Baseball has an inclusion problem
Last August, I attended my first LGBTQ Pride Night at New York's Citi Field. Queued in the blazing heat to see the Mets play the Atlanta Braves, fans were handed rainbow flags to take into the park. Yet many, like myself, hadn't even realized it was Pride Night in the first place; the event was overshadowed by a coveted Noah Syndergaard bobblehead giveaway. "I'm a gay Mets fan and I can't help but feel like the [Mets'] Pride plans are taking a back seat to a different promotion on the same day," wrote Matt Tracy at the time for Outsports.
The Mets' half-hearted Pride festivities were an uncharacteristically revealing glimpse at a larger inclusion problem in the sport, one that now, on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, has again failed to markedly improve. Even with all but the two Texas teams celebrating Pride events at ballparks this season, Major League Baseball still hasn't made the sport as welcoming to players as it outwardly purports to be.
Consider that, of the 750 active players on an MLB roster every year, none have ever publicly confirmed being gay. In fact, in all of the sport's 150-year history, only two major league players, Billy Bean and Glenn Burke, have talked openly about their orientation, and both made the disclosures only after they'd retired. Homophobic slurs are still a problem on the diamond; Houston Astros outfielder George Springer was quietly disciplined by MLB earlier this year after calling the umpire a derogatory term, while in 2017 both the Oakland Athletics' Matt Joyce and Toronto Blue Jays' Kevin Pillar received suspensions for hurling slurs. Three-time All-Star Daniel Murphy, meanwhile, won the National League Championship Series MVP award in 2015, the same year he told an interviewer he "disagree[d]" with Bean's gay "lifestyle."
To MLB's credit, the organization clearly wants to ensure ballparks are welcoming for the thousands of LGBTQ fans who go to games every day of the season. Still, it's been a rocky road, The New York Times reports: In 2000, a lesbian couple was ejected from Dodger Stadium for kissing, and during the 2010 playoffs, Yankees fans used the game's "YMCA" break to taunt opposing fans with "why are you gay?" The "kiss cam," an uncomfortable staple of many ballparks, almost exclusively focuses on assumed heterosexual couples when it's not a Pride Night. There has been some improvement, though: In 2014, MLB named Bean as the sport's first ambassador for inclusion, while sports journalist LZ Granderson has written that "I am living proof that things have changed," recalling the time he was called a slur by an editor in the late 1990s.
— MLB (@MLB) June 25, 2018
Today fans are treated to free rainbow-and-unicorn swag or first pitches by LGBTQ icons on annual Pride Nights; even the Yankees, who'd long resisted Pride-related events, are giving away $50,000 in scholarships this year to mark the anniversary of Stonewall. Beneath such multicolored proclamations of inclusion, though, simmers a perception among the players that coming out is still a career risk. "One of the things that makes baseball unique is the minor league system," OutSports founder Cyd Zeigler told NewNowNext. "People are brought up and put back all the time. In baseball, your position is always less secure than other pro sports." In other words, even if MLB claims to be accepting of all orientations, there is still a perceived belief that being gay could be held unfairly against you when being evaluated on the field. Sonoma Stompers pitcher Sean Conroy, the first openly gay professional baseball player, voiced his apprehension to USA Today Sports: "Wherever I go next, whether that's in the MLB or with another team, I'm going to be nervous," he confessed.
The most striking part is that the concern over inclusion seems to be about the organization of Major Leage Baseball itself — coaches, players, and front office management — rather than its fandom. As Zeigler put it in that conversation with NewNowNext: "This isn't an issue with fans — it hasn't been for a decade." Just look at NBA player Jason Collins, the first openly gay athlete to play in one of the four major American sports leagues, who received a standing ovation in his debut, or former University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, the first publicly gay player to be drafted in the NFL, who was met with applause in his first appearance at Mizzou after coming out. Why can't the same thing happen in baseball?
Until that question is answered, though, MLB's overtures to LGBTQ fans will have an edge of hypocrisy. Not because MLB isn't making strides to better include all fans, but because it remains unwelcoming, at some level, to all players. Until gay fans can see themselves reflected proudly on the diamond, the gestures will remain uneasily empty.