Billy Bean is having a wardrobe crisis. In three hours he’s due on the Twentieth Century Fox studio lot for an interview with Tom Arnold on the Best Damn Sports Show Period. Bean will be talking about his new book, Going the Other Way , a memoir of his years as a closeted major league baseball player and of his experience coming out. And although he’s hoping that Arnold will treat him with respect (“I know that he has a gay brother, so that might help”), he also knows that the audience for the Best Damn Sports Show Period is not, let’s say, batting for his team.
“It’s the straightest TV show ever,” Bean says, casting his big brown eyes around the back room of the Abbey, a West Hollywood, Calif., gay bar where we’re having lunch. It’s the kind of show, he says, where a gay baseball player could well get “kicked around, beat up, chewed up, spit out.” But maybe, he figures, they’ll be nicer to him if he wears the right shirt—“something classic and all-American, not too stylish, you know -- just plain. Kind of…not too…”
“Gay?” I offer.
“You get it,” he says. “You know where I’m coming from.”
Whether we’re comfortable admitting it or not, most of us know where Bean is coming from. This summer’s gay pride celebrations will prove it again and again. At most pride parades the marchers who get the most applause will not be the ones who end up on the evening news -- drag queens, leathermen, and twinks on nightclub floats. The biggest cheers will go up for the men and women who break stereotypes to work and play in worlds that aren’t predominantly gay: people like veterans, firefighters, cops, and jocks.
Public fascination with such characters has been a boon for Bean. “I think I’m just a regular joe,” he says. “And I feel like that’s comfortable for a lot of people.” Jim Buzinski, the founder of Outsports.com, a Web community of gay sports fans and athletes, agrees: “His story resonates because he seems like the nicest guy in the world. Why would someone have a problem with him if he came out?” Perhaps the catchiest observation of Bean’s winsomeness, however, comes from his old boss, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, who used to tease him: “Billy Bean, Billy Bean, the boy of every girl’s dream.”
Bean, now 39, became an instant media star in 1999, when he came out after retiring from 10 seasons as a player for the Detroit Tigers, the Dodgers, and the San Diego Padres. The New York Times ran a front-page feature. Diane Sawyer interviewed Bean at his home in Miami Beach, Fla., where he runs a real estate business with his partner, Efraín Veiga. More recently Bean showed up on HBO’s sports comedy Arli$$, where he played himself—and caught flak from gay activists for coaching a gay ballplayer on the show to stay in the closet. (Bean is only the second major leaguer ever to come out. The first, Glenn Burke, who played outfield for the Dodgers and Oakland A’s, died of AIDS complications in 1995. And Bean was the third athlete in an American professional team sport to come out since Dave Kopay, a National Football League all-pro, went public about his sexual orientation in 1975. All were retired at the time they came out.)
Bean’s media presence got another boost this spring with the publication of his memoir (cowritten with The Advocate’s Chris Bull). The book quickly became Amazon’s best-selling gay title, and its publisher ordered a second printing within two weeks of the book’s release.
On June 29, toward the end of his 14-city book tour, Bean will be the grand marshal of Chicago’s pride parade. “There’s going to be 375,000 people there,” he says. “It gives me goose bumps.” He can’t wait “just to run around and high-five guys and say hello and have a beer with them.”