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From pioneer for inclusion as a major league athlete to champion for diversity in a leadership position at MLB. Baseball legend Billy Bean is joining Jay for an intimate and candid conversation. Together, they discuss diversity and disability inclusion in baseball, the steps leading to the historic change from DL to IL, and reveal the new MLB mental health approach.
Billy Bean and Jay Ruderman recordings at MLB headquarters
Billy Bean and ALL INCLUSIVE host Jay Ruderman
Billy Bean serves at MLB as Vice-President & Special Assistant to the Commissioner. As a senior advisor to Commissioner Manfred, his role focuses on baseball’s social responsibility initiatives and LGBT inclusion. Among his responsibilities, Bean works with MLB’s 30 clubs to bring awareness to all players, coaches, managers, umpires, employees, and stakeholders throughout baseball to ensure an equitable, inclusive, and supportive workplace for everyone. He played in the Major Leagues from 1987-1995. Bean broke into the big leagues with the Detroit Tigers, and tied a major-league record with four hits in his first game. He went on to play for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres.
Jay Ruderman: Leader in baseball, champion for inclusion, ambassador for diversity and social responsibility, our guest today is the main advocate of the latest Major League Baseball groundbreaking change, from the disabled list to the injured list, and my personal hero, Billy Bean.
Announcer: All-Inclusive, a podcast on inclusion, innovation, and social justice, with Jay Ruderman.
Jay Ruderman: Hi, and welcome to All-Inclusive. I’m your host, Jay Ruderman. It’s wonderful to be joined today by Billy Bean, the vice-president and special assistant to the commissioner for Major League Baseball, Rob Manfred. He’s also the vice-president of Social Responsibility and Inclusion at Major League Baseball.
Jay Ruderman: Mr. Bean handles anti-bullying efforts and continues to develop strategies with a focus on the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered community. From 1987 to 1995 Mr. Bean played for the Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers, and the San Diego Padres. Welcome Billy and thank you for joining me today. Tell us a little bit about who you are, how you got started in Major League Baseball as a player, and your personal journey.
Billy Bean: Well it’s a pleasure to be here, and I appreciate all the work that you and your foundation do. My name is Billy Bean, and I’m currently vice-president and special assistant to Commissioner Rob Manfred of Major League Baseball. But at one time I was just a little-leaguer, seven years old, introduced to baseball, and was able to navigate my way somehow, all the way through high school, and got offers to play in college, which I thought would be the peak of my baseball career, and then got drafted a couple of times. I was in the big leagues before my 22nd birthday and played six years in the major leagues.
Billy Bean: And during that time, I was really struggling with an internal dialogue that I did not really understand at the time. I grew up in a very conservative military household, my dad, my stepfather, the only father I’ve ever known, was in the Marine Corps and was a police officer. I was the oldest of six kids, and I think made to be the example for my siblings, and five boys, and him wanting us to be tough, and men.
Billy Bean: And so every image or conversation that I heard about the subject that I was struggling with, and that was my sexual orientation, I wasn’t sure what it meant to be gay. I’d never talked to anybody that was, my parents never introduced me to someone who said that they were, I never saw anybody on TV that I could relate to, and it wasn’t until I actually met somebody, it was in my fourth year in the major leagues, that I started to understand that I was in a really difficult spot.
Billy Bean: The one thing that I think a lot of people who have never lived or walked through that journey of trying to understand your sexual orientation in a world that is not supportive of being LGBT, that was in the 80s and early 90s, I just thought if I never did it, it wouldn’t be true.
Billy Bean: What happened was I tried to live a double life, and I was living secretively, and my partner died of HIV-related causes on the night before what was to be my last season in the majors. And I was devastated by loss of my partner, my only person I ever was honest with, really in the whole world at that time, kind of alienated myself, I didn’t have the confidence to tell my family. I loved my parents, but I believed everything my dad ever said about gay people, and I thought that he would think that about me, and I did not want to ever have that look into his eyes. And I knew I would disappoint my mother, and it just seemed easier to be away from them, and to remain the golden child who played in the big leagues, and just not see them anymore.
