CSN Bay Area: Are we ready for next Glenn Burke?

CSN Bay Area: Are we ready for next Glenn Burke?
August 9, 2011, 4:06 pm
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By Mychael Urban
CSNBayArea.com

Sadly, the tail end of "Out. The Glenn Burke Story" rings all too familiar.

Might the end be different were the story to play out right now? Let's hope so. There's reason to believe as much.

Burke, the first openly gay big-league baseball player whose remarkable and tragic story is documented in the compelling Comcast SportsNet Bay Area film that premieres Tuesday night on VERSUS (10 p.m. EDT), died of complications related to AIDS in 1995.

Of course he did, you're probably thinking -- and feeling more than a little guilty for thinking it. It's the uncomfortable little box into which so many people place the plight of homosexuals -- particularly men -- of that decade.

And let's face it: The very idea of homosexuality remains uncomfortable for many, even in what we'd like to think is an age of greater tolerance and enlightenment.

The idea of homosexuality in professional sports? More uncomfortable still -- in male professional sports.

For some reason, and perhaps as evidence that we actually do have greater tolerance and enlightenment than in decades past, we're OK with Martina Navratilova being "out." We make the unfair assumption that many members of the LPGA Tour, the WNBA and the wide-ranging world of women's softball are gay, and there's a collective shrug.

Sure, there will be some less-than-enlightened, crass cracks at the workplace water cooler the day after the WNBA title game or the LPGA Tour Championship. For the most part, though, our society has something of a don't askdon't tell acceptance of homosexuality in women's sport.

Yet the machismo associated with -- and essentially considered a requirement of -- being a star male athlete seems so counter to the notion of a man being attracted to, loving, and living a fulfilling, this-is-who-we-are life with another man that it's difficult to imagine such a man being accepted in that testosterone-fueled world.

Well, guess what? Gay men have testosterone, too. "Out" makes that quite clear at a number of checkpoints along the route of Burke's path.

In one of the most memorable scenes of the film, the Wednesday premier of which will be followed by town-hall, star-studded edition of "Chronicle Live" from the Castro, CSN California A's analyst Shooty Babitt, a former friend and teammate of Burke, details a dugout confrontation between himself and another teammate.

Burke jumped into it, ready to defend Babitt with his fists, and by all accounts Burke was more than capable of handing out a vicious beating. In a refreshing, thought-provoking and illuminating moment of candor that marks the brilliantly produced piece as a whole, Babitt admits that he was internally torn.

He wondered: If I let Glenn help me here, is he going to want something in return?

We all know what something means in this instance, right?

This is Shooty Babitt we're talking about. He was down with Burke in every other way. Both products of the phenomenally fertile athletic ground that was Berkeley in the 1960s and '70s, they shared a kinship, a pride and a goal, if not a lifestyle.

It was that lifestyle that gave Babitt pause in that particular moment, and you could see it in his always animated, expressive eyes: he feels a little sheepish about it now.

Why? Because we are more tolerant and enlightened now. Not as much as we'd like to be; racism still exists even though we have a black President, and as long as there is a political left and right, as long as religion in its many forms exists, there will be raging debates over sexual preferences, acceptance and appropriateness.

Yet Babitt's eyes tell of progress -- and beg the question: Would Burke's lifestyle play in the big leagues, circa 2010?

We'd like to think so, but the fact is that we won't have a definitive answer until a genuine superstar male athlete musters the courage to actually be the question and "come out" in the prime of his career.

Burke might very well have become a superstar had the game not "excused" him, as Reggie Smith so poignantly put it in the film. But it did, and it wasn't difficult to do so because nobody is going to get up in arms over a guy batting .250 being traded or sent to the minors.

Though he wasn't "out" publicly, everybody within the Dodgers and A's organizations knew Burke was gay. Burke's relationship with Tommy Lasorda's gay son prompted the trade to the A's, and Billy Martin's disgusting brand of bigotry sent Burke to the bush leagues.

Had Burke been batting .350? Who knows? It likely wouldn't have swayed Martin, who will forever lose you as a Billy Ball fan if you are one before you see this film, but we all know special players get special treatment.

That's why the first step toward acceptance of gay men in sport would have to be taken by a franchise player at best, a respected veteran All-Star at worst.

Would Derek Jeter have been "excused" from baseball had he used the platform of a World Series parade in New York as his coming-out party? Tim Lincecum? Does Kevin Garnett get run out of Boston if comes out during the NBA Finals? Anyone going to tell Patrick Willis he's no longer welcome in the huddle if he announces he's getting married to a guy named Hank?

Probably not. Performance in male professional sports is king, even if the Billy Martins of the world want to call the man a queen.

We won't know how truly tolerant and enlightened we are, though, until such a moment actually happens.

Until some brave, gifted young man steps up. And "Out."