The news about Missouri defensive end Michael Sam coming out in the runup to the NFL combine is the rare football story that catches my interest. And while normally it would just be my interest, I was asked on the Erik Kuselias radio show this morning how I thought such a story would play in a baseball context. I hadn’t given it any thought until the moment I was asked, but a few minutes later I’m still fairly satisfied with my gut response.
That response: I feel like baseball would handle it pretty well. I’m not naive enough to think that no one would say something dumb or awkward, but I feel like it would be far more likely to come out of simple clumsiness than animus. The reason? Jackie Robinson, mostly.
While every sport has its integration story, none is more widely known than baseball’s. Much to baseball’s credit, every player has Jackie Robinson’s history and example drilled into them. Part of that history is Phillies’ manager Ben Chapman’s (and other bigots) role in it. I think most players and coaches are well aware of what it looks like to be on the wrong side of history. I’m not saying that example would instantly change everyone’s mind and heart — there are bigots everywhere — but I feel like most people in baseball would think a lot about what they said if, for no other reason, than no one wants to be Ben Chapman in baseball’s next civil rights story.
Another reason I think baseball would do OK if the Michael Sam story were repeated here is that, unlike in the NFL, players grow into the game over time rather than show up as preexisting stars via their college exploits. There aren’t many baseball players in Michael Sam’s position — not yet in the game but famous enough to command media attention — because most amateurs are unknowns. A baseball player at the same level of Sam’s fame would have already been considered a top prospect and would be an integral part of his team’s future. No one would ask about whether he would be a distraction or whether a team would be willing to take a chance on him. He’d have already played in the futures game and a couple levels of the minors and fans would have already spent two or three years agitating for him to get a shot on the big league roster over that veteran they’re tired of seeing. Those uncomfortable threshold questions like the ones being asked about Sam this morning — who will take a chance on him? — would be moot.
Alternatively, a player could come out when he’s in high school or college. This may lead to the same sorts of “who will take a chance on him” questions, but the leverage and attention paid to a baseball draftee is so much less than in football. Each year he leveled up — to double-A, Triple-A, etc. — there would be some interest or stories in him, but it wouldn’t be a big media explosion like I suspect the Sam stuff will be over the next couple of weeks. The big league media would see how the smaller-scale media had been handling it for a couple of years and those obviously dumb initial questions and reactions will have been played out, leading to, one hopes, a more thoughtful consideration of the player.
As with any trailblazing event, there would be interest and curiosity and ignorance and some unfortunate incidents here or there. But I feel like baseball’s far less intense scrutiny of young players in general combined with the Jackie Robinson model would make a baseball player coming out less of a thing than some might suspect it would be. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s my initial thought.