In the first days of Faith and Fear a decade ago, Jason 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 Jason’s preceding .
“I don’t know if Rusty is gay, but I’d like to think he is. I’m sick and tired of the pretense that no ballplayer is gay. Everyone knows that there is no reason why gays can’t be fine ballplayers. Everyone knows that there are gay ballplayers. Sure some jerks will shout stuff, as they shouted stuff at Jackie Robinson. But they stopped with Robinson, didn’t they?”
—Dana Brand, Mets Fan , 2007
You don’t have to go back to 1947 and Jackie Robinson to find parallels to the Daniel Murphy story of 2015. You don’t have to wonder, as my friend Dana did, about the singular Rusty Staub, who played between 1963 and 1985. You need only to rewind to 2004 and John Smoltz.
You’re probably familiar with the name John Smoltz. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in January as soon as he was eligible, an honor that was the product of a brilliant career whose exploits were often executed to the detriment of the New York Mets. Smoltz’s track record was a truly one of the greatest of its time: 213 wins, 154 saves, near-peerlessness in postseason play, the cutting remark he made about same-sex marriage…
You’d forgotten about that? Or maybe you missed it when it was featured in an Associated Press story in 2004 ? It was this:
“What’s next? Marrying an animal?”
Smoltz was pressed on his statement and eventually apologized for what he said was a “joking” addendum to his less inflammatory spoken thoughts — though he didn’t recant the spirit informing what he said. Same-sex marriage? This hard-throwing Brave closer, whose demeanor had never been mistaken for John Rocker’s, made it clear he was “absolutely dead set against it”.
It was 2004. Public-opinion polls showed 55% of Americans more or less shared Smoltz’s opposition , compared to 42% who were OK with same-sex marriages. That seems like a pretty substantial majority who were against affording the same rights to a man and a man or a woman and a woman that had always been bestowed on a woman marrying a man. Thing is, sentiment was shifting. In 1996, when Smoltz was winning 24 games and his only Cy Young, and Gallup first asked the question about whether “marriages between homosexuals should or should not be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages,” the nays carried the day by a margin of 68% to 27%.
From 1996 to 2004, eight years and two election cycles had passed. Support for same-sex marriage as a right had netted a gain of 14 points in the polls. Yet those who held to the stance that it shouldn’t be permitted were still in the majority and were determined to press their advantage. They managed to place initiatives to ban same-sex marriage on eleven statewide ballots in 2004. Proponents of those measures won in all eleven states and their activism was considered instrumental  in drawing enough voters to the polls to ensure the re-election of President Bush.
And today, in 2015, eleven years later? Same-sex marriage, which had become legal in just one state (Massachusetts) in 2004, is legal in 37 states plus the District of Columbia. Gallup was still asking about it in 2014 and the tables had turned almost exactly from a decade before. In the firm’s most recent survey, it found 55% support same-sex marriages, 42% oppose.
Meanwhile, John Smoltz goes about his business, appearing regularly on MLB Network and preparing his speech for Cooperstown. Whatever it is he feared about a man marrying a man or a woman marrying a woman hasn’t come back to haunt him or the society in which he lives in any visible way.
Life goes on. Sometimes it gets better.
Eleven years after Smoltz, under cover of devout Christianity, said something that sounds even dumber and more hateful now than it did then, Daniel Murphy, starting second baseman for our New York Mets, was asked about hypothetically playing with an openly gay teammate…say somebody like Billy Bean, the MLB ambassador for inclusion. Bean did play in the majors and was gay, but only the part about being in the majors was something he felt comfortable letting people know while he was in the game. If you happened to catch MLBN’s documentary on Bean’s experience , you understood how closeting one’s identity could kill a person inside.
Bean played anyway. As it happens, he played with Smoltz in the minors when the two of them were Tiger prospects in the 1980s. By 2004, as Smoltz was sealing his Hall of Fame credentials, Bean was 40, nine years removed from his playing career, only five years distant from his 1999 decision to out himself. When Smoltz was a smoldering topic, Bean expressed his dismay with his old teammate, calling the pitcher’s remarks “uninformed” and “unsettling,” though hardly surprising to him.
