Sports

First Openly Gay Pro Baseball Player Makes History, Pitches Shutout

CREDIT: Sonoma Stompers/James Toy III

Sean Conroy pitched a complete game shutout on Thursday night, striking out 11 and allowing just three hits, to lead the Sonoma Stompers to a decisive 7-0 victory over the Vallejo Admirals. He also made history, becoming the first openly gay active professional baseball player.

“He wanted to be that guy, and coming out here and doing this shows you what kind of man he is,” remarked Tim Livingston, the team’s radio broadcaster, as the game came to an end. “To see this little field here in the middle of nowhere, when we look back it will have been the perfect setting for this.”

The Stompers, part of the Pacific Association of Professional Baseball, play in a small 370-seat field in Northern California wine country. When the 23-year-old right-hander was announced with the rest of the starting lineup, Conroy received the loudest cheers. “It’s great they cheered for him,” Nancy Dito, 67 and one of three fans selected to throw out the first pitch, told the Associated Press. “I think it’s courageous and wonderful he’s doing this.”

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CREDIT: James Toy III

Conroy shared his sexual orientation with the Stompers when he was first recruited out of college in May. General Manager Theo Fightmaster told the AP that the team was supportive of Conroy and whatever extent he wanted to take his story public.

“It’s not that I wanted it to go public, but I didn’t care if it was open information. It’s who I am,” Conroy said. “I am definitely surprised that no one else has been openly gay in baseball yet.”

Former major leaguer Glenn Burke retired from baseball in 1979 and became the first player to come out publicly in 1982. After his career was over, Burke spoke about the way he was treated and how the pressure of being a closeted player contributed to his decision to leave the sport at just 27 years old.

“It’s harder to be gay in sports than anywhere else, except maybe president,” he said. “Baseball is probably the hardest sport of all.”

Burke and several of his former teammates have said they believe he was traded by the Dodgers in 1978 because he was gay. In his final season with the A’s, “the team’s new manager, Billy Martin, reportedly addressed Burke with homophobic slurs in front of teammates,” according to the New York Times. Burke died of AIDS in 1995.

Billy Bean retired from professional baseball in 1995, after six seasons in the majors, and came out publicly in 1999. Last year, Major League Baseball named Bean its first Ambassador for Inclusion. Following pioneering athletes like basketball’s Jason Collins and football’s Michael Sam, Bean was hired explicitly to promote LGBT inclusion and awareness across baseball.

The task is no small one. After Bean spent time with the Mets during spring training this year, infielder Daniel Murphy told reporters that he “disagreed” with Bean’s lifestyle and the fact that he is gay. Bean’s response was one of patience. “When I took this job at MLB, I knew it was going to take time for many to embrace my message of inclusion,” he wrote in a blog post. “Expecting everyone to be supportive right away is simply not realistic.”

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CREDIT: James Toy III

Bean was driving to Arizona to do a session with the Diamondbacks on Friday and hadn’t yet heard how Conroy pitched. “That’s awesome,” he said when I told him about the shutout over the phone. “These are the kinds of things that I think move our message. It’s a positive story about athleticism and competition, his desire to compete and be his best self. That’s how you create change among his peers — they see a guy who went out there and pitched a shutout.”

With the historic Supreme Court ruling bringing marriage equality to all 50 states, Bean said his phone was “blowing up,” but that he wanted to share “100 percent admiration and support for Sean,” and added that he’d be reaching out to Conroy to tell him the same directly. “It’s a great day for many people and I’m proud to have the support of MLB for the message of inclusion.”