About as far away from the glittering ballparks of the Major Leagues as you can get, the Sonoma Stompers are playing host to baseball history this season. The Stompers, who play in the independent Pacific Association of Baseball Clubs, play their home games at Arnold Field in Sonoma, California. In the heart of wine country, about 50 miles north of San Francisco, a city that’s celebrating history of another kind today, the Stompers are playing this season with baseball’s first openly gay professional player.
Sean Conroy, who is 23 and in his first season with the Stompers, publicly came out ahead of his first start, a 7-0 shutout win on Pride Night. Conroy, who made teammates and management aware of his sexual orientation prior to the start of the season, has already recorded four saves for the Stompers on the season. His start marked the first time an openly gay player took the field at any level of professional baseball.
While Conroy’s teammates sported rainbow socks and armbands, Conroy did not. He preferred to let his pitching do the talking, and with 11 strikeouts over nine innings, talk it did. Conroy has been open about his sexuality since the age of 16, and did not view his public acknowledgement of it as something to be fussed over. “It’s not that I wanted it to go public, but I didn’t care if it was open information. It’s who I am,” he said. “I am definitely surprised that no one else has been openly gay in baseball yet.”
There has not yet been an openly gay player at the Major League level, although both Glenn Burke and Bill Bean have come out post-career. Baseball historian John Thorn confirmed, “Of course, that over the years, there have been rumors of this Major League player or that one being gay, but that’s just idle chatter and counts for nothing,” Thorn said. “In terms of an openly gay player, we haven’t had one yet.”
Unlike other professional athletes who have come out, Jason Collins and Michael Sam come to mind, Conroy does not appear concerned about being a pioneer. That should not overshadow the fact that he is doing something very courageous and praiseworthy. He just wants to be himself and move on with the season. I do think it’s quite telling that he chose not to wear rainbow socks or armbands. Perhaps that has something to do with the relative obscurity in which he plays. By the end of the year, most of us will have forgotten that Conroy exists, and unlike Collins and Sam, book deals, analyst gigs, and Dancing With The Stars appearances do not appear likely to follow. If he sniffs a Major League roster, it will be a miracle.
Our country is progressing in the right direction in terms of acceptance and compassion towards those who choose to love whomever they may want (evidenced, in part, by this morning’s Supreme Court decision). For Sean Conroy, being open about his life is nothing new. For a few more years, doing so will earn him the title “pioneer,” and it is a fair title to be given for a player who has done something no one else has dared to do, no matter how far removed from fame he may be. For the sake of our country, and the sake of humanity in this country, however, my only hope is that one day, such a move will not be seen as ground-breaking, or even shocking. Every single person deserves the right to feel comfortable in their own skin, as Conroy obviously does. Progress is being made toward creating a more accepting environment and atmosphere in sports, but until an athlete going against the grain is labeled a “starting pitcher” instead of a “pioneer,” there is still work to be done. Sean Conroy gets that, and for that, I commend him.