Out On The Ball Field?

Last year, the great sports journalist Jerry Izenberg related a tale in his column about a pro football coach who was faced with a dilemma at the end of training camp.

In order to whittle his roster, he had to decide which of three players to cut. Two of them were defensive backs and the third was a fullback.

"It's a no-brainer," an assistant coach advised. "We cut the fullback. He ain't that great and he's a homosexual ... he has to be the one."

The head coach demurred. "Wrong. He can play decently. So can the others. We cut either of the others, they'll catch on somewhere. We cut him and it gets out that he's homosexual, nobody will pick him up. We keep the fullback."

Crazy enough, that conversation happened more than 30 years ago. The coach was Vince Lombardi.

Unfortunately, there's always been a shortage of Vince Lombardis in sports. And not just in the coaching ranks, mind you, but also in the locker rooms, in the media and in the stands.

The firestorm this week over the sexuality of New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza demonstrates that Lombardi remains way ahead of his time.

If the sports world is truly ready for the first openly gay male pro athlete, then why did a crush of media hornets swarm Piazza as he emerged from the dugout for batting practice Tuesday night in Philadelphia?

If the media is truly ready to cover a gay male athlete objectively, then why did a New York Post gossip columnist write a thinly veiled item hinting that an "unnamed Met" was about to declare his homosexuality, based on a rumor the columnist admitted in his own piece had thus far been impossible to corroborate?

"If there was an athlete considering coming out right now, there's no way he would do it," says Dave Pallone, a former major-league umpire. He should know. Pallone was outed by the New York Post in September 1988.

Weeks later, Pallone was fired for what baseball said was poor performance. Pallone says it was because of his sexuality.

"That was a setback to the cause," Pallone said. "And what happened in Philadelphia [this week] was a bigger setback."

So much for the testosterone-laced world of sports being ready to include homosexuals in its tightly knit world.

Mind you, in nearly 20 years of covering professional sports, I have never witnessed an incident of homophobic behavior or gay-bashing in the clubhouse, with the exception of the periodic Mike Tyson tirade, in which slurs on an opponent's manhood and jailhouse-style threats of sexual violence are de rigueur.

But media in the clubhouse are like unwanted guests in a home. For the most part, athletes try to maintain their best behavior.

Behind closed doors, however, the conduct can get rougher.

Few fans know that in 1999, Paul Priore, a former clubhouse attendant for the Yankees, named three players--pitchers Bob Wickman, Mariano Rivera and Jeff Nelson--as having been sexually abusive to him in a $165 million lawsuit that charges the club fired him because he was HIV-positive.

One of Priore's allegations is that Wickman, since departed, threatened to sodomize him with a bat. (The lawsuit is still pending, according to Priore's attorney, Ed Pavia.)

A few years ago, one major-league manager walked through his clubhouse cracking a belt, for laughs, after one of his players was accused of excessive corporal punishment to his children.

And it is a common practice among ballplayers who suspect a teammate is gay to confide to friendly reporters, "He's a little funny," with a roll of the eyes.

Just last year, after Brendan Lemon of Out magazine published a controversial first-person essay about his love affair with a well-known but unnamed ballplayer on an East Coast team, one national baseball team ran a clubhouse pool to determine who the player would turn out to be.

Some of baseball's biggest names were on the list.

Three decades after Vince Lombardi showed the kind of tolerance necessary to make the sports world comfortable for the first gay athlete, there seems to be no question that today's athletes, fans and the media who cover them are only ready to make that person's life miserable.

It would take a person with a Jackie Robinson--like sense of conviction, courage and resiliency to make it work.

The real question is, in the lingering climate, why would anyone want to?

"Besides the wonderful sensation of peace of mind and the ability to stop living a lie," Pallone said, "There's really no upside at all."