively enlightened era.
“There was no real definition of the job, so there was a little uncertainty and excitement and fear and nervousness and anxiety,” Bean said. “To bring a conversation that’s never happened before in front of the players especially, that was a huge challenge and it was one that I took very seriously.
“I think what gave me the confidence was that Commissioner [Rob] Manfred and the gentlemen and women that hired me assured me that because the message was coming from a former player as a peer to the players that it would resonate.”
Bean added, “Once I stopped hiding and I was my best self, there’s been so many people in the LGBT community that have taught me invaluable lessons of why it’s important to be visible. I was a baseball player, and it’s interesting in 147 years only two major league players have ever disclosed that they were gay. That’s pretty interesting to say.
“Hopefully we’re working toward a time where a player will feel not only comfortable in the working environment but will decide that’s the best decision for them and they will just go about being judged as a baseball player and not what their family picture looks like.”
Bean is sympathetic, though. It might be easier to imagine a major leaguer coming out now than in his day, but that doesn’t make it easy. (Glenn Burke, who died of AIDS-related causes 1995, came out to teammates while playing, but not to the public.)
“Definitely, I have a clear understanding of why athletes have chosen not to do that yet,” he said. “There is a very short window of time to maximize your dream and thankfully from the great courage of people outside of sports - police officers, teachers, firemen, politicians, even entertainers now to some degree – people are seeing images and examples that if they do decide to share something that’s very personal and private it’s not an obstacle or hindrance for their career.
“But as an athlete in team sports specifically, you have to have a lot of things go your way, and I think there are probably a few players who I’m certain are much more comfortable with who and what they are than I was. I was never ready because I was struggling with my sexual orientation. I wasn’t out and proud. I didn’t have any images that would tell me otherwise.
“I was grieving the loss of my partner, who died of HIV, in what was to be the night before my last season. I was living in fear that whole year. I had no idea if I was healthy or not. Thankfully I was, but it could have easily gone the other way.
“My conversation, it changes in so many ways when you’re talking to LGBT communities about empowering yourself and making positive, healthy decisions, when we’re talking about bullying, how important it is to have a dialogue so the kids are not suffering in silence.
“And then when you’re talking to a room full of Major League Baseball players, you have to try to find something that’s relateable to their life experience. These guys are very young still. They’re focused on one thing. For many times they’re not really versed in what’s going on in the political arena. They don’t have time to think of other things. So, it varies every single day and it’s a wonderfully comprehensive challenge, but one I’m happy to take on each day.”
Bean said the eventual goal is for sexual orientation not to matter, “but until we talk about it or move through that first portion, inevitably we have to raise the visibility a little bit.”
That is where Saturday night’s event comes in.
“If the only thing that we take away from Saturday night is that a full stadium of Mets fans learn that there is an organization in Queens and Long Island that is devoted to trying to make going to and coming home from school a safer experience for the kids in their own community, whether they’re LGBT or not, then I would be thrilled,” he said.
“We have focused on making it about a bigger message. Certainly it would be great to see a couple of thousand fans running around with a Mets shirt that says ‘Pride Day, Aug. 13.’ To me that is going to start a conversation with people who might not be thinking about LGBT issues and for one day at least in that afternoon there is an alignment of a love for a baseball club in their community and that’s the New York Mets.
“You can look at it either way - that the world’s never going to be perfect and it’s a waste of time or you can look at it as, you know what, we’re going to do everything we can to try to make people a little bit closer to each other and realize when you do bring diverse groups together there are very, very few differences between us.
“The LGBT community, they love sports. Not everybody, but not everybody in the straight community loves sports, either. The LGBT communities in the New York area are raising families and have children and I just think it’s a wonderful example that on Saturday we can be supportive of the LGBT community and maybe Sunday or Monday next week we’re supporting the Latino community of Long Island or the Irish community or the firemen or the police officers.
“We have a chance to do something good, and we’re taking advantage of it.”