Confidence key to breaking the silence

When will a player publicly announce he's gay? When he's supremely confident in himself and his abilities.

Originally Published: February 9, 2004
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

"I don't mean for this to be a distraction. I'm hoping this is gonna ward off distractions. And if, incidentally, there's any kid out there struggling with his identity, I hope this sends a message that it's OK. They can follow their dreams no matter what. Any young man, creed, whatever, can go out there and become a ballplayer. Or an interior decorator.

-- Star outfielder Darren Lemming announcing he is gay in the award-winning play, "Take Me Out"

Madonna gave Britney Spears a tongue massage on national TV. "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" is on TV more often than SportsCenter. And most significantly, the Massachusetts Supreme Court just cleared the way for gay marriages in the state.

So when will a major leaguer come out of the closet and publicly announce that he is gay?

As soon as a player is good enough, strong enough and confident enough to withstand the controversy and the taunts, as soon as he feels the benefits will outweigh the considerable negatives, as soon as enough teammates won't care about his sexual orientation, and as soon as his employers are ready to back him up and say that the game's clubhouses are ready to be as open as any other office environment in the country.

Eventually, a player is going to come out (and announce he is gay). And I think that player will be a lot like (actor Darren) Lemming (in the play "Take Me Out") -- supremely confident in himself to the point where he feels almost immune to everything else. And also someone who loves baseball so much that he's willing to put up with the crap that will come with such a disclosure.

Obviously, there already are gay players in the majors but no one knows how many. Heck, it's difficult to even say what the percentage of gays in the general population is. The long-established Kinsey report figure of 10 percent has been called into question in the past decade, and according to noted sex columnist Dan Savage, "The best estimate of the number of gay men in the United States and Canada is three percent of the male population."

If we assume that estimate is reasonably close, and considering there are more than 800 players in the majors (including those on the disabled list), we can expect an average of perhaps one gay player per team.

While gays are coming out everywhere else in our society and while shows about gays are some of the biggest hits on TV ("Will and Grace" and "Queer Eye"), the subject remains so taboo in sports that Mike Piazza held a press conference two years ago to declare that he was not gay. No athlete in the four major professional leagues has come out while still an active player.

Baseball often mirrors American society (it integrated just before the U.S. military), but in this case, it is behind the curve. But as gays come out more in other areas of society, they will make it easier for someone to finally do so in sports.

Many ballplayers wouldn't care if a teammate was gay (many may already suspect a teammate is), the key question is how miserable those other teammates (and opponents and fans) could make the situation. It probably would be easier for a star player to come out, because his batting average or ERA would be sufficient reason for otherwise intolerant teammates and fans to accept him.

There is a hit Broadway play dealing with this very subject. Playwright Richard Greenburg's "Take Me Out" tells the story of what happens when Darren Lemming, the star outfielder for the New York Empires, comes out of the closet. As Lemming, Daniel Sunjata is absolutely dead-on perfect in his portrayal of an immensely confident and self-absorbed ballplayer. The play is clever and often very funny, and more about the joy of baseball than the issue of sexual orientation. The fans are surprisingly accepting of Lemming. Even so, the play ends in tragedy.

Eventually, a player is going to come out. And I think that player will be a lot like Lemming -- supremely confident in himself to the point where he feels almost immune to everything else. And also someone who loves baseball so much that he's willing to put up with the crap that will come with such a disclosure.

As Lemming tells his teammate, Kippy, in the play, "If I'm gonna have sex -- and I am, because I'm young and rich and famous and talented, and handsome, so it's a law -- I'd rather do it with a guy, but when all is said and done, Kippy? I'd rather just play ball."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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