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Billy Bean talks about MLB opening a channel to gay players

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Billy Bean
Former major league outfielder Billy Bean speaks during a news conference at baseball's All-Star game, Tuesday, July 15, 2014, in Minneapolis.
Paul Sancya/AP

Major League Baseball is taking steps to make gay players feel more welcome. Before last night's All-Star game in Minneapolis, Commissioner Bud Selig announced that the league has hired an "Ambassador for Inclusion." They chose Billy Bean, a former outfielder for the Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Diego Padres. 

Bean played parts of six seasons in the majors. He came out publicly after he retired.  Bean is one of only two major league players to come out to the public-- both after they'd left the game. Baseball still hasn't had an active openly gay player.  

MPR's Cathy Wurzer spoke with Billy Bean. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Cathy Wurzer: Visitors to the major league baseball All Star game are leaving Minneapolis this morning after last night's event at Target Field. Among the more than 41,000 people in the stands last night was the family of Glenn Burke. 

Burke's name may be familiar. He played for the Dodgers and announced he was gay after he left baseball. Burke died of AIDS back in 1995. Billy Bean, a former outfielder for the Detroit Tigers, LA Dodgers and San Diego Padres also came out after he left baseball. And before last nights' All Star game, Commissioner Bud Selig announced that the league has hired Bean as an ambassador for inclusion. 

Before he leaves Minneapolis, Billy Bean joins me on the phone this morning. Good morning, Sir.

Billy Bean: Good morning, good morning.

Wurzer: You left baseball early because of your experience in the league. What happened exactly?

Bean: I did leave early. But it was more what was going on for me off the field than on the field. I was deeply posited as a player and I was never harassed or felt persecuted. Every struggle was internal. 

It was a different time, I came from a very conservative military family and really the tipping point for me after playing 10 years in the league was my partner passed away late one night and I realized while I was driving home that I hadn't told one person in the whole world that I was in a relationship with someone for three years. 

We lived together, we hid it, very deceptive and secret life. And when it was time to go play baseball the next season, I just didn't get on the airplane.

Wurzer: The late Glenn Burke who was honored by baseball yesterday once said that baseball is probably the hardest sport of all in which to be gay. Is Mr. Burke's statement still true today?

Bean: What his point was, and it is true, it's different from football or basketball. Baseball takes a long time to be really good at and it takes a long time for a player to put himself in a position to be...have financial leverage, make a living. 

Even for the superstars, there's an arc. A lot of guys spend two to three years in the minors. In the old days, you'd spend six or seven years in the minors. That's accelerated now. But different from you don't see, you know in the NBA you see 18-year-old, 19-year-old young men jump right to the NBA because they're so physically talented and exceptional. 

When you are a baseball player, if you're good enough to make it to the big leagues, you're a baseball player before you are defined by your sexuality. And I think that it's just, at the time, at least historically, it's been easier for baseball players to be a baseball player first and then deal with their sexuality after their career.

Wurzer: Because baseball is laced with tradition, and of course as you know there's some publicly out athletes in other sports --- football and the like, there are probably some gay baseball players. So why haven't we seen that yet in the major leagues?

Bean: Well that's a decision that's individual and private and unique to each and every person that's dealing with that. And I think that in the sports world, we need to make it a safe and equitable, inclusive environment from the outside in. From the bottom up. Before you expect a superstar or a visible major league player to take on that responsibility for the whole community and for the sport itself. 

There's just this part that's unknown, and that is what has held people back from making the decision. I try to be a very strong proponent for players who may be dealing with that to trust their family or you know, coming out process to be with their best friend, or just healthy relationships that may not be that start in front of a microphone for the whole world to know. 

I chose to quit before I even talked to my parents. That was a mistake that my family, it was, it took a long time to repair because any player who's in the big league, their whole family is in the big league. You know a lot of these young players, they're financially supporting many members of their family so they feel pressured to be able to earn money.

Wurzer: With your new position, Billy Bean, do you plan on helping some of these players that may be out there and then subsequently, would you ever be willing to go in to say, a locker room, to talk to other teammates, other guys about this?

Bean: That's exactly what my job is meant to do, is communicate with all the players around the league. It's me integrating into the league and letting the players know that they're acceptable. 

If a player wants to speak to me, absolutely, I would share my experience and keep their privacy in confidence until it's their time. It's not for me, I'm not looking to find how many gay players might be playing. That's not the point of the exercise here. It's absolutely to just create a equitable and inclusive environment. 

If 95 percent of the players, 99 percent of the players, if this is something that is of concern to them, that's fine too. But still, they're all role models.

Wurzer: Alright. Billy Bean, I know you gotta go ahead and catch an airplane and get out of Minneapolis, so I appreciate your time this morning.

Bean: My pleasure, my pleasure, thanks for talking about this subject very much.