“There is a born-again mentality in baseball that is right in line with I would expect him to say,” Bean told Darren Everson  of the Daily News in 2004, allowing that he and Smoltz had been “close friends” when they were in the minors together and that “if we played golf or pickup hoops, we would bond like two regular guys, and he would evolve as a person.”
Paul Newberry’s Associated Press story in 2004, the one that drew unwanted attention to Smoltz for a spell, was pretty much on the same topic that was being written about last week.
“[T]he gay athlete has hardly become a fully vested member of the sporting world. No one has ever come out while still active in the major leagues of football, baseball, basketball or hockey. There’s ample evidence that the person who breaks down that barrier will face hostility from teammates and opponents.”
The article that made Smoltz briefly infamous also quoted Todd Jones of the Reds admitting, “I’m homophobic,” and Smoltz’s backup catcher, Eddie Perez, strategizing his showering if he found himself on the same team with a man he knew was gay:
“I could work it out. I could be prepared. I could hide when I’m getting disrobed”
Perez later claimed he was misquoted. Smoltz, in the AP story, said he could play alongside a gay teammate, but — according to Newberry — would “question the motives of anyone who felt the need to come out publicly”. “Sooner or later, someone is going to do it,” Smoltz said then. “I wouldn’t have a problem with it — unless it compromised the team.” When the pitcher took the opportunity to clarify his remarks a couple of weeks later, he said “absolutely not” to having trouble with a gay teammate:
“I have no problems at all, as long as anybody doesn’t impose their ways on anybody, whether it’s faith, religion or personal preference.”
If you applied Murphy’s spring of 2015 comments  to Mike Vorkunov of the Star-Ledger against the standards established by Smoltz, Perez and Jones in the summer of 2004, we’d be tempted to applaud Daniel’s views as downright progressive. He didn’t compare gay marriage to man wedding beast. He didn’t dismiss the theoretically out ballplayer as having suspect motives. He didn’t imply he’d be mentally or physically put upon by the presence of a teammate like a contemporary version of Bean. For that matter, Murphy welcomed the actual Billy Bean to Mets camp, calling the idea “forward thinking”.
Murphy expressed what read as extremely forward thoughts for 2004, especially after you revisit what Smoltz and his peers had to say eleven long years ago. Even the money quote from this past week doesn’t appear so bad next to Smoltz invoking bestiality, Jones saying he was scared of homosexuality and Perez figuring out how to avoid the openly gay teammate he didn’t have:
“I disagree with [Bean’s] lifestyle. I do disagree with the fact that Billy is a homosexual. That doesn’t mean I can’t still invest in him and get to know him. I don’t think the fact that someone is a homosexual should completely shut the door on investing in them in a relational aspect. Getting to know him. That, I would say, you can still accept them but I do disagree with the lifestyle, 100 percent.
“Maybe, as a Christian, that we haven’t been as articulate enough in describing what our actual stance is on homosexuality. We love the people. We disagree the lifestyle. That’s the way I would describe it for me. It’s the same way that there are aspects of my life that I’m trying to surrender to Christ in my own life. There’s a great deal of many things, like my pride. I just think that as a believer trying to articulate it in a way that says 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.”
For 2004, when Murphy was a college student at Jacksonville University; when one state had just signed on to same-sex marriage; when a majority of Americans thought the concept invalid; and when none of the Big Four sports had had an openly gay athlete compete, all that sounds pretty reasonable.
But it’s 2015. Same-sex marriage is commonly legal. Support for it as “valid” is over 50% and growing. Jason Collins let the world know he was gay — he was signed by the Nets, played a little for them and his jersey became the NBA’s best-selling . Michael Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams and kissed his boyfriend in full view of television cameras. Murphy’s talk of “forward thinking” and “love” comes off as hollow in comparison to the idea that it’s up to him to “disagree” with who Billy Bean is and that who Billy Bean is is simply a “lifestyle,” no matter how much devoutness Murphy’s decided it stems from.
The present being a more enlightened place than the relatively recent past doesn’t make everything better, however. Jason Collins was at the end of the line when outed himself. There hasn’t been an openly gay NBA player since. Michael Sam, despite his well-vouched-for football abilities, was cut by the Rams and never got closer to the field last year than the Cowboys’ practice squad. There hasn’t been an openly gay NFL player yet . Thirteen states still don’t allow same-sex marriage. And despite the legacies of Glenn Burke and Billy Bean and the metric that pegs at least 3.8% of the U.S. population self-identifying as LGBT  (though previous estimates have run closer to 10% ), there has yet to be, as we approach the 147th season of professional baseball, an openly gay ballplayer in the major leagues.
