Minor league baseball is hard on fans— you root for your favorite players to succeed, but in doing so, you’re also wishing them on to greener pastures. Toledo, the most famous minor league city of them all, has been a stop for numerous players who’ve gone up to the big show that is Major League Baseball (…and come back from it, on the downswing of their career). One of these former Mud Hens, Billy Bean, is currently hard at work, giving back to the sport that has been so good to him.
Bean, who played as an outfielder with the Detroit Tigers, L.A. Dodgers and San Diego Padres from 1987-1995, is now the Vice President and Special Assistant to the MLB’s current commissioner, Rob Manfred. Before that, he was selected to be the MLB’s first Ambassador for Inclusion, a position that allowed Bean, who came out as an openly gay man in 1999, to help other athletes deal with their own sexuality and decisions on how public they want to be with that information.
We’re proud of the work he put in with Mud Hens, particularly leading the team with a batting average of .256 in 1988, but we believe his best work in baseball is still ahead of him, as he mentors younger players and works to eradicate bullying and champions inclusivity in the Great American Pastime. As baseball season draws to an open, we caught up with this inspiring executive and role model to discuss his work, his life and, of course, a little Toledo baseball.
What do you remember from your time as a Mud Hen?
Whenever somebody says “Toledo,” my body starts to tingle because I remember feeling so much pressure to get to the big leagues. The first time I was in Toledo, I was so excited. It was the greatest time ever. And then, the second time I was in Toledo, it was coming back from the major leagues and it was devastating. It was a total difference from one year to the next and I had to fight through that disappointment to get back to the big leagues. And that is what the minor leagues are all about.
I was such a young man when I got to Toledo, and yet those memories are becoming more vivid, not less. We didn’t have a lot of fans in Toledo in those days, I’m sure they have a lot more now. I’ve heard they have a beautiful stadium. I haven’t seen it. But we had some really wonderful fans and they all wanted to adopt you. That helps, because it was rough. It’s a competitive time, you’re fighting hard, whether it’s against your teammates or yourself. You’re trying to go to the big leagues and the time was a lot different. The travel wasn’t as nice as it probably is now. But it made it all the more special when you got out of there and got to play in the big leagues.
Do you remember where you used to live in Toledo?
I lived in Whitehouse with a wonderful family, Jim and Louise McVicker, who came to Lakeland and sponsored a few players over the years. They invited me to live with them. I think I was making $800 a month playing Triple-A ball. They had seven children and transfer students. They were an incredibly loving family and they would come to all the games. They are one of the great memories of my life.
So you haven’t been back to a Mud Hens game since you played?
I haven’t been to a Mud Hens game since I got back in baseball, but I’ve got to find a way to do it. My job at the big league level is very comprehensive. Timewise, I’ve probably made 150 stops in the last three years, plus sitting full-time at an office in New York City. There’s a lot of correspondence and meetings. I’ll be going out to L.A. on the 15th, for the Jackie Robinson 70th anniversary of his first game and we’re doing a trailblazer series for young women athletes. It’s an exhausting, wonderful privilege to be as many places as you can be to move a message forward off the strength of our product.
How often do you get confused with the “Moneyball” Billy Beane?
It’s happening less and less. He actually played on the Mud Hens with me in ‘88. I actually spoke on the telephone recently with Pete Rice (the third member of the outfield trio). We were the “Rice and Beans” outfield for a couple of moments. Billy and I have been getting confused [for years]. He gets my baseball cards, I get his. He’s an incredibly wonderful guy and had a huge impact on our sport. He’s also been a huge supporter of my work— we’ve had Pride Nights in Oakland (where Beane is now a minority owner of the Oakland A’s). If you’re gonna get confused with somebody, he’s not a bad guy.
How did you become the Ambassador for Inclusion?
I got a call out of the blue. Baseball had expanded their protection on the Workplace Code of Conduct to include sexual orientation. The executives were looking for a way to communicate that. Somebody referenced me and saw the book I wrote (Bean’s memoir, published in 2003).
It’s really grown exponentially since I got there and here we are, three years later.
What do you feel you accomplished as the first Ambassador for Inclusion?
I think baseball’s history of diversity awareness and making it a priority is long and storied, but, for the very first time, having a former player lead the conversation about inclusion and acceptance, and having the ability to make it relatable, it moved the message close to the field for the very first time.
Our communication has changed with the fans from my day, and that is a very powerful tool that a player holds in their hands. And the spirit of how they manage that, baseball wants everyone to know we are a zero tolerance work environment for harassment or discrimination.
How common is bullying in Major League Baseball?
That’s really my 2.0 message. We’ve got some exciting projects for the coming year, where we have some anti-bullying campaigns, and that makes it a great opportunity for our players to be the voice of that. Let’s be real, they are the most influential voices to our fans, especially our young fans. But where there are human beings, there is bullying. It’s an unfortunate part of our reality. But I do know that each and every club is passionate about making their environment, whether it is at the stadium, in the clubhouse, in the office space, an empowering one that is not full of conflict and disparaging innuendo or jokes. Baseball is getting bigger, and so our responsibility grows at the same time. We may not be perfect, but we have a lot of conversations about wellness.
You counseled a player, David Denson, and helped give him the strength to come out as the first active gay player in baseball. What advice did you give him?
David had seen the work I’d been doing and he reached out to me. The first thing I did, and I would do it with anyone, whether they were a professional baseball player or not, was find out how healthy his relationship was with his parents. In this case, we were very lucky because his parents were loving and supportive. David… was raised in an environment where he was very self accepting. The conflict for him was that not being able to be his whole self [in baseball] was limiting for him. Being in a team sport is very limiting, as opposed to being an individual— it’s a very delicate decision for everyone, but even moreso as an active player. I wanted David to be cautious.
As a young man, he was excited about the possibilities of what that would mean and he was certain it would make him a better baseball player. I kept saying once you do this, you have to live with this decision. I take that very, very seriously. I have a lot of confidential conversations with many different people and everyone’s situation is different. There’s no specific instruction, it’s truly a case-by-case decision and, unfortunately, David has chosen not to play anymore. He decided he’d played long enough and he’s moving on to the next chapter. I’m very fond of him— like a big brother. I hope he feels centered and happy.
You had a partner pass away while you were playing— and you couldn’t tell anyone. Was that damaging to your mental state and career?
It was hard. I was a young man. It happened just about the time I was really learning how to contribute at the big league level. My partner died suddenly and was very young. I was not out to anybody. It was a different time, I hadn’t told my parents, anybody. I wasn’t ever a person who went to gay bars or had gay friends, because I was a baseball player. People lose loved ones, I wasn’t the first person that happened to, but trying to live through that myself, and then wondering if my sexual orientation was a choice, I was naive. I was really really making some self-destructive decisions, and quitting baseball was kind of the cherry on top. I was lying and hiding from everybody and it was really starting to consume me. I had built being gay up so that it seemed insurmountable, but the more you shine a light on your life, the less and less things seem so awkward and different.
Billy Bean continues his work for inclusion. You can check out more about his work and career at billybean.com.