Retroactive Review: Going the Other Way

Billy Bean's playing career was, voluntarily, cut short. (via Greg Hernandez)

Billy Bean’s playing career was, voluntarily, cut short. (via Greg Hernandez)

Going the Other Way is a memoir that details Billy Bean’s life as a closeted baseball player and his experiences in and out of baseball following his coming out.

These days, Bean—a former utility outfielder for the Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres—is known as Major League Baseball’s ambassador for inclusion. He often travels to teams’ camps during spring training, educating players on homophobia in the clubhouse and promoting acceptance and inclusiveness. Bean’s visit to the New York Mets last year led Daniel Murphy to speak out against homosexuality. Bean also appears at team-sanctioned Pride Nights, boosting the visibility of the LGBTQ+ community among baseball fans.

91c6WweHrILBean and the late Glenn Burke are, thus far, the only major league players to come out either during or after their playing careers. Burke’s story, touched on briefly in Bean’s book, ended far differently—and far more tragically—than Bean’s. Burke’s sexuality was somewhat of an open secret, and he clashed with management at times, particularly former Oakland manager Billy Martin. Burke believed he was locked out of baseball because of his homosexuality, and he later died of AIDS-related complications.

Bean’s is not the only book that touches on the subject. I started on this project a few weeks ago after picking up a copy of Steve Kluger’s Changing Pitches, which deals with baseball and LGBTQ+ themes. I then purchased Bean’s book, intending to contrast and compare these two with Peter Lefcourt’s comedic The Dreyfus Affair, which deals with a shortstop who falls in love with his double play partner during a pennant chase. I’ll most likely be saving those books for a later edition of Retro Reviews. I’m  going to focus on Bean’s memoir here.

Billy Bean grew up the intensely competitive, lonely son of a single mom. Bean’s parents had conceived him out of wedlock, greatly upsetting his devoutly Mormon grandmother, Carmela. Bean’s father, William Sr., left his family less a year into the marriage to become a Mormon missionary, due to his mother’s urging and interference. These events, particularly the hostility between his mother and grandmother, shaped Bean’s young life. His father’s abandonment led him to push himself to excel in sports, having believed from a young age that he was responsible for his father’s departure. If he was good enough on the playing field, perhaps he could win back his father’s love and repair his broken family.

Bean became a standout high school player and was heavily recruited, eventually committing to Loyola.  There, he set several school records and was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the fourth round of the 1986 amateur draft.  Bean also met his future wife, Anna, on the Loyola campus, and they eventually married during his tenure with the Los Angeles Dodgers.  (He and his wife divorced after a brief marriage.)”  He debuted in the major leagues less than a year after being drafted, on April 25, 1987, collecting four hits in six at bats.

After that,  his career was mostly unremarkable. A part-time player, he was a solid defender but not much of a hitter, and often spent time shuffling between the majors and Triple-A. He never played more than 88 games in a major league season, and hit only five home runs in his career. He often gets confused with a better-known Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s. (Coincidentally, both grew up in San Diego a couple of years apart, and their high school teams were rivals. They even roamed the outfield together briefly for the Tigers in 1988.)

The end of Bean’s playing career is where his story becomes interesting, and where the unremarkable bench player becomes truly noteworthy. Bean essentially walked away from baseball at age 31 after an emotionally and mentally draining 1995 season. He eschewed multiple minor league offers during the offseason. Instead, Bean moved across the country to Miami, where he put down roots and began a relationship with an entrepreneur named Efrain Vega.

Bean had lost his partner, Sam, to AIDS related complications unexpectedly during spring training of that year — on the day he was demoted to the minors, no less—and never told anyone about it. Not even his own family was aware of the devastating loss, or even the fact Bean was gay.