If Daniel Murphy weren’t the starting second baseman for the New York Mets and hadn’t already made a strong, generally positive impression on us, you’d have to imagine his remarks on the gay “lifestyle” in a different context. I could picture them coming up at some dreadful Thanksgiving dinner, one you attend reluctantly at somebody else’s behest. The Murphy you’d meet there you wouldn’t recognize as a likable presence from your favorite team, a guy who made the National League All-Stars one year and came in second in the N.L. in total hits the year before.
He’d be, let’s say, the date of some cousin of somebody you didn’t know. He’d be the guy at the other end of the table when the conversation turned to current events. Gay marriage would come up. There’d be some righteous talk in support, perhaps, and you’d nod quietly. There’d be some blowback that would make you roll your eyes. Then, maybe, there’d be this seemingly nice fellow who suddenly starts going on about his faith and that while certainly he loves one and all, the way “these people” are…well, he disagrees with their lifestyle.
You’d look down at your plate, you’d poke at the stuffing, you’d restrain yourself from getting into it with a total stranger, you’d get through Thanksgiving, and in the car on the way home — as you searched the FM dial for the local NPR affiliate — you and your significant other would be all “can you believe that guy with the ‘lifestyle’ crap?”
Then you’d get home and forget about him, probably, because he was just somebody whose views didn’t jibe with yours at a Thanksgiving dinner you didn’t want to go to anyway and you weren’t likely to see him again. In the case of real Daniel Murphy, however, we will see him again plenty until he’s traded or leaves as a free agent or is released or retires as a Met. He’ll play second, he’ll bat second, we’ll cheer his hits, we’ll boo his errors. Some of us won’t be quick to shake what he had to say this past week, but most of us will probably mostly let go of the story from March of 2015, just like we’ve basically forgotten that story about first-ballot Hall of Famer John Smoltz from July of 2004.
Say what was that Murph thing about again? What was it he said about Billy Beane? Or was it Billy Bean?
Ah, that was crazy, wasn’t it? Isn’t it great ballplayers are no longer like that? Or if they are, they don’t say things like that? I mean, c’mon, when the first openly gay ballplayer came along, some people acted as if it was going to be a huge deal, but then he was just another ballplayer and nowadays there are gay ballplayers and there are straight ballplayers and who cares, y’know? I’ll admit it sounded weird the first time I heard Gary Cohen mention where that one player “and his husband” spent their honeymoon in the offseason — you could really make out Keith’s trademark sigh during that telecast — but then you didn’t even notice when the club would send out press releases referring to “the Met spouses,” instead of the Met wives doing something for charity. Or when Kiss Cam occasionally showed a man and a man or a woman and a woman mixed in with the plethora of heterosexual couples. That was before they got rid of Kiss Cam because somebody finally decided Kiss Cam was kind of stupid.
Hey, did you notice right there how fast change can happen? One day in 2015, we’re talking about how things used to be, then about how things are and then how things might conceivably be not too far down the road. The nineteen-year-old in college student in 2015 whose future includes the major leagues? He was born in 1996, when same-sex marriage was identified as a wedge issue and Gallup began to survey Americans on their feelings regarding it. By the time he was in his third grade, same-sex marriage was a hot enough button to keep getting pushed in a national political campaign. By the time he graduated high school, though, most people and most states found same-sex marriage not nearly that big a whoop. By the time he’s in the majors, today’s 19-year-old collegiate might very well be playing alongside an openly gay teammate. He might very well himself become somebody’s openly gay teammate…not necessarily their first and definitely not their last
By the time that happens, MLB might not require Billy Bean’s present position, or they might want to expand its description; if it’s worked well enough, they might decide there’s far more good Bean and his staff can do when it comes to the concept of inclusion . And when that happens, people everywhere from professional sports to Thanksgiving dinner tables will find different topics to debate — because by then, nobody will remember precisely what all the fuss was about.