Jay Ruderman: I wanted to express my condolences for the loss of your partner at the time, and also for the separation from your family, which I’m sure was an excruciating time for you, and probably for them. And the whole journey that you went through, which was so important, but I’m sure an extremely difficult journey.
Billy Bean: You know I held up my responsibility, I finished my last year, but I knew inside that I wasn’t going to stick around. I gave up on myself, I gave up on my family, I walked away from baseball, and I didn’t have a plan B for a career or a job. Three years later, the person that was doing a nothing story about a Miami Beach restaurant had done her homework, and she knew who I was, she knew I had started to see somebody, and she wanted to write the truth.
Billy Bean: And I didn’t think anybody would care, I had just recently told my parents, this was two-and-a-half years after my last game. Next thing I know it was on the front page of the New York Times, and I was on national television. And it was because baseball had never had that connection. I think, if we’re talking about diversity, what was comfortable for athletes in the sports world was people of color, and that’s it.
Billy Bean: For someone like Sandy Koufax, I remember … I was raised in a religious environment at home, but people saying, “He’s Jewish,” in a way that was enamored by his own community, because they hadn’t seen as many images of their own, you know what I mean? And he was this amazing, you know, he’s on Mount Rushmore of greatness. And so, when people started to see something that they can align in, it creates interest. And there was just no representation for people in the LGBT community, even in sports.
Billy Bean: I didn’t understand why people thought it was interesting, I was just afraid that I would be humiliated because I made some really bad choices. I didn’t go to my partner’s funeral, because I had a game that day, I couldn’t figure out a way to not go to the park. I felt devastated by some of those choices, I lied to my family for years. I just felt like it’d be better if I just started over somewhere.
Billy Bean: And so this attention about that started to bring back all of that stuff that I had sort of hidden away. I just went off the grid after being a player, where every single day they know where you are. And I learned a very quick lesson that there’s a lot of people out there that need some leadership, and I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself and get over it.
Billy Bean: And I met, I was introduced by someone in the LGBT community to Judy Shepard, who was Matthew Shepard’s mother, and it was just about not even a year after he was murdered in Laramie, Wyoming. She just was so influential in my life, I told her, “I don’t know even what to say, how sorry I am for what happened to you and your family, and to Matthew,” and she was like, “Matthew would’ve been so excited to meet you, you would’ve been a hero to him.” And I felt unworthy of something like that being said to me, and asked her, “What do I do?” She was thrust into the same environment kind of as a role model for people, not of her own doing. And she could’ve easily said no, and mourned the loss of her son, but she decided to get out there, and be the face of a conversation. And she’s amazing, and I was inspired by that.
Billy Bean:And so I just stopped lying about myself, and I started saying yes to things that I was certain I would not know anything about or be influential or an influencer in any capacity. And over time I started to find my way, and get involved, and bullying prevention really started to speak to me, that I felt I was young enough to be out there with kids and encourage them to participate. That was more sort of what I did to sort of heal my past, it wasn’t a vocation, it was just somewhere, everywhere I could get connected and worked around some people that started some foundations that were really amazing.
Jay Ruderman: It’s my understanding that you are one of the only professional baseball players in the MLB who has come out as being gay.
Billy Bean: Right.
Jay Ruderman: How did you go from this traumatic time of your life, where you decide you couldn’t reconcile being gay and being in the MLB, to coming back to MLB?
Billy Bean: Right. So exactly what you said, there’s been two players in 150 year history that have played in the major league, a player named Glen Burke and myself. Which speaks to the culture that young male athletes face in this type of situation. So, I was away from baseball for well over 10 years, I did not think, even up until 2013, that a person that was gay would ever have a place in baseball. I literally was perpetuating that, but I do think that the life experience that I had in that interim prepared me for a job that there was no definition for.
