Mets offer a lesson in naivete
© St. Petersburg Times
Bobby Valentine made a mistake. And perhaps the rest of us are at fault.
You see, Valentine mistook freedom for tolerance. He saw individuality and confused it with progress. He stared at reality and chose to be optimistic.
In other words, he thought better of us all.
By now, you probably have heard of the ruckus. This unseemly debate concerning the sexual preferences of Mets catcher Mike Piazza.
It began when Valentine mistakenly assumed times had drastically changed. The Mets manager was asked by a magazine writer if he believed major-league baseball was ready for its first openly gay player.
Valentine said yes.
He was wrong.
And it didn't take long to figure out.
A New York Post gossip columnist somehow extrapolated from Valentine's solitary reply that it was the prelude to a Mets star coming out of the closet. He wrote of rumors concerning a high-profile player, often seen in the company of female models, who was ready to declare he was gay.
Radio talk shows in New York were soon buzzing with callers openly suggesting Piazza was the player in question.
Within 24 hours, Piazza, his agent and the Mets were meeting to discuss how to handle the frenzy. Before Tuesday's game, Piazza held a news conference.
"I can't control what people think. I can say I'm heterosexual. I date women," Piazza said. "I don't see a need to address it any further."
Having to address it at all speaks volumes. Had Piazza ignored it, the rumors would have grown even louder. By denying it, Piazza inadvertently perpetuates the stigma attached to it.
"I do not want to second-guess Mr. Valentine because he obviously has better insight in major-league clubhouses than I do," said Jubi Headley, spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington. "But sexual orientation discrimination exists everywhere else in the world.
"Mr. Piazza clearly understood the implications and the ramifications of being perceived as gay. Otherwise he would not have felt the need to state his sexual orientation. It doesn't bother me that, as an individual, he felt he needed to make that statement. But it is bothersome that we live in a world where it was necessary for him to come out and say he was heterosexual."
Even if you are prone to look hopefully at the world, even if you believe America has become a more tolerant society, it is difficult to imagine the isolation a gay athlete might face.
There are few places quite so homophobic as the locker room of a pro team. If you do not think so, look at it this way:
Drug abusers, wife beaters, racists and deadbeat dads have been welcomed with open arms. Yet not one active player has ever felt comfortable enough to announce to the world he is gay.
It is a close-knit, machismo environment and stepping outside the norm can be a risk. Cory Lidle was as likable a player as any in the Devil Rays clubhouse, but he was ostracized by teammates for having spent a few days in the uniform of a replacement player in 1995. Another Rays player was ridiculed and ignored for his strong religious convictions. Former manager Larry Rothschild was never completely accepted because he had little major-league experience.
The odds say hundreds of homosexuals have played in the NFL, the NBA or major-league baseball in the past three decades. Not only have they all remained hidden during their careers, few have stepped forward afterward.
Billy Bean is one of the exceptions. A journeyman outfielder in the early 1990s, Bean was outed by a newspaper article a couple of years after his retirement. Now living in Miami Beach, Bean said he does not envy the scrutiny an openly gay player will eventually face.
"How would his life change overnight?" Bean told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. "Any time he goes out in public with a male, people will talk. Imagine how fans will treat him, how fellow teammates will. There will be paparazzi to deal with.
"There's such a frenzy out there to create and destroy somebody over this. That's why I say the only way it will happen, where a player (admits to being homosexual) is if it happens accidentally. Somehow it comes out and they have to deal with it."
In the meantime, we wait.
We wait while knowing, almost assuredly, that a player we currently cheer is a homosexual. That he is the same person today as he was yesterday and will be tomorrow, no matter how much we know about his sexual preference.
We wait while wondering, perhaps guiltily, how difficult it must be to live a life of secrecy.
As we wait, we should understand the fault is not theirs.
It is ours.
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