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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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An Escape, Except When It's Not

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.

9 comments to An Escape, Except When It’s Not

  • Ed

    Jason,
    While I think players should focus on baseball, they cannot avoid life and life issues walk hand in hand with the game we love. Daniel Murphy is one of my favorite Mets and I applaud his honesty but I think his viewpoint is oddly skewed. The fact that he doesn’t ‘agree with Bean’s homosexuality’ is sad and seems to be just repeated catholic/Christian rhetoric. I’d prefer people to make up their own minds rather than only follow some dark ages concepts based on fear and misunderstanding. Jesus is of great love then he loves all of us no matter the sexual orientation. Considering all the scandals the church has had – they are the last to say anything against homosexuality.

  • Florida Met Fan Rich

    Best to say nothing at all in this situation. What can you possibly gain by commenting on this?

    It is a no win situation.

  • Dave

    Jason – well put. Sports are by their nature, apolitical. But they play too big a role in society to never intersect with social, political or cultural issues. Sometimes that’s innocuous, like who’s playing the Super Bowl halftime. But sometimes it’s a major milestone in our history, such as Jackie Robinson, or in the recent case of Ray Rice, shines a light on something that had been for too long in the dark. Even Marine Tom Seaver once said “if the Mets can win the World Series, the United States can get out of Vietnam.”

    Murphy’s statements were disappointing, and when you read something like the blog entry I saw from a gay Mets fan dad whose son idolizes Murph, it’s obvious why what he said is more than just one guy speaking his mind, whether it’s driven by his religious beliefs, his upbringing or anything else. But compared to other sub-Neanderthal comments other athletes have made in the past (although it would be nice to be able to set the bar higher than that), and certainly compared to what the Glenn Burkes of the world have endured, I suppose this does represent some progress. But perhaps fitting that it be a member of this team who made this comment, because just like the Alderson-era Mets, the progress comes at a pace best left for aging Scotch. I hope that before Murphy’s career is over, he does have a teammate who can look him and everyone else in the eye and say “I’m gay, now let’s go play baseball.”

  • Daniel Hall

    Being gay myself, my first reaction to [the cropped version of] Murph’s statement was something like “Oh shut up and go hit .300”.

    One or two days later, I have thought about it as well. The thing is, we disagree with people, their representation of themselves, and people’s lifestyles all the time, and all of us. I for one disagree with Bryce Harper’s hair, and Bryce Harper in general, but disagreement has a lot of different forms. “He shares his bed with a man – soon enough frogs will be raining from the sky” over “You shouldn’t raise your kids as a single mother, it is not good for them to have no fatherly guidance” to “She married an 87-year old millionaire just to get her hands on all the money”. More or less, people will more often than not disagree with a lifestyle that is not their own, either because they can’t afford it, or they find it socially or morally irresponsible, or the mentioned quotes plucked from old Jewish books at will.

    And the part of Murph’s statement that was cropped puts a lot of things into perspective. He didn’t demand the sinful faggot intruding his Old Testamentarian world to be defenestrated. He’s open to talking. No wonder that initially got cropped even at MLB.com, otherwise it wouldn’t even have been a minor headline on the sides.

    What MLB (or any other major league in any sport on the planet) could really use to get this whole topic over with is an A+ athlete coming out while still in their prime. Let’s say, tomorrow Mike Trout (or Zack Wheeler, or the amazing Mister Fister, pick one at random, doesn’t matter) comes out as gay. It will be the perfect social media storm for six to twelve weeks, and I firmly believe it would be in media ONLY. Some football player makes tweets about sudomy (sic!), radio talk show troglodytes have a field day, and that’s it. 70 years ago, Jackie Robinson was intentionally drilled for being black. That would never happen today.

    And after two or three months, it will be a no-topic. Then it will be all normal. Acceptance will set in. And we’re all one step closer to stop pointlessly making each other’s lives a living hell.

  • metsfaninparadise

    Murph has a right to his opinion, but there are some things that are better left unsaid. If he truly would treat Bean or anyone else equally regardless of how he felt about any aspect of their existence, he is a good man. We really don’t have any right to insist people feel or think certain things, only that they act in certain ways. Some might give both the blame and the credit to his faith; I’d credit the former to his religion and the latter to his faith. Religion has always been a double-edged sword.

  • […] An Escape, Except When It’s Not »    […]

  • APV

    Let me apologize in advance because some of what I’m about to type is graphic and lewd. If this post gets banned, I understand.

    I’d like to think my views on the gay lifestyle have progressed over the years as a heterosexual man. Frankly I grew up in a home where my Dad would use derogatory terms like faggot and queer, albeit in a joking manner. He should not have done that though, not only because my Mom’s best friend is a lesbian, but because for a long time that behavior influenced me. One day in 1990 I was blasting a song in my parents’ house by a heavy metal band called M.O.D. The song was called A.I.D.S., which stood for Anally Inflicted Death Sentence. It included lines like “That’s what you get for having a penis up your ass” and “Fudge Packing Man.” My Dad yelled at me for playing the song and I got mad at him. He asked me why I’d sing filth like that and I said, “I learned it from listening to you!” The filth to him was the fact I listened to metal, not the fact that I spouted anti-gay lyrics.

    When I learned what the term faggot meant a couple of years later, it genuinely hurt me. How could someone I love so much teach me something so vile? And why would he joke like that knowing full well it would hurt my Mom? And I feared that it was too late for me, that I would eventually use those comments in a way that would hurt my career or life. Matthew Shepard’s murder in 1998 was the final nail in the coffin for any anti-gay views I might have had. I do not utter those terms to anyone anymore and get angry at others who do, including my Dad.

    While I expect to get some heat for typing this, I’d like to think that this can be seen as an example of people learning from their past mistakes and becoming more open-minded and open-hearted as they age and mature.

    P.S. Getting back to baseball, Daniel is entitled to his opinion, although I wish he would have not made it public. Some would say that the fact he got hit by a pitch a couple of days later was karma. My advice to Murph is to swing at everything when Dale Scott (who came out in January) is the home-plate umpire. And if he takes a pitch that’s wrongfully called a strike by Scott to not say a word.

  • […] training any more — I noted Zack Wheeler‘s busted elbow and Daniel Murphy‘s musings on lifestyles and other than that I waited for […]