Billy Bean: And I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for a few people that work in our labor relations department, in this office, that had the vision to say, “We have to expand this conversation, about fostering a more inclusive environment, a culture, workplace, messaging in the stadiums.” What we deem is funny, and for years and years, perpetuating stereotypes against women, perpetuating stereotypes against certain religious faiths, perpetuating stereotypes definitely against the LGBT community.
Billy Bean: I literally was working out on the west coast and I got a call that asked me if I would be interested in having a conversation, they wanted to ask me a few questions. And I did not know what the content of that was about, but Paul Mifsud, who’s a labor attorney who’s been here since 2000, just an amazing inspiration in my career now, when he hung up, he said, “Billy, this conversation is probably 12 or 13 years late.” Which really was like, “What does that mean?”
Billy Bean: Because I wrote a book in 2004, and I took the initiative and the liberty of challenging baseball, to take this opportunity to be better. And so, it’s been an interesting navigation. I have to say I think that, as a former player in this position, and understanding and taking advantage of the infrastructure that had been built by others here, long before me, I took this and ran with it, because I saw this might be the one chance my community gets, and I was going to lift up that conversation, that diversity conversation, and say the only reason we’re having this one is because of those conversations. And we’re going to take advantage of that.
Billy Bean: And so I tried to find that bridge with the players. The first thing I wanted them to know was this was not about me finding out who is what, or what your personal life, that’s none of my business. My job here is to help you understand the expectations, and how that is changing in the baseball world, for every stakeholder. In our clubhouse, in our front offices, for those who are pursuing for work, and the messaging for every fan that walks through that turnstile to feel connected and not alienated.
Jay Ruderman: What is your day today? You do a lot of traveling, you’re visiting the different major league parks around the country, you’re speaking with players, to management, what’s the core of your full-time position?
Billy Bean: I think Paul Mifsud came up the title Ambassador for Inclusion. Dan Halem, who is our deputy commissioner now and another amazing person to work for, because he wants baseball to be better, he sent me to speak to the general managers at the Annual GM meetings a few months into my first year here. And that really changed the game for what my job became about. It turned out that I had played with or against I think 26 or 27 of the managers in baseball at that time, in 2014, and I had deeper relationships than I remembered. There is a bond that a player that played … and I think once people started to hear that I wasn’t here to “woe is me, Billy Bean story”, it was about everyone else, a light went on, and people started to see, “this is good for us, this could be good.”
Billy Bean: And for the first time a former player was standing up in front of the players talking about something sensitive, but having come through the other side, that doesn’t mean everybody’s on board with inclusion and equality, and equity in the workplace, you have to work for that. And why this conversation today is important, because from 70 years ago when Jackie Robinson ran onto the field in Brooklyn, April 15, 1947, to the 60s Civil Rights Movement of Willie Mays, and Frank Robinson, and Hank Aaron, and our amazing heroes of that era, to my little conversation and expanding the conversation or our efforts to bring women into highest level positions in operations and ownership, to a conversation about being inclusive of people living with disabilities, or hiring active US Armed Forces members into high level positions, and not only presuming the diversity conversation in a limited conversation, you know?
Billy Bean: Pursuing the best, brightest, broadest candidates, regardless of the package that we walk into the room in, it’s about what is your skillset, and how can you be the best at this job. And that conversation, it takes time to earn those moments, and I’ve learned by being invited to all 30 clubs, in a long answer to your question, that there’s never been a mandate from this office that they have to listen to Billy Bean. I ask Commissioner Manfred to make sure that my job was about invitation, and so I feel like the onus is on me to be an example that the clubs want.
Announcer: You’re listening to All-Inclusive, with Jay Ruderman. You can learn more, view the show notes and transcripts at RudermanFoundation.org/All-Inclusive.
Jay Ruderman: Please remember to subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you’re listening.
