In an unlikely confluence of interests, sports talk radio shows and gay Internet message boards were buzzing about the same topic last week: the letter to readers in the May issue of Out, the nation's largest-circulation gay publication, in which editor-in-chief Brendan Lemon wrote that he has been "having an affair with a pro baseball player from a major league East Coast franchise, not his team's biggest star but a very recognizable media figure all the same." Lemon wrote he wants the player "to come out and make my life easier."
While the letter sparked plenty of speculation about the player's identity, it also raised a more important question: Is baseball ready for its first openly gay player? The only living openly gay former major leaguer doubts it. "It would be very difficult for a player to come out today," says ex-big league outfielder Billy Bean, who came out in 1999, four years after his retirement. "This guy has to play in stadiums with 40,000 people. What's he going to hear if he strikes out? Overnight this guy's career will have nothing to do with his athletic ability. It's not a safe time to do it."
Bean could point to the comments of John Rocker, whose 1999 tirade in SI included his aversion to "some queer with AIDS," and of Cubs pitcher Julian Tavarez, who last month referred to San Francisco fans as "faggots." It's worth noting, though, that Rocker and Tavarez met with swift discipline and public condemnation. "I disagree that the climate isn't right for an established player to come out," Lemon says. "If you've shown year in and year out you're a gamer, why would your teammates not want you on the team? In a homophobic society like ours, there will always be a risk for a public person to come out. It takes a person of courage to do this."
Bean, however, believes career suicide would be a waste of that courage. "If [Lemon's partner] is not ready to come out, it won't do anyone any good if he does," says Bean. "It needs to be a positive experience, or no one else will want to follow him."