|Wednesday, May 22
Updated: May 23, 4:03 AM ET
Piazza denies rumor as gay player issue resurfaces
By Jim Litke
There are still no homosexuals in baseball.
Not officially, anyway.
A gossip column in Monday's New York Post repeated what it called "a persistent rumor around town that one Mets star who spends a lot of time with pretty models in clubs is actually gay and has started to think about declaring his sexual orientation."
If so, the unnamed star apparently is still thinking about it.
Because the only Mets star who declared anything Tuesday was Mike Piazza, and he said, "I'm not gay. I'm heterosexual."
For a ballplayer to acknowledge otherwise, of course, would be committing professional suicide.
Last summer, the editor-in-chief of Out, the nation's largest-circulation gay magazine, claimed to be having an affair with a pro baseball player "from a major-league East Coast franchise" whose life would be improved considerably if he disclosed his homosexuality
"I have concluded," Brendan Lemon wrote, "that coming out would, on balance, lessen his psychic burden. Sure, he'd have to deal with the initial media avalanche and the verbal abuse of some bleacher bums, and there'd be a teammate or two who'd have an adolescent 'Oh, my God, he saw me naked in the showers' response. Not to mention a nervous front-office executive or two.
"But I'm pretty confident," the editor continued, "there'd be more support from the team than he imagines."
You have to wonder what planet Lemon is on. Much as we might like to think locker rooms have changed in these enlightened times, experience tells us otherwise.
Thousands of major league baseball players have worked, traveled, showered and dressed together for more than a century. Over that time, exactly two acknowledged their homosexuality -- and both only after their playing careers were done.
Glenn Burke, who played outfield for the Dodgers and Athletics, came out in 1982 and maintained for years afterward that he was blackballed from baseball. He died from AIDS-related complications in 1995.
Billy Bean shuttled between the majors and the minors for eight years, played less than two full seasons worth of games for the Tigers, Dodgers and Padres. He ended his career in 1995, came out in 1997, publicly begged for a front-office job and waited for the phone to ring. He is still waiting.
In the meantime, he's opened several successful restaurants and delivered dozens of speeches on behalf of gay organizations across the country. He dreams that someday, a star in a team sport will acknowledge being gay. But during an interview with The Associated Press last fall, Bean said media scrutiny is so much greater now that such a ballplayer would face a more daunting challenge than Jackie Robinson.
"It would become a circus," he said. "I've never met the person that I think could do it."
Phillies manager Larry Bowa, whose team beat the Mets 4-0 Tuesday night, concurred.
"If it was me, I'd probably wait until my career was over," he said.
He did, however, offer some hope for active players.
"If he hits .340," Bowa said, "it probably would be easier than if he hits .220."
Since no one has volunteered for the task, the Post -- like Out magazine -- decided to hold a casting call. The excuse was some remarks made by Mets manager Bobby Valentine near the end of a long article in the June/July issue of Details magazine.
Baseball, Valentine said, is "probably ready for an openly gay player." Instead of writing off the manager's remarks as hopelessly optimistic, the Post suggested Valentine was delivering a "pre-emptory strike" before "one of his big guns is outed."
Valentine reiterated his belief Tuesday night. "We are all big boys. We can handle it," he said.
The most encouraging thing about the whole episode is how little attention it's generated. Reporters who questioned Mets general manager Steve Phillips got this answer: "If statistics hold up, in every clubhouse there is somebody who is gay. So what? Who cares?"
Phillips then directed them to ask players about their sexuality individually. Piazza, who's been subject to a whispering campaign going back to his playing days in Los Angeles, then launched a pre-emptory strike of his own.
"I can't control what people think," he said. "That's obvious. And I can't convince people what to think. I can only say what I know and what the truth is and that's I'm heterosexual and I date women. That's it. End of story."
Piazza, like Phillips and Valentine, said he doesn't think a player acknowledging his homosexuality would find himself being ostracized.
"In this day and age it would be irrelevant," Piazza said. "If the guy is doing his job on the field ... I don't think there would be any problem at all."
Bowa knew better.
Just before the game, still looking for any advantage his team might exploit, he laughed.
"Whoever it is," the manager said, "I hope he comes out tonight."
Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press.