Bridging the gaps

Think back to high school for a moment. Either it was a pleasant time of your life, or it wasn’t. But you’ll only have to do it for a couple of minutes. Just trust me on this.

First I want you to picture the valedictorian of your graduating class. Anthony Michael Hall’s character in The Breakfast Club.  The one who gave the address to the class about the future and what it holds, while you just wanted to collect the proof that you were finished, and then hit the graduation parties as soon as possible. Or at least, that was my experience once upon a time.

Now I want you to picture the star athlete of your high school class. Emilio Estevez’ character in The Breakfast Club. A football player, in all likelihood, and a basketball player, too. Perhaps even baseball in the spring, because this person only understood life when competing against someone else. The one who had every girl in the class hoping he would ask her out next. That guy.

The two people I just had you picture in your mind were quite different people, weren’t they? Each had their thing, and made sure to stay as far away from the other as possible. They may or may not have disliked each other, but I’ll bet that neither one wanted the other to get into his proverbial space.

Now imagine that those two people– the jock and the scholar–were actually one and the same. Whoa! Hold on a second. One person who gets better grades than everyone else, and is also the best athlete? Where would anyone find the time to pull that one off? A fair question, indeed.

Billy Bean was such a person in high school. Before going any futher, I have to point out that this is NOT the person who Brad Pitt portrays in Moneyball. That Billy Beane has an “e” at the end of his name, and this Billy Bean spells his last name like Jellybean or Mr. Bean. Same name, different people. Remember that.

Billy Bean, the star athlete and valedictorian of his high school class, was a two-time All-American outfielder in college, was drafted shortly after graduation, and arrived in the major leagues during the 1987 season. The card shown above is his rookie card, at a time when nobody considered that to be an important or valuable thing. You make it to the majors, you get your picture on a card. Simple as that.

Billy Bean played in the majors and the minors, and even played briefly in Japan, from the time this card appeared until 1995. After leaving the game, a story in the New York Times in 1999 “outed” him as a gay man, and after acknowledging this fact he has written a book, served as a motivational speaker, and built a successful real estate business in Florida.

The only other professional athlete of any major team sport–sorry, Martina Navratilova–to publicy acknowledge being gay was the late Glenn Burke, who I wrote about here. It would seem that gay athletes aren’t comfortable with revealing this to other players or to the general public. Society has come a long way on gay rights in my lifetime, including open service in the military and in Judas Priest, but the sporting world appears to be behind the curve in this sense.

I wonder who the first athlete to publicly come out during their playing career will be. Whoever it is will need to be very strong, in order to upset the apple cart that has always existed in professional sports. Former teammate Brad Ausmus has publicly signaled his acceptance of Billy Bean, but there’s no indication that others would do so with one of their own teammates. The fact that no professional athlete has yet taken this step during his or her playing career suggests that Ausmus is the exception, instead of the rule.

As a society, we’ve never had to reconcile a professional athlete with someone who’s open about being gay, at least not while that person is still playing the game. And that’s unfortunate. I hope that changes someday soon. And Billy Bean–who has successfully bridged the gaps between star athlete and valedictorian, and between pro athlete and openly gay man–will deserve a special mention when it does.