Fennelly: Whole Rays village came together for Orlando (w/ video)

Billy Bean, MLB’s vice president of social responsibility and inclusion, throws out the first pitch Friday at Tropicana Field. Bean came out publicly as gay in 1999.
Billy Bean, MLB’s vice president of social responsibility and inclusion, throws out the first pitch Friday at Tropicana Field. Bean came out publicly as gay in 1999.
Published June 19, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — It usually takes a Rays season opener or playoff game to fill Tropicana Field. Friday, it took the village.

It was Pride Night, but much more. From those victims' faces on the stadium video board to the "We Are Orlando" T-shirts on fans and Rays players to the $300,000 dollars raised for the Pulse Victims Fund through ticket sales. An important, beautiful evening.

The man who threw the ceremonial first pitch was touched, though not beyond words, for his words were eloquent, moving.

Billy Bean, Major League Baseball's first vice president of social responsibility and inclusion, hired in 2014, stood on the field before the game. Baseball donated $100,000 to the victims fund.

"What happened to Orlando happened to everybody," Bean said.

He added, "It's not specific to one person or another, a race, a gender, a color, a sexual orientation or gender identity. It's about people and feeling connected and supported. I think the message for me, at least on this night, is something I'll never forget."

Bean, 52, publicly came out as gay in 1999, four years after his major-league career ended. He played for the Tigers, Dodgers and Padres, but his secret, hiding his other life from teammates, friends and family, helped drive him from the game.

Bean had agreed to appear at Pride Night, an annual Rays event, part of LGBT Pride Month, well before the American tragedy in on Orlando turned it into something more.

"It's just a broader hug to the center of this state," Bean said. "Some day, we won't have to worry about how we identify ourselves. Right now, there's still racism, there's still homophobia. The LGBT community was targeted for some reason, and the Latino community as well, on a specific night, in a month meant to celebrate that there's been great progress.

"When I was a player, and I was in the closet, and I was struggling, I didn't have great self esteem. My dad was in the Marine Corps. He was a cop for 25 years. I never felt comfortable. I fought it, and I hid it. But if I would have seen this image from tonight … every single guy on (the Rays) wearing that (We Are Orlando) T-shirt that's expressing love, well … I'm very proud of baseball today."

You don't change the world overnight.

"I'm sure the guys who are gay and playing, because I'm sure there are some, they're not apt to tell anyone," Rays infielder Logan Morrison said. "Clubhouse humor can cross the line sometimes. We need to live and let live."

"I was never ready, and it was a different time," Bean said. "But athletes are seeing a lot of positive images. If I was still a player and on the Tampa Bay Rays and I saw everybody rocking that shirt, I would have been encouraged to talk to my parents."

Retired basketball player Jason Collins, whom Bean described as a great friend, came out while still in the NBA. Michael Sam came out before the NFL draft but never played in the league. Bean was asked if we'll ever see an openly gay player in Major League Baseball.

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"Obviously there's not one in baseball, basketball, football and hockey," Bean said. "There's a reason for that."

Bean decided to come out after his playing days. "The lies were starting to close in on me," he said. Once married to a woman, he began a new life in Miami: "But I was living in shame still." He became isolated from his family. He finally told his mother and father. He was 33. He'll never forget breaking it to his stepfather, Ed Kovac, the retired Marine.

"And he was amazing," Bean said. "I had built it up in my mind that it was going to be the worst moment of my life. … I see it all the time in my mind. He said, 'You're my son and it doesn't matter.' "

It doesn't matter.

"He thanked us for wearing the shirts," Rays catcher Curt Casali said of Bean. "I hope we get to the point where it's all inclusive everywhere, in anything, where your sexual orientation means nothing, where it's just what you bring to the clubhouse, what you bring to a field. I hope we get there. I hope nobody is ever afraid."

Until that day …