How Billy came back to baseball

Billy Bean was in Portland, Ore., when he got the call. Not the kind of call he once received as a minor-league outfielder, summoning him to the majors. No, a call that was even more significant, the first step toward baseball welcoming Bean, a publicly gay man, back to its family.

This was in mid-June. Bean was attending the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Sports Summit. Paul Mifsud, a vice president and deputy general counsel for baseball in labor relations, left Bean a voicemail, saying he would like to speak with him.

Bean called back.

“I feel like this phone call is about 13 years too late,” Mifsud said.

The call was a pivotal moment in baseball’s efforts to become more inclusive, efforts that dated back more than a year and produced a strategic alliance with a non-profit organization dedicated to making sports safe, respectful and inclusive for everyone regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Efforts that marked a natural if belated progression for the sport of Jackie Robinson, efforts that led to Bean being named baseball’s ambassador for inclusion on July 15, roughly one month after he took Mifsud’s call.

Mifsud told Bean that he wanted to talk with him, wanted him to come to New York, to MLB’s Park Avenue offices, as soon as possible. Bean was taken aback by Mifsud’s urgency, thought something might be wrong. No, Mifsud assured him, everything was fine.

A few days later, on the morning of June 20, Bean met at the MLB offices with four top baseball executives — Mifsud, executive VP of labor relations Dan Halem, VP of public relations Pat Courtney and VP and deputy general counsel for labor relations Steven Gonzalez.

And it all came pouring out.

Bean, 50, had retired from baseball after the 1995 season, unable to continue as a closeted gay player. He made his sexual orientation public in 1999.

“You could tell just talking to Billy he had been bottling up for 15 or so years, maybe more, what he would say if he were to sit in front of the people at Major League Baseball and talk about his experiences and what he felt he could do,” Mifsud said.

Bean spoke all morning to the MLB executives before the group broke for lunch. Then he resumed the session alone with Mifsud and kept talking, speaking for seven or eight hours total.

“It was not like a back and forth,” Mifsud said. “He had a lot to share about his experiences. It was very personal to him. He kept saying, ‘Look, I want to do stuff with baseball. But I’m not going to be your token gay person that you’re just going to put on a podium.’ He may have even said, ‘I’m not going to be your pet.’ ”

The effect was immediate. And pronounced.

“He really articulated, first and foremost, above everything else, that he loved baseball and missed baseball,” Courtney said. “He was very emotional. When he talked, it made us sort of emotional. You could tell he was just laying his heart on the table. When I walked out of there, my whole thought was, ‘Baseball needs to be involved with him.’ ”

Bean, though, did not know of baseball’s intention — not yet.

He enjoyed the day, enjoyed speaking with the executives, chatting with Joe Torre, the sport’s VP of baseball operations, meeting with younger employees. He said it was fun for him, a former player from an era of labor strife, to visit the MLB offices, which once had been “kind of enemy territory.”

But even after Bean left, he wasn’t quite sure what Mifsud and the others were thinking. Mifsud had seemed quite nervous during the morning session, Bean thought; the executive must have stuck his neck out for him. The mood was much more relaxed when they met privately in the afternoon. Mifsud even took out a couple of Bean’s baseball cards as they chatted away.

Bean felt like his parents would be proud of him. He felt like a proud alumnus of MLB. And, he said, “I was proud of baseball no matter what. At least they were interested.”

More interested than he even knew.

The very next day, baseball called Bean and offered him a job.

* * *

Baseball’s first move toward becoming more welcoming to the LGBT community was an announcement at FanFest during All-Star Week 2013.

In response to an inquiry from the New York Attorney General’s office, baseball had created a workplace code of conduct, distributing it to every major- and minor-league player. The new policy also included training and a centralized complaint system to report harassment and discrimination.

Around that same time, baseball officials began speaking with Athlete Ally, the non-profit that carries the motto, “Victory Through Unity,” works to make sports more inclusive and takes a stand against homophobia and transphobia.

Sam Marchiano, a founding board member of Athlete Ally, had approached Torre about the organization at Yogi Berra’s golf tournament in May 2013. Marchiano, a former journalist and sportscaster, had ties to baseball – her previous career stops had included the New York Daily News, FOX Sports and MLB.com.

And baseball was ready to hear what Marchiano and Athlete Ally’s executive director, Hudson Taylor, had to say.

The first meeting, prompted by a request from Torre to Courtney, took place three days after the 2013 All-Star Game. Marchiano and Taylor attended from Athlete Ally, Mifsud and Courtney from baseball.

“I’ve always been a believer that if people have preferences, they’re entitled to them. And I don’t think it should keep them out of areas that maybe some other people think they should be out of,” Torre said. “If somebody has the ability to play baseball, I don’t think there is any reason they shouldn’t have the opportunity to do that.”

The initial meeting led to weekly brainstorming sessions on conference calls and Athlete Ally making presentations to baseball people at the winter meetings, industry meetings and the rookie career development program.

Athlete Ally also partnered with the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center, located in Montclair, N.J. The museum’s director, Dave Kaplan, had been one of Marchiano’s editors at the New York Daily News.

In September 2013, the museum opened an exhibit celebrating inclusion in sports, from Pee Wee Reese putting his arm around Jackie Robinson to Jason Collins becoming the first NBA player to announce he was gay.

Torre and Courtney attended the opening of the exhibit, which ran through March 2014.

“If you look back at Yogi’s childhood, he grew up in an ethnic neighborhood. Those generations of Italians combated various forms of discrimination,” Kaplan said.

“Yogi was mocked and ridiculed early in his career over his ethnicity and appearance. But he is a guy who is beloved by everybody. In many cases, he went out of his way to help (black) athletes like Larry Doby and Elston Howard assimilate into the majors.

