CLEARWATER, Fla. - An old outfielder shagged some fly balls with the Phillies on Tuesday morning, just for the sake of starting some conversations. Billy Bean grew up in Southern California, and on his right hand he wore a blue-and-gold glove with a UCLA logo as he moseyed through the outfield during batting practice at Bright House Field, chatting with players. They asked him how many years he spent in the majors, what his best season was. They did not ask him about his being gay.
"We were talking about baseball," he said, "and that's what we should be talking about."
There is an Italian proverb that says, "The perfect is the enemy of the good." Bean has made that aphorism the mission of his job as Major League Baseball's Ambassador for Inclusion since former commissioner Bud Selig created the position and appointed him to it in July.
He spoke to the Phillies and their minor-league players Tuesday morning - one of 14 visits that Bean will make to teams this month at their requests. In fact, team president Pat Gillick and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. were the first representatives of any team to invite him to speak. Bean and Amaro have been friends through their college years and their minor- and major-league careers, "and I'm really grateful," Bean said, "that they trusted my personality and what I'm trying to do."
What Bean is not trying to do, he said, is preach. He comes to each team with what he called "a complete message of acceptance," and already he's had a player put the sincerity of that message to a very public test. Last week, Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy told NJ.com, "I disagree with the fact that Billy is a homosexual. That doesn't mean I can't still invest in him and get to know him. I don't think the fact that someone is a homosexual should completely shut the door on investing in them in a relational aspect, getting to know him. That, I would say, you can still accept them, but I do disagree with the lifestyle, 100 percent."
It would have been easy enough for Bean to cudgel Murphy with moral superiority, to call him intolerant and condemn him as a homophobe. Instead, Bean wrote a column for MLB.com in which he praised Murphy's honesty and openness and acknowledged that Murphy was trying to reconcile his Christian beliefs with "his interpretation of the word 'lifestyle.' "
"I want every player to know that I respect however they feel because I felt that way most of my life," said Bean, 50, who came out in 1999. "It took me 34 years to accept the way I was born, and the greatest fear of my life was across the dinner table with my parents. So I sympathize 100 percent, and I think it would be hypocritical of me to expect people to accept me without getting to know me.
"So I'm willing to walk into that room and be the person that all eyes are on for a minute and hope that maybe after 10 minutes, 15 minutes, people might say, 'Hey, we might have baseball in common, and maybe it's the start of a conversation.' Maybe it's not, but not everybody is the same, and I don't think I've ever seen anyone vote 100 percent on anything in this life. I can't be everybody's best friend. But I can be an ambassador for our sport."
Bean's reaction was as gracious as it was intelligent and eloquent. It was a recognition that it's less realistic, and less important, for Bean to change what's in a ballplayer's heart and mind than it is to change, or at least make him think about, his behavior. Bean's goal is to persuade, and he'll get nowhere if those who don't share his beliefs or views fear a backlash even if they're making a good-faith effort to listen to Bean, understand him, and treat him and other gay people as they would treat anyone else.
It is possible, after all, to have a healthy blindness toward a person's race, gender, or sexual orientation. That's what we're supposed to be striving for as a society, isn't it?
"If he's a good player, I'll look at that more than anything else," pitcher Jerome Williams said. "He's helping us win ball games, so who cares who he's going out with? And if he does come out, we'll support him. That's what a good teammate does."
It's what a decent human being does, or ought to do. You introduce yourself. You shake hands. You listen. You remember what really matters. Billy Bean spent six years in the major leagues. He hit .260 with five home runs in 88 games for the San Diego Padres in 1993. A few Phillies learned these things Tuesday. Le meglio è l'inimico del bene.