Do you still keep in touch with your former teammates from your Major League baseball days?
When I was playing baseball in the Major Leagues, one of the things I was most afraid of was how my friendships would change—or whether they would end entirely—if my buddies found out I was gay. This concrern definitely pushed me deeper into the closet—so deep, in fact, that there was a time when I was sure I would never come out. One of the hardest things for many people to understand about me is that I had no contact with the gay community as a young man, during my playing days, and even into my 30s. It wasn't as if I was living in the closet and hanging out with a bunch of gay friends who would have shown me that life does indeed go on for an openly gay man. I had to grow into confidence about my sexuality. That is nobody's fault but my own, but nevertheless, it was my reality at the time.
Looking back, I realize how influential it would have been for me to have had a friend or two who could have shared their life experiences with me. I was so consumed with the public's reaction that it didn't dawn on me to allow one or two people inside of my tiny world and let them shed some light on my life. Not only would it have helped me as a person, but I am sure it would have helped me as a player too.
It wasn't until my college roommate and one of the best friends I'll ever have, Tim Layana, passed away in a car accident that I realized how senseless it was for me to distance myself from all of my baseball friends. I had kept a distance between me and the people that were important to me in order to keep my secret. I lost so much time with these people because I was afraid of how they would react if they found out I was gay. I will always regret not spending more time with Tim during the last years of his life. We were like brothers, and losing him made me realize that life is too short to hide behind your truths.
When I came out of the closet, I was overwhelmed by how, one by one, my closest friends in baseball contacted me to see how I was, and to tell me that they were proud of me for finally coming to terms with myself. I actually learned a lesson from the straight athletic world of baseball about the true value of friendship. There were a few players I didn't know well—and who'd never played on the same team with me— who were quoted as saying, "I'd never want to play with a gay person on my team." There was nothing I could do about that. But the response from my close friends made me realize I could have told them, and they probably would have been able to help me deal with my self-imposed isolation.
While many athletes develop a close bond while playing on the same team, it is easy to drift apart when you move around to other teams (which happens all the time). Even with all the travel during my 10 years in pro baseball, I have remained very close to four or five of my buddies from my playing days, and I am very grateful for that. The lesson here is: Never underestimate your friends. They are among life's most precious gifts. Friendship, however, is a two-way street, and it wasn't until I let my friends get close to the real me, that these friendships continued to prosper and grow.
Keep swinging! Billy Bean