My first few weeks at MLB have been fascinating. Getting reacquainted with the sport I love from the business side was like an all-you-can-eat buffet of your favorite foods.
In my mind, my responsibility as MLB's ambassador for inclusion is two-fold. First, I must help emphasize our Workplace Code of Conduct mandating MLB's non-discrimination policy, as well as a fair and equitable environment for all stakeholders in our sport.
On the field, I need the players to see that our inclusive messaging and education will simply expand their opportunities to become true role models, and that it will provide them with information that will only make them better off the field. After playing for 10 years, I know as well as anyone that big leaguers love their pregame routines, and I will make sure that our outreach will happen on their timeline with respect for the daily pressure and demands of their job.
Secondly, at the club level, I want to assist each big league team with an inclusive community outreach program. I knew my first project needed to succeed to get momentum for my work ahead of me. I had a great idea, and I reached out to one of my dearest friends for help.
When the story about me being a closeted Major Leaguer first broke in September 1999, I found myself on the front page of The New York Times Sunday edition. After carrying that secret for so long, I can't describe how frightening it felt to be "out" to so many, so quickly.
One of those readers was a woman named Bari Mattes. At the time, she was executive board chair of an inner-city program called the Hetrick-Martin Institute. It was comprised entirely of LGBT youth, largely rejected by their families, homeless, with nowhere to go. I didn't know any of this at the time. All I knew was that within days of my story, Bari was calling me nonstop asking me to come speak at HMI's annual fundraiser. She offered nothing, only a promise that it would change my life.
At the time, I was getting calls from many people. The LGBT community was eager for strong role models who could inspire and help create change, but I didn't understand that yet.
To me, all of this felt uncomfortable. In my mind, I was still Billy, a baseball player. But now I had a title, "The Gay Baseball Player," and I was becoming very self-conscious. After much lobbying by all the top TV news personalities, I ultimately chose to do a nationally televised story with Diane Sawyer. She was so generous, patient and professional. I had no idea the power of television, or how quickly the story would spread. After the story aired, I thought I had shared enough, and I would simply go back to my quiet life in Miami Beach.
The TV exposure did exactly the opposite of what I thought would happen. It created more interest. My phone kept ringing, and it seemed every third call was from Bari, who was persistent in a New York kind of way. I finally said "yes" with no exact idea what I had agreed to do.
I arrived in New York City, and I finally met the blonde woman with sparkling blue eyes who had only been a voice on the phone. She was kind, generous and gracious; however, she was more determined than Derek Jeter during a pennant race. We took a taxi downtown. I followed her through a glass door entrance of a classic NYC building and into an elevator up to the eighth floor. What happened then absolutely did change my life.
After greeting the students as a group, I sat down and, one by one, I met all of them. I listened, but was distracted by their smiles and heartbreaking paths into this inner-city classroom. They were mostly young faces of color, all of them managing different realities across the LGBT spectrum, but I could sense they felt safe and fully accepted at HMI.
They shared many things. Most of it was hard to hear. Some just wanted to share their love for the Yankees or Mets, or just wanted to hold my hand or give a hug. From one moment to the next, I fought back tears, trying my best to be strong for them. Inside, I felt deeply ashamed at my feelings of inconvenience just days earlier. The past few years had been tough on me. It led me away from baseball, but my struggles were of no comparison to what these kids were dealing with. (My parents always loved me, and I always had a home to go to at night.)
These kids had real problems, hiding scars that never heal, somehow finding the strength to persevere. Instantly, they became my heroes. This wasn't a burden, I wanted to help each of them. I tried to remember as many names as I could, but I was frustrated when we left.
Two of my supervisors in my new role are Paul Mifsud, who is deputy general counsel for labor, and Wendy Lewis, who runs the entire Diversity and Strategic Alliances division. When I asked Paul if I could reach out to the Yankees for my first community outreach event, he was all for it. He had never heard of Hetrick-Martin, but he showed faith in me, and he directed me to one of his closest friends in baseball -- Jean Afterman, who is the Yankees' assistant general manager and is currently the highest-ranking female executive at the club level in MLB.
As I sat in Paul's office, he picked up the phone, called Jean, and handed it to me. I told her I wanted to bring a couple Yankees players to an inner-city school, to speak to their students. She reminded me that off-site visits and midseason commitments are not easy to create, especially on 10 days' notice, so I took the next best thing: GM Brian Cashman.
I immediately began thinking of how I could introduce a connection between Cashman and the students at HMI. I dug into Brian's professional history and read that he was an intern with the Yankees beginning in 1986. Bingo! He could talk to the kids about how you have to start somewhere to build your way to the top, and encourage them to pursue opportunities with MLB and its clubs. If the kids heard it directly from the Yankees' general manager, then I knew it would empower them in a way that could change their lives forever. After my visits over the past 15 years to HMI, I knew that this would work.
We set a date. And after some coordination with Thomas Krever, who is the executive director at HMI, we were all set. As luck would have it, the day I scheduled, last Thursday, fell on the same day as the announcement of the selection of MLB Commissioner-elect Rob Manfred. Because of this monumental day, I was certain that Wendy Lewis and Paul would not be able to join me at HMI, but ironically, it was one of the quieter days at the Commissioner's Office, so I got lucky. We drove over together. Neither of them had ever heard of the school -- same for Jean and Brian. This one was all on me.
As Thomas gave us a tour of HMI -- which offers a wide array of services to LGBTQ youth, including after-school programs, counseling, job/career services -- Bari and I and kept looking at each other proudly, both knowing that something special was taking place.
After the tour, we huddled in the small kitchen that provides 12,000 free meals a year. The Yankees GM was asking questions and learning of the direct connection to his own personal philanthropic work. We were just 10 feet away from a classroom full of anxious and excited students wearing brand-new Yankees caps. Watching their faces light up when Brian, Jean and I walked in was so rewarding.
Within minutes, we were one group with no differences, just the common bond of a city, a baseball team and some real options to make a better life for themselves. The moment was not lost on me. The generosity of the Yankees -- reaching out to their community and believing in the same kids whose own families gave up on them.
On this day, the Yankees and MLB were saving lives. All it takes is a little effort to see the goodness in people. These kids only hope to be treated equally -- no special favors, just a fair chance to be part of the team. As far as I'm concerned, the Yankees stepped up to the plate and helped make my first event as ambassador for inclusion an enormous success.
Billy Bean is the ambassador for inclusion for Major League Baseball. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.