Last Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that our Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage. The ruling, a landmark victory for the gay-rights movement, highlights a shift in the popular perspective as more and more Americans now openly approve of these same-sex unions. In the sporting world, the perspective is shifting as well. Basketball has Jason Collins, football Michael Sam, and so it seems only a matter of time until we meet the first openly gay Major League Baseball player.
Fortunately for that player, his safest haven will likely be the locker room.
The locker room is a great homogenizer. Players come from all over the globe, united by their ability to throw, catch or hit a ball. Multiple languages are spoken and learned, international friendships are cultivated and perspectives are shifted. For the better part of eight months, we spend most of our waking hours in close quarters.
We make fun of each other. A LOT. We also make fun of things we can’t control: baldness, height, nose size, et cetera ... nothing is off limits because nothing is taken seriously. We say awful things to each other that if said by anyone else would likely result in a fight. You can’t call him that; only we can. Faulty logic? Probably. We don’t care.
Baseball players have thick skin. We have to, since we get cursed at on the road, booed for poor performance at home, and routinely embarrassed on national television. When we step up to the plate or take the mound, the record of our performance is displayed in large bright numbers under an enormous photograph of our face. Sometimes I thought my picture was about to scream, “Look at me! I SUCK!!”
So we grow an outer layer of Teflon that facilitates our ability to “shake it off.” Quick, imagine your statistics from work displayed in front of 50,000 people who played a Little League version of your job as a kid, and they can scream ANYTHING. Frightening, right?
Add the inherent stress involved in routinely participating in a public spectacle to the deep bonds forged from the fire inside the locker room, and it’s easy to predict how a baseball team would treat a gay teammate: It wouldn’t be perfect, but he would be welcomed.
Yes, some players would initially be shocked, maybe even outraged, upon finding out their teammate is gay. Some would laugh, then follow with a reflexive sigh and say, “I knew it!”
I would ask him, “Why didn’t you tell me sooner? How do you hold something like that inside for so long? Tell us; we’re your teammates!" Everyone would have his own opinion, as is everyone’s right. People would act awkward in the bathroom and in the shower for a while, but things would soon return to normal.
And eventually the locker room would find humor in the situation. Sexual orientation would finally take its place alongside the other things we have no control over, like nose size or height. The kind of things a team jokes about with each other. You can’t call him that. Only we can.
Full acceptance, though? Ah, yes. That would finally be achieved during a road game, when some dummy in the stands has one too many beers and screams out a homophobic slur. The collective defense mechanism built on the field and in the locker room would engage. Someone other than the player would respond to that idiot: Smart enough to buy a ticket, but too dumb to keep your mouth shut. You can’t call him that. Only we can.
No major leaguer has ever come out during his playing career. My guess is that after weighing their options, the gay players just haven’t found the circumstances ideal, or welcoming enough. Perhaps they simply don't want the onus of publicly representing the LBGTQ movement. I don't know. As a straight man, I simply cannot estimate the difficulty involved in making that decision.
Baseball has evolved: color barriers broken, rules changed, mounds lowered and replay instituted. The goal of any organization is to win the World Series. Gay or straight, the best players will always be in high demand. The door to the locker room is open to those talented enough for an invitation.
John Baker played in the majors for seven seasons, from 2008-'14. He is a contributor to JABO. Follow him on Twitter.