Jay Ruderman: So I have to give a lot of credit to Major League Baseball. They have brought you into this position, that they have valued inclusion, and I think I remember hearing, correct me if I’m wrong, that more Americans attend a baseball game than any other sporting event in person during a year.
Billy Bean: Yes.
Jay Ruderman: So it’s a hugely impactful part of our society, and to have someone dedicated to talking about inclusion in parts of our society that it can be improved upon, and to understand the leadership role that celebrities and young athletes have is hugely important. Do you know, are other major league sports in this country, are they following the lead of Major League Baseball?
Billy Bean: I think every league understands the important of broadening its fan base. And sharing your values is the best way to grow your business, and because nowadays people do want to know what you stand for. You gotta be good, and I also think that the beauty of sports, and why it is starting to elevate in its important is it’s almost as if we are in public service, because consumers are willing to enjoy entertainment and stream it on their timeline, but sports, that live time, no tried and true sports fan is willing to wait to watch a World Series game on tape delay, you know what I mean? We gotta know, we gotta know now. And so, I think that is drawing more attention to us. It may not be for as long, but we have a chance to be important, and be meaningful. And I think that conversation now has gone outside the white lines and we have to show what we stand for within the community, as a national messaging with our advertising, or the companies that we choose to work with.
Jay Ruderman: So I want to talk about the disability community, because we know from statistics based on the United States Department of Labor, or the United Nations, US Census, that 20% of our population has some form of a disability, it makes it the largest minority group in the world, and the poorest minority group in the world. The Ruderman Family Foundation has been behind disability rights for decades, but a few years back we started to work on self-advocacy and bringing in people with and without disabilities to empower them to become better advocates for disability rights. And this group was called Link 20, to link them to the rest of the population, and that they’re 20% of the population. And I know that they reached out to Major League Baseball and to you to talk about the disabled list.
Jay Ruderman: For those non-baseball fans who are listening, when a player is hurt and unable to play, was put on the disabled list. And they came to you and said the correct term should be an injured list, because they’re injured, and they’re not permanently disabled. And we’re empowered as a disability community by being identified as being people with a disability. Can you just talk about that from your end, and how that happened? Because our experience as a foundation and I think the disability advocacy part of our society, usually change happens over a long period of time, and this happened really quickly.
Billy Bean: So the interesting part of my job is that I get a lot of correspondence for a wide range of topics that are mostly off the field. What was unique about the outreach from Link 20 was that I had been thinking about this for a long time. And baseball is under a lot of scrutiny for changes to game tempo, roster size … the reason a list like this is important is because these players are putting themselves out there as 100% every night, and when injuries happen you need to replace that player, so the team has enough people to play a game.
Billy Bean: And this is real life, it’s work, and it’s a job. So, the list that exemplified those who are unable to perform has always been a very important list, and so it’s referred to all the time. If we would’ve named it something else 50 years ago it would’ve been fine with the people, so it was just more of comfort, as opposed to an indictment against a certain segment of our community.
Billy Bean: And I think that baseball is expert at making the sport of baseball available to our fans, we are always trying to be better. And so, expecting these kinds of changes, as you mentioned they do take time. I am fortunate enough to be able to make suggestions at times to Commissioner Manfred on things that are happening in the world.
Billy Bean: What was interesting is that letter was written to both of us. And I think that that timing was fortuitous, because we had sort of conditioned ourselves for this desire to improve, there was no resistance, it was just timing. And part of that timing has to do with us being in good negotiation space with the players union. To me, of the five-and-a-half years I’ve been back in baseball this has been one of the most gratifying moments, because I felt like everybody was thinking clearly, and without bias. It was really about the work that we had done prior, and the logic, and the timeliness of the making a change that should’ve been made a long time ago.
Billy Bean: And it’s interesting how some people thought that we were being too progressive, and “why can’t you just leave things the way they are?” And those are hard, that’s hard for me to understand, and people don’t want to always try to get better.
