A few weeks ago, Johnny Damon stood in the visitors’ dugout at the Oakland Coliseum and said something that I never expected to hear from a major- league baseball player. “If there’s a gay guy in baseball, we have to help him out,” Damon said, and he had already figured out an easy way to make an out- of-the-closet teammate comfortable. “I’d smack him on the butt, just like I do everybody else.”
All around, I could hear the familiar buzz of a stadium before game time, the early-bird fans pleading for autographs, the wooden percussion of batting practice, the chatter of reporters and coaches. But for a few seconds, I might as well have been on another planet, or in another century.
Maybe Damon’s remark shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, he and four Red Sox teammates had already taped an appearance on Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” The episode, produced in spring training, will air Tuesday night. A rough-cut DVD of the show, mailed out by the cable and satellite channel last week, overflowed with hilariously surreal moments.
At one point, Damon says: “I’m looking for a spotter to spot me on my naked pull-ups.” One of the Queer Eye stars immediately raises his hand to volunteer.
In another scene, Kevin Millar, Boston’s scruffy first baseman and probably the funniest pro athlete since Charles Barkley, wears a day-spa robe and soaks his feet in water filled with rose petals while telling his gay makeover artist: “You talk manly to me. I like that.”
Pitcher Tim Wakefield and catchers Jason Varitek and Doug Mirabelli also appear in the show. A helicopter flies Varitek in from an exhibition game so that he won’t miss an all-important back-waxing. “That’s really gay,” someone tells him.
When the Sox came to Oakland in May, Millar and Mirabelli stressed that they did the show to raise money that would refurbish a Little League field ruined by Hurricane Charley. In a few scenes, a couple of the Red Sox seem uncomfortable, and they’re all incredulous that gay celebrities have visited their clubhouse. But the entertainment value of the show hinges on the culture clash between grungy jocks and style gurus. In the end, everybody is pretty much laughing together — at each other, at themselves, at the whole situation.
As a result, the notion that this episode is a small landmark for both baseball and enlightened Americans should waft pleasantly under a viewer’s nose rather than bonking anyone on the head. Still, Esera Tuaolo can’t help drawing some pretty strong conclusions.
Three years ago, he became the third former NFL player to come out of the closet. Since then, he has set up a Web site where gay youth from around the world can contact him. Tuaolo said he has received hundreds of grateful e- mails, as well as terribly sad ones from teenagers who were kicked out of their homes after telling their families the truth about their sexuality. Tuaolo knows that some of the kids who write to him are suicidal, but he sees hope for them in the Red Sox’ appearance on a gay-themed show.
“Whether they realized it or not,” he said, “they probably saved a life by doing that show.”
Over the last year or so, I’ve wondered whether a male professional athlete could come out of the closet now more easily than most people think. I’ve suggested this to others — coaches, agents, players, fellow sportswriters — and they think I’m either naive or nuts. No active baseball, basketball or football player in the professional ranks has ever revealed that he is gay.
“The whole world has changed a lot in the last 10 years, in the last five years,” Damon said, agreeing with me in a rare, hopeful dissent.
But how far has the sports world come, and how quickly will most of it catch up to Damon? One of the problems could be the media, which is substantially older than the typical athlete. (This paper’s sports department has only one full-time writer younger than 35.) We may cling to old truths, sometimes even reinforce them. If Damon hadn’t appeared on “Queer Eye,” I would never have thought to ask him how he would feel about having a gay teammate.
This spring, Joe Valentine, a young pitcher in the Reds’ organization, talked to his hometown newspaper, Newsday, about being raised by a lesbian couple. How many of today’s teenagers, future big-leaguers, have openly gay family members, compared with previous generations?
Mike Haynes, the former Raiders defensive back, became the head of the NFL’s player development programs a few years ago and said he would consider adding diversity training about homosexuality. Haynes had a gay relative who had come out years earlier, forcing him to reconsider his own biases.
NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has a gay son and has attended meetings of PFLAG, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
Tuaolo was invited to speak to NFL executives about a year and a half ago, and said he felt very welcome.
“Gene Upshaw (head of the players’ association) came up to me afterward and shook my hand,” Tuaolo said.
Still, he thinks that coming out of the closet would be dangerous for an NFL player. Every play would represent a health risk, because a gay player would almost certainly be targeted in a pile-up. Great plays could be the most hazardous of all.
“Can you imagine how a guy would react if an openly gay man dominated him on a play?” Tuaolo said.
Tuaolo hopes that some athlete will be able to do what he couldn’t, acknowledge his homosexuality and play without fear. He also hopes that reporters will keep asking questions about the issue, tackling it from all angles.
Right now, headlines will follow a crude homophobic comment by an athlete, but the media rarely write about the more accepting players. They’re usually quoted only as a counterpoint to the bigoted bigmouth. Because we assume that the pro locker room has always been overwhelmingly hostile to gays, isn’t the exception at least as newsworthy as the person who backs up an old stereotype?
After Tuaolo came out of the closet, a few former teammates called to say they were sorry if they had made anti-gay jokes in front of him.
LeRoy Butler, a teammate from the Packers, publicly said that he was proud of Tuaolo for coming out of the closet. Chris Sauer, a close friend and former teammate, had already confronted Tuaolo with rumors about his sexuality and, after learning the truth, said that although he believed God would disapprove of his friend’s lifestyle, he still loved him like a brother.
When Lindsy McLean, the former 49ers trainer, publicly came out after his retirement two years ago, he was distressed that his negative experiences in the NFL received far more attention than his positive ones.
Within the franchise, McLean did not try to hide who he was; most players knew that he was gay. Many, many of them simply ignored the issue. When McLean’s partner was sick, some politely inquired about his health.
Years ago, the trainer found one particularly surprising pocket of tolerance on the team. Charles Haley, a notoriously irascible personality, always treated McLean kindly, with the kind of gratitude that smart NFL players typically extend to the people who keep their bodies intact.
Even when Haley went to the Dallas Cowboys, McLean said, he would send a holiday card, usually with a cash gift. When he returned to the 49ers for a final season, he gave the trainer an entertainment unit, with a stereo and DVD player.
“I never told him (about being gay), but Charles is a very smart guy. I can’t imagine that he didn’t know,” McLean said.
The “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” episode ends with the five Red Sox, the five TV hosts and the Florida Little Leaguers playing a baseball game together.
Every now and then, some Andy Warhol crept into the Norman Rockwell scenes. Wearing a pink Boston jersey, the show’s lead personality, Carson Kressley, gave vaudevillian pep talks to the kids while their red-state parents cheered in the background.
The players’ wives accompanied them throughout the show, overseeing their makeovers and affirming their husband’s straight-guy status.
A couple of months after the taping, Mirabelli wondered whether his appearance would send a political message he didn’t intend. In Boston recently, there has been a slight, all-too-predictable backlash, as anti-gay activists object to the fact that “Queer Eye” cast members are scheduled to throw out the first pitch at today’s game.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Mirabelli said during last month’s visit to Oakland. “We had a lot of fun. But if I had thought about it some more, I’m not sure I would have done it.”
But his initial response was a yes, and his final thoughts during the interview in Oakland were about the clothes the show picked out for the players. He didn’t like them very much.
E-mail Gwen Knapp at email@example.com.