Billy Bean's Pitch

Four years after coming out the ex–major leaguer faces a quandary: Should he now push other pro athletes to do the same?

BY Michael Joseph Gross

June 10 2003 12:00 AM ET

Even if we could, the obstacles to getting there are immense. The average pro baseball player’s career begins when he’s 21 and lasts about 10 years. Given that a lot of athletes are naturally more instinctive than introspective, and keeping in mind that many men -- even in professions where being out is socially acceptable -- don’t figure out that they’re gay until they’re at least 25, it’s really not surprising that no active male pro team-sports athlete has come out. Furthermore, team athletes are taught to be conformists, to view the world in a way that divides insiders from outsiders with uncommon clarity, which makes the boundary-crossing act of coming out all the more fraught with fear and anxiety. Finally, pro athletes are consumed by their careers to a degree that few outsiders can imagine.

During the afternoon we spend together, the only one of these factors that Bean mentions is the last one. When he describes this aspect of a ballplayer’s life, he raises his voice to a tone that’s almost angry. “If you had $30 million coming, don’t you think it’s fair that someone thinks about that?” he asks, letting the question hang in the air. “Athletes become consumed. You have to, to succeed. I don’t think it’s selfish of somebody to say, ‘My career is the most important thing in my life.’ ”

In the end, Billy Bean resolves his wardrobe crisis at A|X Armani Exchange, where a helpful gay salesclerk steers him toward a short-sleeved collared shirt in powder blue. Before he takes the hot seat on the Best Damn Sports Show Period, Bean changes in the bathroom at the studio, checks himself out in the mirror, and says, “This works, right?”

It works fine. If he’d worn a pink polo shirt, Billy Bean probably still would have been fine. The questions are respectful; the applause light flashes after he says, “We can’t let the perfect get in the way of the good,” and the live audience nods with approval.

Leaving the studio, Bean is kind of amazed. “Maybe we’re the ones that learned something today,” he says. What’s that? I ask. “That the image is out there,” he replies. “The idea is out there already.”

That night, at A Different Light bookstore in the heart of West Hollywood, Bean reads from his book for a crowd of about 100. Wearing the same blue shirt, but with one more button unbuttoned, he reads the story of the first time he ever heard the word “faggot,” when his Little League coach yelled at him, “Don’t run like a faggot, boy.” Many in the crowd chuckle ruefully, as Bean reads:

“What, exactly, was a faggot? How did faggots run? Clearly, it wasn’t a good thing. It was probably the worst thing imaginable. It equaled weakness and timidity, everything a budding, insecure jock wanted to avoid. We were only kids. How were we supposed to know the truth?”

We couldn’t know. Even now that we’re adults, the shame that surrounded our identity from the moment we first knew it never completely leaves. But it does fade with the incremental steps we take -- the knowledge that we can be strong, bold, happy, and yes, Christina, beautiful. For many, seeing Billy Bean come out strengthens that knowledge. And at the same time, it strengthens our connection to the rest of the world.

In Richard Greenberg’s Broadway play Take Me Out, a gay accountant named Mason Marzac, who has the clipped mannerisms and fastidious speech patterns of a lifelong loner, turns into a baseball fan when pro player Darren Lemming comes out of the closet. For the first time, Mason feels like he’s part of a community. Disoriented but exhilarated, he tells Darren, “I don’t know why I feel exalted when we win. I don’t know why I feel diminished when we lose. I don’t know why I’m saying ‘we’…! Life is so…tiny, so daily. This…you…take me out of it.”

At Chicago’s pride parade, when Billy Bean climbs into the 1965 Vanden Plas Princess Bentley open-top touring car and begins his ride up Halsted Street, he’ll be taking us out. He will show the world something new about what a gay person can be, and he will show gay people something new about what we can be in the world. It probably won’t be the most comfortable place for him. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to being in front of people,” he says. “Definitely I would prefer to be part of the crowd.” But in that setting, if only for a day, Billy Bean will be able to wear whatever he damn well pleases.

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