Jay Ruderman: You obviously are in a very senior position, where your voice is heard, and this is a value that’s taken very seriously by Major League Baseball. So, I have to commend you and also the league for acting very quickly on this. But getting back to what you said before, because the DL has been around for so long, what type of negative feedback were you getting?
Billy Bean: I think it’s more about people being afraid of where we’re going to take the sport, if we start changing things that they’re just accustomed to, and not the actual understanding that we were under serving a segment of our community and our population, and it was time to change and stop doing that. And I appreciate the acknowledgement this commissioner has given me and many other people around him, an opportunity to share our opinion. And make no mistake, we better come armed with information, but I felt that I made an argument that was clear and understood by the work that we’ve been doing. We earned this moment by other work that we had been doing.
Billy Bean: Just the reminder of how important baseball is to people, it’s very humbling. I have a huge responsibility to the people that follow our sport. We have a chance to influence in a way that makes people feel better about themselves or might help them pick up a phone before they harm themselves. I can’t think of anything more important.
Billy Bean: You know last year the New York Yankees, on an off day, responded to a young girl that posted something about being bullied on Facebook, they did a beautiful little video in response to it. It provides hope.
Jay Ruderman: Well I really think that you have a very exciting position, at a time when things are changing very rapidly in our society. Yet we live in a time when, you mentioned mental health, and more and more players are talking about mental health, the stress to perform, not only on the field or on the stage, but with so many people providing instant feedback on social media, and criticism, has to be so difficult for a young player in their 20s or early 30s. And I know that the commissioner of the NBA has been very supportive of his players. I see this as an issue that probably will continue to grow, that players will need support.
Billy Bean: The Mental Health Initiative that we are working on right now is going to be included in all of our education outreach, just to, at the very onset, make sure every player knows what resources are there. And it’s up to our leaders in our operations department, the general managers and the assistant general managers, directors of player personnel, to communicate and socialize that it’s not an indictment.
Billy Bean: I remember, when you’re not sure you’re going to be in the starting lineup, you start to play out all these scenarios, and you create … it’s very stressful, because you want to succeed. You’re right there, and the way the players are analyzed now, with the degree of it, the scale has grown so much, there’s no other destination to go but to start to doubt or have uncertainty in your mind.
Billy Bean: So we need to, at the very least, talk about it. Because they want to be perfect too, you know? And every person has perfect in their hand, they can see what it is, and if we don’t measure up you start to create this situation where no one’s going to feel as good as they can be, or feel completely content, or self-assured.
Jay Ruderman: It’s such a pervasive issue in our society. The foundation does an award in my dad’s memory, the Morton Ruderman Award in Inclusion, this year we gave it to Michael Phelps. Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all times, and yet has talked about devastating mental health issues that he’s had to deal with.
Billy Bean: He will influence people to say, “If he’s okay, I’m okay too.” And just that can save a life.
Jay Ruderman: I really want to thank you, Billy, for joining me today. And thank you for the lead that you have played, and the Major League Baseball, towards diversity, and honoring diversity. Thank you for taking this lead on disability inclusion, and I think that you’ve played a central part, and I really want to thank you for that. I think that disability, which was often seen as a segregating issue, is now becoming empowering for a community, and people are proud of their disability and are proud of being part of society. And I think that Major League Baseball, with your leadership, and the Commissioner’s leadership, will continue to help this community become empowered and move forward, and become a very integral part of our society. So, thank you so much for your time today.
Billy Bean: My pleasure, thank you for all the work that you and your foundation do.
Jay Ruderman: Thank you.
Billy Bean: It’s inspiring.
Jay Ruderman: Thank you.
Announcer: All-Inclusive is a production of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Our key mission is the full inclusion of people with disabilities, in all aspects of society. You can find All-Inclusive on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, and Stitcher. To view the show notes, transcripts, or to learn more, go to RudermanFoundation.org/AllInclusive. Have an idea for a podcast? Be sure to tweet @jruderman.