Sox players talk tolerance

BOSTON -- I had raised the question in a different context. It was Jackie Robinson Day in the major leagues, and in a discussion of how baseball had become more inclusive after Robinson broke the color line in 1947, I asked Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell whether what he called baseball's "accepting environment" would ultimately cross sexual lines, too, and extend to a gay ballplayer.

But Jackie Robinson Day was also Patriots Day, and several hours later two bombs went off on Boylston Street, leaving no place for other discussions, great or small.

Now, two weeks later, comes the public declaration by a professional basketball player, Jason Collins, that he is gay, the first active male player in a major American team sport to come out. The announcement by Collins, who played 32 games for the Boston Celtics this season before being traded to the Washington Wizards, came days after Brittney Griner, the top pick in the women's pro basketball draft, publicly revealed she was gay.

So Farrell's response on Jackie Robinson Day, and that of several Sox players with whom I discussed the topic, perhaps can help to broaden the conversation about Collins and Griner, and offer some insight as to how the Red Sox would react to a gay player on Yawkey Way.

"I think that goes back to just creating an environment that's accepting," said Farrell, who is 50, grew up in New Jersey, is married with three adult sons and a grandchild, "and there's going to be people from all walks of life. We respect the rights of every individual who walks through our clubhouse. The most important thing is that respect is mutual, and that we work toward a common goal. And our goal is clearly stated, and that's to win a World Series."

Jonny Gomes grew up in Petaluma, Calif., in the San Francisco Bay area where gay rights have long been part of the social and political agenda, and last season he played for the Oakland Athletics. Gomes is 32, and in his 11th season in the big leagues.

"I would hate to put MLB, and this clubhouse on my back and speak for them," said Gomes, who is married and the father of four children. "But I'll speak for myself. I'm a firm believer in if people fight for our country, they can play sports, you know? If you're good and you have a boyfriend or you're married and you fight for our country, you should be able to play a game.

"Obviously, with my antics, I don't give a [expletive] about what people think about me. I care what 25 guys care about me inside here. If somebody wants to come out, who gives a [expletive], you know? Yourself, the person in front of the mirror. The club. It's enough that they respect you. Look at the '70s A's. They hated each other and fought every day, but in between the lines they got after it, and that was all that mattered."

Will Middlebrooks is 24 and single, a Texan (from Texarkana), who made his major league debut a year ago this week.

"Me personally, I'm not a judgmental person," Middlebrooks said. "I believe in, to each his own. If you come to the field every day and you're a good teammate and you're helping us win games and you're playing hard, that's all that matters. To me, what's off the field and in your personal life, that's none of my business."

A football locker room and baseball clubhouse or hockey and basketball dressing room are hardly representative of your typical working environment. There aren't many jobs in which employees undress and shower together on a daily basis. That's one of the reasons offered for why sports might have trouble accepting a gay athlete.

Middlebrooks said that would not be the case for him. A comfort level issue?

"Not for me," he said. "We're like brothers here. We're like family. It's not like your normal working environment where you don't really know that person. We know each other very well; we're like family. We're not judgmental people. We're here to play baseball, we're here to win games, we're not really worried about that stuff. I don't think it'll be a problem."

Mike Napoli is a catcher, the most rugged position in the game. He is 31 years old, single, in his eighth season in the big leagues. He was born in Hollywood, Fla., and still lives in nearby Pembroke Pines.

"In this clubhouse, I don't think it would be a problem," Napoli said. "I mean, people choose to do what they want to do. Everyone is different in here. When we come here it's our job to come together and play as a team. That's just how it is in here. People choose to do what they want. I don't have a problem with it.

"I have gay friends. My cousin is gay. Personally, I don't have a problem with it. I wouldn't feel uncomfortable with it. It's accepted everywhere now; it wouldn't bother me."

Jon Lester, 29, grew up in the Red Sox organization, drafted and signed by the Sox in 2002. Lester, who was raised in Washington state and now lives in Georgia, is married with a young son. He expressed some reluctance to discuss the issue.

"You know what, I don't really want to get into all that," he said. "I've seen and read the way guys try to go about answering that question. Until it's actually here I don't think you can really answer that kind of question.

"It's like politics and religion, no matter what you say, you're damned if you do or damned if you don't. It's kind of one of those deals where, until a person comes out and he's in your locker room, I don't know if you can totally answer it."

This is a conversation that is only beginning. Lester is correct: Until someone who is openly gay walks through the clubhouse doors, we can only guess how he will be received -- by teammates, by management, by fans. Whether bigotry, or tolerance, will carry the day.

But from the words of a grandfather from New Jersey, and those of married fathers and single guys from California, Texas, Oklahoma and Washington, the spasms of hatred that Robinson was compelled to overcome may not be present for the gay player who comes out about his sexuality.

We can only hope.