Pro sports is one of many industries that struggle in the D&I space, most having little or no structured diversity programs in place.
Of all the pro sports, Major League Baseball is a little ahead of the curve, routinely scoring a B/B+ overall in The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports’ (TIDES) annual report card. During last summer’s All-Star Game festivities, then MLB Commissioner Bud Selig announced a new addition to the league office: former player Billy Bean as the first-ever Ambassador of Inclusion.
Growing up outside of Los Angeles in the 1980s, Bean—not to be confused with Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane of Moneyball fame—had a quintessential all-American childhood: quarterback of his high-school football team, good looks, and a scholarship to play baseball for Cal State Fullerton. Major League Baseball came knocking on his door after three years of college baseball: Bean was drafted by the Detroit Tigers and quickly ascended through the minor leagues. But as he was living a baseball dream, he was beginning to face a daunting reality. Bean, who had just married his college girlfriend, is gay.
Bean’s career took off. He became an every-day player with the San Diego Padres. It was around this time that Bean met his partner, Sam. After the couple met, Bean would leave tickets for Sam, who would say he was an old college friend in town.
“I basically hid him,” Bean said in an MLB Network documentary about his life.
After the game in which Bean hit his first home run, he hosted a couple of teammates at his apartment to celebrate. When someone knocked on the door, his worst fear was realized.
“Just the knock on the door, literally, I felt like I was gonna have a heart attack, ” Bean explained. “That’s what the closet is like.”
He told Sam to stay in the car. For the next two years, Bean hid his personal life from his teammates, friends and family. With Bean now divorced, Sam moved in to “look after the house.”
After two years of living together, the couple received some earth shattering news: Sam had AIDS.
The following April, before the opening day of the season, Bean came home to find Sam on the floor with a 104-degree fever. On the way to the hospital five miles away, he realized that it was the same hospital the team used. In fear that he would be recognized, he instead drove to the next closest hospital, 40 minutes away.
Six hours after Sam was pronounced dead, Bean walked into the San Diego locker room for the season opener, only to be notified that he had been demoted to Triple-A. Bean abruptly retired and moved 3,000 miles away to Miami.
Eventually, Bean found the strength to come out his mother and his rugged ex-Marine stepfather. “My heart was beating, because I knew he just couldn’t get it out, so I said it for him, and then everything was all right,” Bean’s mother said through tears to Diane Sawyer in 1999. “I just feel bad he had to go through so much pain.”
As for the man Bean feared telling most: “It was about 1:15 in the morning and Billy came in and said, ‘I need to talk to you,'” his father remembered. When Billy told him, he recalled saying, “OK, now it’s official, can I go back to sleep”
He added: “Billy, you’re my son, and I love you, and it doesn’t matter to me.”
Sixteen years later, Bean is MLB’s Ambassador for Inclusion. In this role, Bean will provide guidance to those in the LGBT community, encourage equal opportunity with major and minor league clubs, and run educational training initiatives against sexism, homophobia and prejudice.
“The history and integrity of baseball is never going to change. Today is about giving our young players a chance to understand the responsibility as role models that this league gives them,” Bean said at a press conference. “They are thrust into a big, shiny, wonderful world, and a lot of them have not been exposed to the same things that those of us outside the game have been. And that’s the responsibility that I’m going to take very seriously.”
MLB Presents: The Story of Billy Bean aired on Feb. 10, and will be shown again on Feb. 22 at 8 p.m. on MLB Network.
Neither Major League Baseball nor any of its 30 teams participate in the DiversityInc Top 50 competition.