“I looked at the historical context of what Athlete Ally was doing. I said, ‘You know what? This is no different than when Yogi Berra broke into the major leagues in 1947 when things were changing, with blacks coming into the game. To me, it’s the same thing – treating everyone the same.’”

Baseball officials had reached an identical conclusion. Commissioner Bud Selig speaks often about the sport as a social institution. The question within baseball was how to build upon the momentum it had generated at the 2013 FanFest, what to do next.

Working behind the scenes, quietly making incremental progress, no longer was an option. Marchiano told baseball, in no uncertain terms, that it needed to be “explicitly welcoming,” needed to take a public stand.

“Showing that you’re a visible ally is a really important thing,” she said. “No one assumes that you’re comfortable, you’re accepting. But if you visibly demonstrate it, then people know. You clarify that.”

In February, Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam publicly came out as gay while preparing for the NFL Draft. Mifsud said that in speaking with Marchiano and Courtney, he realized that while baseball had not had an active player disclose he was gay, Bean and the late outfielder, Glenn Burke, had come out after retiring.

A Slate.com article about Burke in June – “Baseball Has an Amazing Gay History. It’s Time to Recognize It” – further caught baseball’s attention.

“As we delved more into this, what you wind up realizing was that there was this portion of the gay community that felt like we had never really done any outreach with those who had come out before, that we may be looking to distance ourselves from it,” Courtney said. “That just wasn’t the case.”

Mifsud reached out to Lutha Burke, one of Glenn’s five surviving siblings, and her daughter, Alice Rose.

And he reached out to Bean.

* * *

A year or so after he retired, while Bean was living in Miami Beach, he was invited by Trevor Hoffman, Brad Ausmus and some of his other former Padres teammates to visit them in the clubhouse before a game against the Marlins.

“I was so nervous,” Bean said. “I didn’t want to go inside.”

Bean had not yet revealed that he was gay, but he was living more openly and feared that someone might learn his secret. He wanted his former teammates to view him as a baseball player only. Seeing them together saddened him, made him realize that by retiring, he had made himself an outsider, made a mistake.

Once he came out, of course, the perception of him forever changed – and so did Bean’s perception of himself.

No longer living in fear, he sought to become a role model, someone who would inspire those in the LGBT community to connect rather than withdraw.

“At first, I felt embarrassed or exposed to be talking about LGBT issues,” Bean said. “Then I understood it had nothing to do with sexuality. It’s about empowering people and giving them an opportunity to be their best self.”

That, in essence, is what his new job is all about.

Guidance. Training. Education. Anything and everything to assist baseball in its efforts to support the LGBT community.

An early example came on Aug. 14, when Bean, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and assistant GM Jean Afterman toured the Hetrick-Martin Institute, the nation’s oldest and largest social-services agency dedicated to helping at-risk LGBT and questioning youth.

“If there would have been someone in the position that I’m in when I was playing, I would not have quit,” Bean said. “I would have reached out to somebody. And that’s the difference.

“Whether players are ready to come out, I think they’re comfortable coming out to their own world, as opposed to the entire world. To me, that’s progress. Whether we’re going to have somebody do that this year or next year, at least the environment in and around it is better.”

So is the environment overall.

For Mifsud and Courtney, the two executives who spearheaded baseball’s efforts to become more welcoming, there is a sense that the sport is fulfilling its historic mission by promoting tolerance and inclusion.

Both Selig and commissioner-elect Rob Manfred lent their full support, Courtney said. Selig would ask questions. Courtney would inform him of new developments. Selig would tell him, “‘Get it done. Go. Yes. Absolutely.’”

It was simply the right thing to do.

“I can’t tell you the number of letters and e-mails that we received after the Bean announcement, both externally and internally,” Courtney said. “People were just proud to be associated with baseball, told us how much this meant to them.

“Employees that I wasn’t aware of who were gay or lesbian sent me a note saying this is the proudest they had been in the sport. I had no idea. You realize, when you’re in the midst of doing this, the impact it was having on people.”

Mifsud was one of the labor attorneys who worked in late 2013 on baseball’s arbitration case against Alex Rodriguez, which he described as “miserable stuff.”

The work Mifsud did on inclusion, some of which was going on at the same time as the Rodriguez hearings, was “the polar opposite,” he said.

“It was a tremendous feeling of pride,” Mifsud said. “You can’t get that kind of pride by winning a salary arbitration case. I’m excited that we win cases, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not nearly the same thing as when you’re using baseball to help people in this way.”

Looking back, Bean does not recall being particularly emotional at his initial meeting with baseball, even though that is how both Mifsud and Courtney described him.

No, the significance of Bean’s whirlwind return to the sport hit him only during his introductory news conference at Fanfest, with Burke’s sister, Lutha, at his side.

Here I am, sharing a podium with Selig, Bean thought. Here I am, rejoining the baseball family.

“I’m very comfortable speaking. But I got very nervous. And I realized how important it was to me at that moment,” Bean said.

“I went on this long, round journey. And I had come full circle. And for the exact same reasons I left baseball, I was actually being asked in.”

The announcement followed Selig’s annual town hall chat. Hundreds were in attendance. Military veterans filled the first two rows. Television cameras were everywhere.

Bean did not want to lose his composure. He decided to speak from the heart. And he made the point that his appointment was not changing baseball in a bad way; no, the sport was just opening its doors a little wider. Catching Selig’s eye afterward, he could tell that the commissioner understood.

There was a special moment, too, when Bean was waiting to speak, sitting anxiously at the podium, Lutha Burke holding his hand.

He had been so uncomfortable as a closeted player. He had been away from the game for so long. And Glenn Burke’s sister was telling him something that he had never expected to hear in a baseball setting, something remarkable and sweet and true.

“You’re the perfect guy,” she said.