The homophobic slur (“Tu ere maricón’ – loosely translated as, ‘You are sissy / faggy’) that Yunel Escobar placed on his eye black during a Red Sox-Blue Jays game on Saturday has touched off a firestorm around the league and throughout the baseball media. He has been suspended for 3 games by the Blue Jays and many have stated that Escobar should be suspended for the rest of the season. On Toronto Sports radio the Fan 590, Bob McCown suggested that he should be released immediately and that ‘there is only one guilty party in all of this: Yunel Escobar.’
I fear that is exactly how it will play out: Escobar did something very wrong, he got reprimanded and now we can all feel good about our tolerant ways and leave it at that. But, this incident goes well beyond Yunel Escobar and is reflective of Major League Baseball’s own troubled past and present in dealing with LGBTQ issues. It should be used as an opportunity to take a critical look into baseball’s moral authority to wring Escobar’s hands, how baseball could use this moment to start thinking about its own role in homophobia and what that re-thinking could mean for LGBTQ players in the future.
Without doubt, I’m encouraged that we have reached a point where this kind of slur is not officially tolerated, and I’m pretty certain that even 10-15 years ago it would have barely been noticed. That’s progress. Yet, amongst the current crop of 750 Major Leaguers, none of them are both LGBTQ AND have felt it was a safe space to come out. Even this year’s Olympics had 23 openly gay athletes (albeit out of 12,000 participants) and the Olympic gay villages are becoming key (though temporary) safe and open spaces in the sporting world.
If you add up all those who have come out during their playing days in Major League Baseball’s 150 year history, you reach a grand total of one. And that player went through hell. Throughout his 1976-79 career in the big leagues, Glenn Burke faced extreme prejudice internally and a hush-hush attitude externally as was well documented in the superb documentary “Out: The Glenn Burke Story.” After being traded by the Dodgers who had once offered him $75,000 to marry a woman, his new Oakland manager Billy Martin ended his introduction with “Oh, by the way, this is Glenn Burke and he’s a faggot.’”
Hopefully times have changed, but apparently no current player feels safe that baseball is enough of a queer-positive place to try testing the waters.
I’m not going to get into the many debates of what the word maricón actually means or try to understand what Escobar’s intentions were exactly. While I’m far from thrilled by what Escobar did, I believe baseball has long shown itself to be a culture where such words might be seen as ok to say (or write on your face). And Escobar’s actions raise further uncomfortable questions: was this the first time he’s done this? Did others turn a blind eye then and on Saturday? Why?
End the ‘kiss-cam’ please
In many Major League cities (including Toronto), they have the ‘kiss-cam’ where (presumably) straight couples are pushed to kiss each other on the big screen. We’ve all seen it. The crowd cheers as the couples (or, as is likely in some cases, friends) are pressured to kiss for the crowd. In some cities, they have taken this practice a step further. As a gag to make people squeamish at the end of the kiss-cam sequence, they show two men and we are all supposed to laugh it up. This is clearly not a safe space for other same-sex couples in the crowd who are being directly ridiculed by what they see. It didn’t go unnoticed by Oakland A’s pitcher Brandon McCarthy (1) who saw this blatant discrimination as ‘shitty comedy’ and ‘offensive homophobia’ – calling for an end to the trend. (read all his ‘kiss-cam’ tweets here)
Though anecedotal, I have heard a fair number of casual homophobic slurs thrown around by fans at Blue Jays games over the years and I have never seen someone kicked out (or even questioned) for it. It’s generally tolerated in a ‘fans will be fans’ sort of way. Another fan-related incident occurred in Seattle in 2008 when a lesbian couple was asked to leave a game, at least partly because ‘a woman didn’t want to explain to her son why two women were kissing.’ Obviously, this was a Safeco Field decision and not Major League baseball directive, but it shows the degree to which open affection within the LGBTQ community is not quite ready for prime-time in baseball circles.
Major League Baseball’s opportunity
So, once the hand-wringing stops, maybe we can start to look at the culture that leads to all this. Let’s call this an opening. An opportunity for Major League Baseball to start to look at the conditions that have led to only one openly gay player ever stepping to the plate.
I have little doubt that a player will take on the courageous but lonely road of coming out in the next few years. And – hopefully – this Escobar incident has a the silver lining that Major League Baseball and its fans will now have that player’s back when they do. Perhaps this whole process could be started by holding a ‘Glenn Burke day’ across the league.
Back in 2001, Bobby Valentine, then manager of the Mets, said that the Major Leagues are “probably ready for an openly gay player…the players are diverse enough now that I think they could handle it.” Maybe we’ve finally crossed the threshold. But baseball has some structural resistance to overcome if that’s to happen.
(1) Twitter superstar and all around decent guy McCarthy is recovering from brain surgery after getting hit in the head with a line drive a few weeks ago. Get well soon!