In Miami, Bean went into business with Vega, and the two opened a Mexican-themed restaurant. A local reporter covering the opening of the restaurant wrote a profile on the couple and, with Bean’s permission, made reference to his playing career. The restaurant didn’t last—Mexican food didn’t go over well with the Cuban-American populace—but that’s hardly the story here. Bean had come out quietly, on his own terms, much like umpire Dale Scott did a couple years ago. Various media picked up Bean’s story and the rest is, as they say, history.

Bean’s memoir is, by turns, tragic, triumphant, inspiring and thought-provoking. He comes off as quite critical of former commissioner Bud Selig (probably deservedly so), who appears to have offered words that weren’t backed up by actions as far as inclusiveness and acceptance of gay baseball players goes.

One notable baseball executive who receives some significant “air time” in Bean’s book is current Red Sox president Dombrowski. Then with the Marlins, Dombrowski was one of the GMs who offered Bean a minor league deal, promising him if he went to Triple-A Charlotte he would be the Marlins’ first call-up. Bean turned down the offer and that Marlins team went on to win the World Series, as Bean wryly notes in his book.

Later, after he’d retired, Bean wrote Dombrowski, applying for a front office position with the Marlins. The two discussed different roles Bean could take with the Marlins over the course of several months, including a position that would involve marketing to the Marlins’ gay and lesbian fans. Before they could agree on a role for Bean, however, Dombrowski, resigned to accept a position with the Detroit Tigers.

The book, originally published in 2004, was updated in 2014 with a new afterword and a cover that calls Bean “Major League Baseball’s First Ambassador for Inclusion.” The words suggest how far Bean has come from closeted ballplayer—sneaking his partner in and out of hotel rooms and even banning him from coming to games least his teammates even begin to suspect the truth—to MLB’s spokesman on the subject of LGBTQ+. It also hints at how far baseball itself has come, in that “ambassador for inclusion” is now an official job description. Major league teams now offer their employees same-sex domestic partner benefits, something unheard of during Bean’s playing days. The league has partnered with the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. Many teams now have nights dedicated to welcoming their LGBTQ+ fanbase.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Bean believes baseball is ready for an openly gay, active player. He notes in his book that if he’d had a Billy Bean model growing up, perhaps he wouldn’t have put so much pressure on himself. Perhaps he would have been able to enjoy his career more.

Bean wrote that the first openly gay player would most likely be a high schooler or college player just coming into the professional game, although this addendum was written before the Milwaukee Brewers organization’s David Denson came out in 2015. Afterward, Denson told the website Outsports that he’d expected some negativity, even from his own teammates, but has received nothing but support from the Brewers organization from the top down. That’s a far different story fromthat of former St. Louis Cardinals farmhand Tyler Dunnington, who walked away from baseball because of the homophobia he witnessed as a closeted gay player in the Cardinals organization. Dunnington felt he had to choose between being an out gay man and a baseball player, and opted to give up on his dream.

Although Denson, who consulted with Bean during his coming out process, has a long road ahead of him, his simple announcement has made what once seemed impossible seem inevitable. Perhaps it will be Denson, after all, who bears the distinction of the majors’ first openly gay player, or maybe it’ll be someone else.

But there will be someone. Billy Bean’s certain of that, and he would know; he helped clear the way.

You can find Alexandra Simon ranting about things at @catswithbats, and tweeting about the Tigers on @glasshalffulmer.
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Valerie Caruso
5 years ago

I don’t know much at all about baseball, however, I am so impressed by you!

5 years ago
Reply to  Valerie Caruso

Thank you!

5 years ago

Well done Alexandra!

5 years ago
Reply to  Holly

Thanks for taking the time to read! 🙂

Marc Schneider
5 years ago

I think the more likely obstacle to acceptance of a gay player is fans rather than the players. The players are likely today be ready to accept a gay player-although even that is somewhat open to question, given Daniel Murphy’s comments last year. But, in general, most players probably wouldn’t care. And, in general, society is more accepting of gays. But, still, all you have to do is go on the internet to see plenty of homophobia and, mix that with alcohol and ;you have a recipe for some ugliness.