Four years after Billy Bean left the game, he came out as a gay man. That year, he spoke with Diane Sawyer on ABC’s “20/20” and his life changed forever. Nearly 20 years later Bean is is the ambassador for inclusion for Major League Baseball and is educating and inspiring others on a daily basis.
Bean recently spoke with The GM’s Perspective and the work he’s doing relating to diversity and inclusion is awe-inspiring.
The GM’s Perspective: Mr. Bean, looking back now, did you ever think you would make such an impact on others off the field after your interview aired in 1999?
Billy Bean: No. I didn’t have really any inclination of the magnitude of the story. I always looked at myself as an average big league player. I think I would’ve had much more success if I trusted my interior personal support group; my family, maybe told a couple of my teammates. I’ve come to learn that it would’ve been OK.
A lot of time had transpired and I thought it’d only be of interest if a player was famous, like a household name level of fame. There was a huge learning curve for me. I didn’t hesitate to do the story because I literally thought it would go unnoticed. I had been really off the grid and was living a quiet life in Miami Beach, much to the dismay of my family. I really hadn’t opened up to them until right before the story. It was a brutal awakening to the degree that people wanted to talk about, not necessarily Billy Bean, but a big league baseball player who was in the closet while he was playing.
I was thrust into that vortex. I had no idea there was so few role models in the athletic world in the LGBT community. It wasn’t planned. My book didn’t even come out until four years later and that was because of the volume of personal appearances I was being asked to do. In addition, I had started to speak on the behalf of Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD.
That characterized my personality during that time. I was trying to move past a lot of the mistakes I had made, perhaps feeling self-conscious and even a bit of shame on my choices while I was trying to keep a secret from everybody. Once I started to meet some of these inspiring people who were also thought very highly of in the LGBT community, my whole perspective of my place in this world changed.
GMs: Your book, Going the Other Way was one of the most profound and thought provoking books I’ve read. It’s a struggle between the perceived norm and being the real you. Still very relevant today, what do you hope readers learn from it?
BB: Most of the comments I received from readers was how similar their life experience was. There’s going to be a generational component to it. The world changed once the Internet hit and everyone had access to information that they may not necessarily be comfortable talking about, but at least there to research. In my world, at that time, and at that age, you had to go somewhere and talk to someone face to face to explore your sexual orientation if it was something that wasn’t common around you.
For me, I tried to be humorous and self-effacing for most of the the book. It’s silly (the choices) you have to make to please everybody and to keep that secret in your life. I was encouraged by many to people to do the book.
I think the best compliment was that a reader, who didn’t have the easiest avenue to approach his parents about a topic or subject, gave them the book. They had baseball in common and were given the space to speak about something a little bit deeper and more personal.
GMs: You’ve been involved in multiple ventures since your retirement from the game (real estate entrepreneurship), but on July 15, 2014, Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig announced your appointment as MLB’s first Ambassador for Inclusion.
Can you explain what your role is for those who aren’t familiar?
BB: It’s changed quite a bit, but I was hired as MLB’s very first Ambassador for Inclusion and that was really to the credit of some visionary people in my office who started to understand the social responsibility Baseball has. It’s a comprehensive message that evolves and gets smarter as we do as a society. There was an understanding that the LGBT conversation was going to become an important one. I don’t think they had any idea how topical it would be. This afforded me the freedom to talk to our current players about social issues. Not specifically my issues or LGBT issues, but they felt confident in me being able to convey that message.
I was pretty aggressive on some ideas about how I thought we could move the conversation or get better when it came to internal programs and offered my thoughts on those. That led to me being promoted a couple times, not away from my first responsibility, but in ways we can unify and centralize our efforts to recruit people of color, women, and people from all parts of the diversity spectrum towards jobs in Major League Baseball and not just wait for one gay player to come out and make it look like we’ve conquered the conversation.
In this era there’s plenty of reasons why a player might not consider coming out as the best choice for them. I wanted people to be mindful and respectful of that. I’m sure it will happen one day, but, until it does, there’s so many ways we can move this conversation forward. As you can see, with no out athletes in the NFL, NBA, soccer, NHL, or MLB at that time, it’s still a very big consideration for every professional athlete and it’s a very personal decision. Until that time comes, my job is to continue to improve the culture where people are embraced for all the things we have in common instead of being isolated.
GMs: In saying that, there are still instances where comments are made in private and in the public. How you address and educate a team or players that have used offensive language?
BB: Every player that’s in the Major Leagues is an adult and responsible for their actions. They have a platform (social media) if they wear a MLB uniform. There’s no effort in telling them what they can or can’t say, but there is a massive effort in explaining the ramifications of those choices.
I feel that it’s imperative that we get in front of the players and offer a very general, but very clear and concise understanding of what MLB as a brand stands for. I give them some very provocative examples of athletes who have made choices and how it affected their life and career. My job is not a punitive one where I go after someone who says something in a moment of indiscretion.
There were a few examples last year. Kevin Pillar, a great young man with a great family and very popular player, had one moment where he got very, very angry at another player and said things that became a national headline within hours. I got to know Kevin last year and I know that was something he wished didn’t happen. It’s probably happened hundreds of times when people aren’t looking or didn’t catch it on camera in the past…those are the types of examples I try to tell other players about. And I think that might have been one of the most powerful learning experiences for the other 749 active players in the league that day.
The Toronto Blue Jays were very clear that, that was something they would not tolerate and made it clear that Kevin was a part of their family. We did some sensitivity training and the LGBT community in Toronto got to meet Kevin. He was willing to do some really generous things during the season and I thought it was a wonderful example of someone who wanted to make amends and not be defined by one second of his life.
The world has changed, even my era. What managers, coaches, and players were allowed to say when I played is a whole different story now. They have to evolve with that understanding.
Most days I’m extremely proud of our sport and love the effort that each team is making to unify the message of diversity. But, we’re human beings and we’re not perfect.
GMs: If I said, “You inspire those around you to be great”, what does that mean to you?
BB: I would be very humbled to hear that. I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility that goes with the opportunity I have in the great sport of baseball. That would mean that if people feel that way I need to continue to get better at what I do as well. We have a great opportunity to share a really positive message that aligns with our product. We have some amazing athletes playing right now and it’s fun to be around them.