Thursday night’s Game for the Ages

Thursday night, I wrote a blog post about Sean Conroy, scheduled for his first professional start for the Pacific Association’s Sonoma Stompers. Well, things could hardly have turned out better for everyone involved …

Except for the opposing Vallejo Admirals, as Conroy pitched a three-hit shutout. It took the first-year pro 140 pitches, but he struck out 11 Admirals and walked only one.

I’m late to this party. Conroy’s been with the Stompers since Opening Day, having been recommended by the club’s sabermetric consultants. Couple of fellows named Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller. Maybe you’ve heard of ’em.

It’s hard to say exactly what Ben and Sam saw in Conroy — they’re saving all the gory mathematical details for their book — but one might guess they appreciated Conroy striking out five times more batters than he walked in his last three seasons at D-3 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. And that he gave up only two homers in 217 innings.

Conroy wasn’t drafted, though, which is why he was available to the Stompers. He probably wasn’t drafted because he doesn’t throw hard at all. They’ve got PITCHf/x in the Stompers’ ballpark, so radio announcer Tim Livingston was kind enough to send me some details of Conroy’s shutout:

Conroy sat 81-84 from a low 3/4-sidearm with a two-seam fastball. He relied mostly on his slider — seven of nine hitters he saw were righties — with tremendous break on the horizontal plane. He changes to an over-the-top curveball from time to time that sat around 75, and he threw a few changeups to the left-handed hitters.

Against righties, his arm slot comes from behind the eye line of the hitter because he throws off the third-base side, which makes it difficult to pick up. Is fearless about coming inside to righties, even with just 84, as the way he throws, it snakes back on the inside corner. He’s got nasty stuff for this league, which favors the hitters.

He only had two hard hit balls all night: The double to P.J. Phillips (Brandon’s little brother) on a 1-2 fastball in the first, and a hanger in the fifth that was snagged on a line drive at third.

Thanks, Tim! Nice job on the broadcast, by the way. Hit all the high notes and all the right notes, I thought. (At the end, the shutout complete, I laughed. Might have cried just a little, too. Wanted that shutout, bad.)

Thursday was Conroy’s first start with the Stompers, but he’s made a bunch of relief outings earlier in the season, and I don’t quite know how he didn’t show up on my radar until now. For most of the background, here’s a story from Tuesday’s Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

Oh. Right. I almost forgot to mention: Conroy’s gay, and doesn’t care who knows it.

Which makes him, as near as anyone can tell, the first publicly gay player in the history of professional baseball. Which seems like sort of a big deal. Considering how many thousands — or, wait, is it hundreds of thousands? — of professional baseball players came before Conroy.

Now, you might think this has been noticed just in the last two or three years. You know, with Michael Sam and Jason Collins. Well, a dozen years ago someone asked major-league pitcher Todd Jones, then with the Rockies, what he thought about having a gay teammate. His response included this gem: "I wouldn’t want a gay guy around me."

From my response to Jones:

I hope that, sometime in the near future, a gay baseball player comes out, and that he’s strong enough to fight through all the crap he’s going to get from jerks like Todd Jones. To me, that player will be a hero, more admirable than just about anybody else in the game, right up there with Jackie Robinson and Curt Flood and the few other professional athletes brave enough to stand up for something other than ever-growing paychecks.

But punishing jerks for expressing their backward thoughts isn’t going to make things any easier for the first player who comes out. We need to work on changing thoughts, not punishing people for having them.

It’s 12 years later, and I wouldn’t change a word of that. Except I wouldn’t call Jones a jerk. That’s one of the differences between the then-me and the now-me, as I generally try my best to hate the sin but love the sinner. I wasn’t completely fair to Jones, however much I disagree with his sentiment (which, by the way, might have changed by now).

It’s 12 years later, and we still haven’t seen an openly gay major leaguer. Or an openly gay player drafted or signed by a major-league organization. Again, we’re talking about thousands and thousands of young men, and there’s no escaping the fact that dozens and dozens of them were gay. And probably scared to death that somebody would find out. Which is, by all accounts, a pretty terrible way to live.

The sport that revels, more than any other sport, in integration has been terribly slow here. Baseball should have been first, but instead it’s apparently going to be last. Which means now it’s just a question of how last. Hiring Billy Bean was a good step. Enthusiastically supporting umpire Dale Scott was a good step.

But the next step might well be the hardest: creating an atmosphere within professional locker rooms that will make gay players feel comfortable coming out. I don’t think it’ll take another 12 years, but then again I wouldn’t have guessed it’s taken this long.

It’s highly unlikely that Conroy will pitch in the majors. Throwing 84, he probably won’t even get a shot with an affiliated minor-league team. But however long it takes for the breakthrough, I’ll bet the first publicly gay major leaguer will save a word of thanks for Sean Conroy. Because the best thing for the cause is good news on the field. And Thursday night, there was nine beautiful innings of good news.