A few months before 20-year-old baseball player David Denson came out to his teammates, and then the media, he sent a text message to Billy Bean, Major League Baseball’s Ambassador for Inclusion and the only living former MLB player to come out.
“Hi, my name is David and I’m a player. I’m wondering if you could call me back.”
“He was very vague,” Bean told BuzzFeed News during a phone call Monday morning. “I told him I thought it was very brave for him to reach out to me. He didn’t tell me the first day that he was ready to come out, but I could tell that he had been thinking about it and he had told his parents and his sister.”
On Saturday night, Denson became the first active MLB-affiliated player to publicly announce he is gay. Denson was selected in the 15th round of the 2013 MLB draft by the Milwaukee Brewers and currently suits up for the Helena Brewers, the team’s rookie affiliate.
In a story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by longtime Brewers beat writer Tom Haudricourt, Denson said that coming out to his teammates in Helena was a “giant relief,” and that “my teammates see me for who I am, not my sexuality.”
Meanwhile, Bean, who played six seasons in MLB between 1987 and 1995, admits he was nervous for the young player. “I felt like I was the kid who was still playing! But I’m happy to see David feel like this is a possibility for him. For me, I couldn’t even face the idea of talking to my own family, let alone the world. The work that a lot of people have done is paying off.”
During his time as a player, Bean concealed his sexual orientation and first serious gay relationship because he felt it was unlikely that professional baseball could reconcile his status as a gay man with his passion for the game. It was a fraught balancing act that hurt Bean on both sides: The stress and anxiety of being in the closet negatively affected his play as well as hurt his ability to have open, honest, and fair relationships with his family and partner, he said. After he retired, Bean came out as gay, and was only the second player to do so. He was preceded by Glenn Burke, who attempted to come out when he played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland A’s in the 1970s, but was shunted back into the closet. Burke died in 1995.
Just over a year ago, Bean was officially appointed as MLB’s Ambassador for Inclusion. As athletes such as Jason Collins, Brittney Griner, and Michael Sam came out as gay in their respective sports, MLB decided to bring Bean back to the game to serve as an adviser and point of contact for those who may want to come out in MLB’s front offices or on the field.
In April, Bean told BuzzFeed News his role is not to instigate any discussions about LGBT inclusion or convince players or executives to come out, but to be available to those who have already decided to further their own discourse. In his yearlong tenure, he’s appeared at spring training camps when invited and been a pillar of support for a few employees in the commissioner’s office who decided to come out. That a player, even in the low minors, would be bold enough to seek out Bean as a resource this quickly is a pleasant surprise for those who want to see the game become more inclusive.
After their initial conversation during Spring Training, Bean and Denson quickly bonded over their shared — but still unique — experiences as gay men in baseball. “We talked about the similarities with our parents struggling with it,” Bean said. To be out and a professional baseball player “is an intersection that is hard for a parent to understand.”
In early May, Bean paid a “very very quiet” visit to Denson while he was with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers without telling his bosses at MLB or anyone on Denson’s team. “I just sat as far away as I could and watched him play. I just wanted to let him know he had someone in his corner.”
Emboldened, Denson decided to come out to his teammates. It was a surprise to Bean, whose experiences in what he admits was a different cultural climate seem to make him more nervous about this process than Denson himself.
“He called me one night and said, ‘You’ll never guess what happened… It happened!” Bean recalled. “I was like, ‘oh my god.’ I got sweaty! I was like, ‘What did you do? Tell me, tell me, tell me!’ and he was so happy. David is naive in all the wonderful ways I wish I still was.”
“Until he came out publicly as gay and released that burden, Denson didn't think he could truly blossom and realize his potential on the field,” Haudricourt wrote in his Journal Sentinel story.
Bean had discussed with Haudricourt that there was a gay player in the Brewers system who was considering coming out, but kept his identity quiet until Denson made his final decision to come out to the media. The response from the Brewers and some of their biggest players have been overwhelmingly positive.
“David is a highly-respected member of the Milwaukee Brewers family, and he is a very courageous young man,” read a statement from team general manager Doug Melvin. Slugger Ryan Braun said he “thinks everybody is supportive.”
“Overall, we realize it’s a courageous decision by him, to come out and embrace his true self. I’ve never met him but I hope baseball as a whole is at a point where we judge people by their ability and not their race, religion, ethnicity or sexuality. I can’t speak for everybody on our team but he would be accepted and supported by me. And I would hope all of my teammates feel the same way,” Braun continued yesterday, hours before hitting a grand slam to tie the franchise record for home runs.
Bean admits he told Denson to carefully consider what he has “invited into his life. There is a reason there’s only been two players to come out in 146 years.” He is certain, though, that Denson made this decision so he could “walk up to the plate and be his best self and feel focused and single-minded toward playing. There’s not going to be any favorable treatment — he’s not going to get called up immediately. It is about being his own best player.”
As for baseball, everyone wants to know what Denson’s decision says about the likelihood of more and more players coming out on increasingly competitive rosters. Bean understands that this generation of players benefit by having “positive images that someone like myself never saw,” but isn’t sure that Denson’s decision is indicative of any developing trend.
“David is definitely a unique case — it’s not like he’s conveyed to me that he feels like there are others. It’s so hard to say, but the only way that I can see success in what we’re doing is that we’re giving players more examples of those possibilities for them. Maybe there’s a couple, maybe there’s more, maybe there’s a lot. I’m hopeful that his decision will be what he hopes it will. I hope he will be able to get back into the flow and be yet another great example of someone being their best self.”
“However, coming out while playing isn’t impossible anymore,” announced Bean. “David has proven that.”