Maybe baseball’s biggest problem can’t be solved with a pitch clock. Maybe it can’t be solved with a richer tier on the luxury tax. Maybe it can’t be solved with automatic intentional walks or PitchCom or the universal DH or replay challenges or limited mound visits. And maybe that’s because baseball’s biggest problem isn’t pace of play or competitive balance or sign stealing.
Maybe baseball’s biggest problem is a workforce littered with homophobes who feel empowered to flout organizational efforts to make the sport a more inclusive place for historically marginalized groups. And maybe that isn’t the best way to court a generation of young fans who generally want to bring those groups in from the margins of sports and civilized society, fans MLB has already been hemorrhaging for all the aforementioned reasons.
The Tampa Bay Rays made their best efforts to signal to LGBTQ+ fans that Tropicana Field was a safe space for them (if not necessarily the most desirable place to watch a baseball game for any fan) by hosting their 16th annual Pride Night on Saturday. But a cohort of pitchers led by Jason Adam, a journeyman reliever with a 3.82 career ERA over 103 appearances, did its best to signal to LGBTQ+ fans that no, sorry, Tropicana Field was actually not a safe space for them. Adam, representing a group that included relievers Jalen Beeks, Brooks Raley, Jeffrey Springs, Nick Anderson and Ryan Thompson, refused to wear special Pride Night caps and sleeve patches with a rainbow-hued sunburst logo, justifying their protest as a “faith-based decision.”
Adam made sure to hit the same talking points Christian Nationalist forces have preached to turn the Rays’ home state into a pioneer for a new kind of anti-LGBT crusade, explaining that “maybe we don’t want to encourage it if we believe in Jesus, who’s encouraged us to live a lifestyle that would abstain from that behavior, just like (Jesus) encourages me as a heterosexual male to abstain from sex outside of the confines of marriage. It’s no different.” It’s as classic an example of using religious freedom as cover for homophobia as you will hear, and it’s not worth it in 2022 to explain why. So much LGBTQ+ youth does not have the time. “Faith-based” intolerance is intolerance with good PR (or at least competent PR).
While baseball fans are more demographically homogenous than other major American sports leagues, homophobia is not unique to MLB. Hate speech in general is still pervasive across sports. The unique problem in MLB is its tolerance for such behavior, highlighted by Rays manager Kevin Cash’s comments to the media, where he explained that this episode has created “a lot of conversation and valuing the different perspectives inside the clubhouse but really appreciating the community that we’re trying to support here.” Cash provided cover for his other players who refused to wear the rainbow insignias, indicating that their decision was simply a matter of perspective, and that that perspective is valued in their clubhouse. Would his reaction have been the same if they opted out of wearing a uniform with pink trim for breast cancer awareness because their faith warned them against western medicine? I’m not so sure that’s a “different perspective” Cash would deem valuable.
I don’t doubt that Cash would’ve come out with a more forceful admonishment had one of his players used the F-word, or done or said something more heinous on its face. But in this instance he made the decision to protect his players, rather than express any sort of disappointment in their actions and project empathy for a class of people whose protection Pride Night actually serves to further. It was a savvy calculation on Cash’s part because he understood, either consciously or subconsciously, that baseball is still a universe where his players’ actions are forgivable. They just didn’t want to wear a rainbow logo, and what’s so terrible about that? Their religion is their religion and we should respect that too. And hey, the guys were allowed to opt out of wearing the logos in the first place, and of course we all still love and support “the community.”
I can’t tell you how this whole episode sat with a queer Rays fan, as I’m a cishet Mets fan. I imagine some were able to compartmentalize it as a few jerks committing jerkish behavior they’d seen before and will see again — and that’s just the tax they pay as a queer fan in a straight world — while others may be severing their ties with the team and sport altogether. It’s not for me to say definitively whether baseball is in danger of losing large swaths of LGBTQ+ fans (you’ll notice how many “maybes” I used in the lead paragraph). However, as someone who’s worked for teams and seen the effort that goes into staging Pride Nights, I can tell you these initiatives mean a lot to the queer people and allies who plan them, and to the queer fans and allies who buy tickets to enjoy them. There are so many brands that change their social media avatars and call it a day, or worse, change their avatars and donate to politicians with anti-LGBTQ+ agendas. But in my experience, sports is an arena where the rank-and-file genuinely care about creating an inclusive space for the queer community. My first thought upon seeing the Rays’ protest was how much it must have sucked for the Rays employees who had to see their work undercut like that by their own players, to have the news cycle focus on the loud acts of a homophobic few instead of what I’m sure was a great night enjoyed by a celebratory many.
MLB and its teams know they need to shed the sport’s well-earned reputation for conservatism if they want to contend with a cosmically vast platter of entertainment options for Gen Z’s time and attention, not just between the foul lines but beyond them. But its most visible faces and loudest megaphones — the players — will always remain products of their environments. If they continue to believe being gay is wrong, no amount of well-intentioned community initiatives can change that. None of this is about being “woke” for woke’s sake, but about baseball players choosing to either follow their sport into a more inclusive world or allowing it to wither while they cling to an old one.
America’s austere, stolid pastime is already at an existential crossroads. But now there’s this: Baseball players can perform homophobia with impunity. Their managers will apologize for it, scant few players like Kevin Kiermaier will speak out against it, conservative media will hold them up as paragons of religious freedom, and it will all happen again. It’s just a matter of how many fans will be left to witness the performance.