There are few paths to walk more difficult than being a low level minor league baseball player. You make less than the minimum wage. You are often forced to live with host families who, while probably wonderful people, you may not share anything in common with, and where you always feel uncomfortable. And you only get paid for six months of work.
One thing that can make it orders of magnitude more difficult is having to walk that path while not being open and honest with your friends and comrades about who you are. I'm sure, then, that Milwaukee Brewers prospect David Denson feels tremendously relieved after publicly announcing that he's gay, becoming the first active player in affiliated ball to do so.
Everyone, in the aftermath of Denson's coming out, has said and done the right thing. The Milwaukee organization has been supportive, including his fellow players. Denson told Brewers beat reporter Tom Hardricourt, "Talking with my teammates, they gave me the confidence I needed, coming out to them. They said, ‘You're still our teammate. You're still our brother. We kind of had an idea, but your sexuality has nothing to do with your ability. You're still a ballplayer at the end of the day. We don't treat you any different. We've got your back.'"
Then he worked with the Brewers' minor league administration and former Major Leaguer Billy Bean (one of the first former players in MLB history to acknowledge his homosexuality) to manage his announcement. Brewers Farm Director Neid Nichols told him to "concentrate on developing as a player with the knowledge that the organization was behind him." He stressed that Denson would be judged by the content of his production on the field, and not his sexuality.
Then, soon after, as if to demonstrate that commitment, the Brewers promoted Denson to Wisconsin. Correction: Denson started the year at Wisconsin and struggled, and was demoted back down to Helena in the Pioneer League, where he has played well and was named to the All Star team.
In a press release, lame duck general manager Doug Melvin and the Brewers organization released a very positive statement:
Brewers statement on Minor League player David Denson: pic.twitter.com/lot6Zq4s2L— Milwaukee Brewers (@Brewers) August 16, 2015
Brewers All Star Ryan Braun echoed that:
"I think everybody is supportive. Overall, we realize it's a courageous decision by him, to come out and embrace his true self. I've never met him but I hope baseball as a whole is at a point where we judge people by their ability and not their race, religion, ethnicity or sexuality. I can't speak for everybody on our team but he would be accepted and supported by me. And I would hope all my teammates feel the same way."
By any and all measures, they have worked to make Denson's way as clear as any other prospect in the minors.
That's not to say that his road will be easy, mind you. Denson has occasionallhy struggled as a 20 year old
in the Midwest League since a mid-year promotion, hitting just .195/.264/.305 as a first baseman for the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, though doing much better for the Pioneer League Helena Brewers. Still, he is a 15th round pick with limited defensive value who will have to crush his way to the Majors. So the odds were stacked against him before. Now, hopefully with the pressure of hiding himself from his teammates relieved, he can at least focus on the game.
As for the rest of baseball, this is an important step. As recently as 2012, Torii Hunter argued that a gay teammate could drive a wedge through the clubhouse and that, "for me, as a Christian...it will be difficult and uncomfortable." And Hunter is surely not alone in that belief, given that Baseball's players hue conservative more than any other major professional sports league. Denson will prove that having a gay man in a clubhouse does not, in fact, serve as a distraction, or divide a team, or lead to some kind of chaotic slippery slope. He will continue to be professional and help the next generations of Milwaukee Brewers realize that having a gay teammate isn't, in fact, a big deal.
And in that way, even if he doesn't play a single game in the Majors, David Denson will have had a historic impact on the fabric of the game itself.