For all the education and forced integration and economic imperatives that have made Major League Baseball clubhouses more diverse, nothing expedited the matter more than the sheer number of black and Latino players and their excellence of performance. Not to be indelicate, but if Jackie Robinson had been a stiff, he wouldn't have had the same impact.
So it will be with gay professional athletes.
In society, language and mores change with proximity to a person of different race, creed or sexual orientation. In pro sports, it helps to also be a good player, in the context of shared commitment and sacrifice toward a common, team goal.
A black man or Latino can now be the highest-paid player in the majors and nobody thinks twice. Some can go on to be managers or general managers or owners. Former Montreal Expos manager Felipe Alou said Latinos will have arrived when they can be fired and rehired and or re-signed and recycled just like any white player, coach or manager. Alou was right, long before he himself was fired and rehired and fired again – all after his 66th birthday.
I have spent a great deal of time in clubhouses, locker rooms and dressing rooms since the mid-80s. Mostly I've covered baseball, so I've heard the word maricon a few times before Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar was suspended for three games by the team for wearing eye-black with the phrase TU ERE MARICON ("You are a faggot") on the field during a game last Saturday.
Escobar said it was a joke that was not directed at any one and that, anyhow, the meaning was lost in translation, that the word maricon was not universally pejorative. He is not a bright fellow, clearly, but he was telling the truth. In the clubhouse, it's a word that's thrown around from teammate to teammate.
Or so I've been told. See, things have changed in clubhouses and dressing rooms. The demands of deadlines and workload limit the amount of time reporters can spend inside a clubhouse, and most modern clubhouses or dressing rooms (for the home team, at least) have areas off-limits to the press.
Don't want to talk after an o-fer? You can sit in the Blue Jays' meal room for as long as you want after the game. Or study video. Or go to the weight room or even the batting cage.
Don't want to talk after letting in five goals? You can strip off your goaltending equipment, leave it in the middle of the floor knowing a clubhouse attendant will pick it up, have a shower, dress, catch a bite and leave without any reporter seeing you. It's not sneaking out when the front door is at the side.
But on more than a few occasions I've stepped over sweaty, soiled undergarments and jerseys and jockstraps and mountains of tape to get a few bons mots from the star of the day, so it's natural that I'd be asked how many times I've heard the word maricon or faggot at the ballpark. I've heard the latter as much in a pressbox or at my local as in a clubhouse, and have said the word no more or less than anybody else.
I've heard it more often walking through the concession areas at the Rogers Centre, and probably heard a personal record walking through a boozy parking lot at Citizens Bank Ballpark in Philadelphia during the 2008 World Series. (I'm not certain if I'm proud of turning around, getting in the face of a guy wearing a Chase Utley jersey and saying: "Dude, you're the one wearing another guy's name on your back," but his pals liked it.)
When I was covering the Montreal Expos, a particularly noxious piece of work named Butch Henry wrote on a message board that myself and Montreal Gazette columnist Pat Hickey were tapettes, a Québécois slang for gay. I'd been called worse by better pitchers.
But here's the thing: Just as a homophobic slur doesn't mean the individual is a gay-bashing homophobe, a person who doesn't run around calling people an offensive term, or writing homophobic slurs on his uniform, doesn't necessarily have a rainbow flag hanging in the locker. You can go to the website Outsports.com and get a list of "gay-friendly" athletes who have publicly supported the cause of gay rights, and that's good.
But it's only a start. Good teams know how to manage cultural and racial flashpoints, building on lessons learned by men of integrity and courage who stood with black athletes in their ascendency, shepherds of integration such as Pee Wee Reese and Jack Kemp.
But until the first active, professional athlete presents himself as being gay, freeing others while drawing out those who will stand shoulder to shoulder with them during the tough times, the process can't begin. Until that happens, yesterday's epithet cannot become tomorrow's teammate. It will take a big man with uncommon fortitude. He better have game, too.