In the first days of Faith and Fear a decade ago, Greg and I addressed each other directly, largely because nobody else was reading. For this post we’re going back to the idea. My thoughts are below, with Greg’s to follow.
There’s no PR land mine the Mets can’t step on, but at least this week their misfires reduced the coverage of their earlier misfires. No sooner had Bobby Parnell thrown out Noah Syndergaard‘s forbidden lunch than Daniel Murphy accepted a reporter’s invitation to explore the intersection between the gay “lifestyle” and his religious beliefs.
If you caught wind of all this, sighed and tried to ignore it, I get it. I’ve had the same reaction when some story smudges or obliterates the boundary between baseball and the rest of the world. (I also reflexively ignore tempests in spring-training teapots.) Baseball can be a nice escape from everything else — three hours that don’t guarantee a happy outcome but are usually free of politicians (unless they’re throwing out first pitches) and societal squabbles. The sport lends itself to this, not just because it’s fun to watch but because it’s so conservative, in the broad sense of the term. A fan from 1915 might wonder why managers kept changing pitchers and marvel at the gigantic gloves, but she’d follow a baseball game with ease, while a football fan arriving through some time portal from 1915 would be left to figure out what’s essentially a different sport.
And yet it’s an illusion that baseball stands apart from the world, that it’s some kind of refuge. That’s never been true. The history of baseball is intimately bound up with the history of race relations in America, as well as the history of labor and that of gender, though that last strain of its history gets painfully short shrift. Today baseball’s a mirror in which we see the effects of globalization and growing economic disparity. It’s being reshaped as we speak by technological advances in data-mining, digital video, statistical analysis, surgery and pharmaceuticals, to name just a few. And the dark side of being a refuge from more serious matters? It’s that baseball has at times been a fortress against change.
All that was in my mind as I thought about the visit to Mets camp by Billy Bean, the former big-league player who’s MLB “ambassador for inclusion,” and about Murphy’s reaction to that visit. I thought about it, went on to other things, but found myself still thinking about it. Part of what interested me, and that kept drawing me back, was how little of this story had unfolded the way I assumed it would.
Last summer I rolled my eyes when Bud Selig gave Bean his vaguely Orwellian title — what the heck is an ambassador for inclusion? I assumed the title was one of those PR gestures that’s really an effort to dismiss something. But Billy Bean’s actually visiting camps and talking to players. He’s actually having the kind of conversations that you’d hope an ambassador of inclusion would have.
At Mets camp Bean took part in workouts while wearing a Mets uniform. That was at Sandy Alderson’s suggestion, and it turned out Sandy had wanted the 50-year-old Bean to play in a spring-training game. My initial reaction to that was that it felt forced, and that Bean had been right to demur. But the more I read about Alderson’s reasoning, the more I admired the gesture. Alderson spoke of Glenn Burke, whom the Dodgers traded for being too open about his sexuality, and who was tormented in Oakland by the vile Billy Martin and quit the game, dying in 1995 of complications from AIDS. (Trivia time: He also introduced the high-five to baseball.) Burke’s time with the A’s came before Alderson’s, but Sandy recalled that “we reached out to him from time to time, largely on the insistence of a woman member of our staff, for which I give tremendous credit. But it wasn’t enough. He died on the streets. He was homeless and died on the streets of San Francisco as an outcast. So, from my standpoint, that can’t happen. It never should have happened. It can’t happen again.”
Reading that, I thought of Branch Rickey. When discussing his motivations for signing Jackie Robinson, Rickey often recalled a young black catcher for Ohio Wesleyan named Charley Thomas who’d been denied a hotel room on a road trip nearly 50 years earlier. Rickey said that a humiliated Thomas had wept and said, “it’s my skin. It’s my skin, Mr. Rickey. If I could just tear it off, I’d be like everyone else.” The memory haunted Rickey, and Alderson spoke of Burke with uncharacteristic emotion. The idea behind having Bean play for the Mets, he said, was “because for us, getting him in a uniform, images are powerful. And in a way it’s a sort of symbolic embrace of bringing him back into the major league family.” I still thought Bean was wise to decline the invitation, but I no longer thought Alderson was forcing anything.
And then Murph spoke up about Bean. He said that “I do disagree with the fact that Billy is a homosexual. … Maybe, as a Christian, we haven’t been as articulate enough in describing what our actual stance is on homosexuality. We love the people. We disagree [with] the lifestyle.”
That was familiar, and disheartening for a number of reasons. First off, because Murphy was parroting stuff cherry-picked by fundamentalists from ancient Jewish ritual law — he seems to have skipped the directives not to trim his beard or work on the Sabbath. And because only last year cynical talk-radio troglodytes blasted Murph for leaving the team to be with his wife for the birth of their first child, a cruel injunction that he took as seriously as being told to keep his wife away from church for 40 days after giving birth, after which she should arrange the sacrifice of a year-old lamb and a dove. But most of all it was disheartening because of that seemingly innocent but deeply loaded term “lifestyle.”
Does Murph really think that Billy Bean had a choice about who he’s attracted to, that he voluntarily signed up for the misery he’s been through? Bean didn’t. Neither did Glenn Burke, or Daniel Murphy, or you or me or anybody else. The stubborn insistence that being gay or straight is a choice has become a firewall against being decent and fair. And my respect for faith ends where bigotry — of any sort — begins.
But stop a minute. Because that wasn’t all that Daniel Murphy said. Those three dots contained a lot of other stuff.
Murph said he’d accept a gay teammate. And he said his disagreement with Bean’s supposed choice “doesn’t mean I can’t still invest in him and get to know him. … just because I disagree with the lifestyle doesn’t mean I’m just never going to speak to Billy Bean every time he walks through the door. That’s not love. That’s not love at all.”
And that’s important too. If Murph believes it — and since it was honesty that landed him on the back pages, I do believe him — then potentially it’s really important. Because if he invests in Bean and gets to know him, they might have an conversation about choices and lifestyle. Billy Bean might tell Daniel Murphy what he struggled with, and the pain it caused him. And maybe Murph might come to think differently, the same way more and more Americans — including me — have come to think differently. Such conversations may do nothing to combat determined prejudice and true malice, but Murph didn’t display either of those things. He wasn’t former Met Mark Dewey, whose shamefully blinkered interpretation of faith caused him to refuse to be on the field during a 1996 ceremony designed to show support in seeking a cure for AIDS. (And to be fair, who knows what Dewey thinks these days?) Murphy was speaking from an ignorance that has had cruel consequences for too many people, and that in his mind is rooted in his faith. But that same faith informed the other things he said too.
Bean read Murphy’s comments, and I found his response moving: “[Murph] was brave to share his feelings, and it made me want to work harder and be a better example that someday might allow him to view things from my perspective, if only for just a moment. I respect him, and I want everyone to know that he was respectful of me. We have baseball in common, and for now, that might be the only thing. But it’s a start. … It took me 32 years to fully accept my sexual orientation, so it would be hypocritical of me to not be patient with others. Inclusion means everyone, plain and simple.”
Bean went on to note that big-league clubhouses are now some of sports’ most diverse places, for which he thanked Jackie Robinson. And he closed by saying “in his honor, with a little patience, compassion and hard work, we’ll get there.” And there was my last and most pleasant surprise — that I found myself sharing his confidence. It won’t be easy or painless, but we’ll get there. In fact, this particular day in Metland made me think that we already are getting there.