I can't pinpoint when I first fell in love with baseball. It might be spring 1972, when as a first-grader I attended my first Texas Rangers game. The old Arlington Stadium was a former minor league ballpark expanded to be the Rangers' home. I still remember the aluminum outfield bleacher seats, unbearable in the heat of a Texas summer.
It might have been the summers at my grandparents' house, listening to the glory of play-by-play baseball on the radio. My maternal grandfather's influence was strong; he played for the minor league San Antonio Indians in 1930, and my mom recently reminded me that my grandfather once played against Hall of Fame pitcher and broadcaster Dizzy Dean. My love for the game grew in the 1990s when I worked for the flagship radio station of the Rangers' network. Anytime I wanted to see a game, I could walk to the back patio for a peek.
Baseball is unique in American sports. Walt Whitman described it as "our game -- the American game." Its rules predate the Civil War, making it older than other major, made-in-the-USA sports such as basketball and American football. Pro ballparks -- iconic locations like Fenway and Wrigley -- have been called "green cathedrals."
But for too long, a player's sexual orientation was the subject of whispers, innuendo and bigotry. Take the case of Glenn Burke -- the first and only pro baseball player out to teammates and owners. Playing for the Dodgers and A's from 1976 to '79, Burke endured overt homophobia from managers and executives. An injury forced him to retire at 27, and after living in poverty for years, he died of AIDS-related complications in 1995.
The November 22 announcement that Major League Baseball and its players' association would add sexual orientation nondiscrimination to their new collective bargaining agreement is a significant milestone on the road to equality. With that decision, four of the major sports leagues in the United States have similar protections. The November 26 settlement between the NBA players and owners may make that five after their contract language is finalized.
The groundwork for this monumental change was likely laid after an incident last April. An Atlanta Braves coach made homophobic comments to San Francisco Giants fans. Gloria Allred and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation got involved. Later, after the NFL added sexual orientation nondiscrimination to its labor agreement, I wrote MLB and the players' association asking for similar protections. I received positive responses not only from baseball's chief labor negotiator but also Commissioner Bud Selig himself.
Are sports one of the last bastions of homophobia? A recent article from The Nation described sports as "America's deepest closet." Six years after their league adopted a sexual orientation nondiscrimination policy, no openly gay NHL players have skated onto the ice. Seven years after soccer adopted a similar policy, no openly gay Major League Soccer players are actively playing.
In the past, sports led social change by integrating leagues and making an effort to hire coaches, managers, and staff of color as well as women. Today, big business leads the charge. More than 90% of the Fortune 500 and 48 of the Fortune 50 companies have nondiscrimination policies that include sexual orientation; approximately half of the Fortune 500 provide gender identity protections.
Sadly, government is on the trailing edge of equality. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act remains elusive at the federal level, and there are no statewide LGBT antidiscrimination protections in Texas or 29 other states. Arlington, where the Rangers play and their executive offices are located, offers no protection at the city level. That means some Rangers employees are protected against sexual orientation discrimination provided they can field an infield fly ball. Others aren't so lucky.
LGBT cultural competency training is one of the services offered by my employer, Resource Center Dallas. Although baseball is a game, ultimately it's also a business. I hope that players, coaches, and staff learn, just as we teach, that businesses establish nondiscrimination policies not only to ensure equity among workers but to curb inappropriate behavior and prevent hostile work environments.
Some sports historians credit Burke and Dodgers teammate Dusty Baker for inventing the high five on the last day of the 1977 regular season. It's a universal symbol of liberation, celebration, and triumph. Someday in the near future -- sooner rather than later -- an openly gay player will celebrate a winning run at home plate, high-fiving his teammates. Then and only then, "America's game" will truly welcome everybody.
Rafael McDonnell is communications and advocacy manager for Resource Center Dallas.