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Bean-Lovullo bond inspires as game's culture evolves

MLB VP for social responsibility, D-backs skipper friends for 30 years
MLB.com @castrovince

The Major League clubhouse is a room of sweat and sacrifice, of dreams and dedication. A room where players at the peak of their professional powers brace and bond and scheme and shower. Entering this room can be intimidating for an outsider, especially if your mission is to stand in the center, with all eyes fixed upon you, and say to these men the words that were once unthinkable -- or at least unspeakable -- in these confines.

"I'm gay," Billy Bean says in the midst of a more complete sentence. But it's those two words that cause those who didn't know his story to suddenly sit more upright and listen more intently.

The Major League clubhouse is a room of sweat and sacrifice, of dreams and dedication. A room where players at the peak of their professional powers brace and bond and scheme and shower. Entering this room can be intimidating for an outsider, especially if your mission is to stand in the center, with all eyes fixed upon you, and say to these men the words that were once unthinkable -- or at least unspeakable -- in these confines.

"I'm gay," Billy Bean says in the midst of a more complete sentence. But it's those two words that cause those who didn't know his story to suddenly sit more upright and listen more intently.

All these years, all this societal progress, all this personal redemption and progression, and the 53-year-old Bean is still making waves with those words. In his playing days, those words were the secret he could not share with his family, friends and teammates. Those words, that truth, put him on the path to a double life he could not manage, to a career he could not continue, to a period of internal agony and, eventually, to the baseball wilderness.

Yet on this day, in this moment in the Arizona Diamondbacks clubhouse, he can say them with the confidence that he is admired, supported and encouraged by the leader of this group.

That's D-backs manager Torey Lovullo over there, by the clubhouse entrance, and he's known and loved Bean for more than 30 years. There was a time when their friendship was fractured, when Bean was so staunch in his secret, so untrusting and misunderstanding of the bonds he had built, that he willingly walked away from those who thought they knew him best. Lovullo and Bean didn't talk for many years, and that's the dispiriting element of this story, which we'll delve into in just a moment.

The inspiring part, though, is right here, right now, with the 2017 National League Manager of the Year welcoming vice president and special assistant to the Commissioner into his clubhouse for a Spring Training speech about the sport's societal impact and public responsibility. Bean is in the position he is in because open-minded people like Lovullo rightly recognize the importance of the message he can provide in a sport that still has not had an openly gay player at the big league level. But in this friendship, there is a meaningful message, too. Because for the longest time, Bean did not think his bond with Lovullo, forged by a great but traditionally conservative game, could survive his truth.

That it has survived -- and that baseball still has a place for both of them -- shows how far Bean and Lovullo have come, personally and professionally.

It shows how far the game has come, too.

********************

Santa Maria in the summer of 1984 was a place where a California kid could eat, sleep, dream and breathe baseball with no pressures or pretensions. Local college kids with pure love for the game and a need to stay sharp during the college break played on a squad known as the Indians, which had been drawing local residents to downtown's Elks Field since the 1940s.

Bean and Lovullo formally met in the Elks parking lot. They had admired each other's baseball talents from a distance -- Bean a rangy outfielder from Loyola Marymount, Lovullo a power-hitting second baseman from UCLA -- and now they were temporarily teamed up in games that didn't matter but that they both took seriously. 

"You just naturally migrate to people that see things and talk about things the way that you would," Lovullo says. "Our foundations were set up the right way."

Bean, they agree, was the better player at that point, a 20-year-old who could effortlessly barrel balls up at the plate or fluidly chase them down in the field. It was a testament to his talent and tenacity that he was especially adored by Lovullo's grandfather "Poppy," a baseball junkie who was a fixture at Torey's games. But Lovullo, who turned 19 that summer, was on the verge of his own baseball breakthrough with the Bruins, with whom he would become what Bean glowingly calls "the greatest college baseball player who ever lived" (Lovullo was a two-time Pac-10 Player of the Year and UCLA's first consensus All-America selection as a senior).  

After their Santa Maria stint came and went, the two would oppose each other on the college fields and then in the Alaska Summer League in '85. But what neither young man could have imagined was that baseball would bring them together again in the professional ranks when they were both drafted by the Detroit Tigers -- Bean in the fourth round in '86, and Lovullo in the fifth round in '87.

"Anyone who has persevered through Minor League baseball [knows] it's not the friendliest place," Bean says. "The player development process is pretty tough. [Getting drafted by the same team] definitely helped me feel like, 'Wow, one person will be rooting for me if I'm up to bat today.'"

Video: KC@DET: Bean doubles to cap four-hit MLB debut

They would both experience the high of making the Tigers' Opening Day roster together in 1989, and the crushing low of getting shipped back to the farm soon thereafter. They were roommates during their shared time in Toledo in 1989, when a family named the McVickers took them in and treated them like family. And they were like family, like brothers, serving as each other's sounding board through the struggles and the successes and the ceaseless ambition that makes Triple-A such a teasing and trying experience.

Having an ally meant everything at that time.

"We were as close as two friends could possibly be," Lovullo says.

And then baseball, like life, did what it so often does, separating friends at the seams. It was nothing bitter, just a barter. Bean was dealt to the Dodgers in July 1989, and in one last dinner together at the since-shackled Bombay Bicycle Club, with their dream of spending the next decade manning the same lineup in Motown newly wiped away by the transaction wire, they made a pact.

"Whichever one of us becomes a manager first," Bean said, "has to make the other guy his bench coach."

In part because of the secret beginning to gnaw at Bean around that time, it wasn't a promise that would be honored exactly as stated.

But it was one that would survive in spirit, many years and many life changes later.

********************

Lovullo didn't suspect his friend Billy was gay.

"Never once," he says. "Never once. We were 18 to probably 26- or 27-year-olds that were doing normal things, having normal lives. Baseball, married. I never sensed it."

Nobody did.

Bean was the product of a strict Catholic household with a Marine Corps stepfather. He was the wholesome, good-looking, All-America outfielder who inspired a playful near-rhyme out of Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda whenever he was in shouting distance.

"Billy Bean, Billy Bean!" Lasorda would call out. "The boy of every girl's dream!"

Inside, Bean was only beginning to recognize a sexual identity that ran afoul of his idyllic image. He was engaged to his college sweetheart, a beautiful woman named Anna. That winter, they would marry in Loyola's chapel on the bluffs of Marina Del Ray, surrounded by supportive friends and family, including a groomsman named Torey Lovullo. 

By that point, Bean had already begun to stealthily indulge his curiosities on the road. Like the time he harmlessly had a cab driver drive him through San Francisco's Castro District just so he could get a feel for one of the country's most prominent gay communities. Over time, while Bean was trying to solidify himself as a big league regular, this exploration became more significant but no less secretive. He didn't want to wreck his marriage, he didn't want to disappoint his family, and he didn't want to kill his career. "I was hiding what, to me, felt like the absolute worst secret any baseball player could hide," Bean says. 

Hiding that secret from even his staunchest allies created complication. By his 1993 season with the Padres, Bean had left his wife and fallen in love with a man named Sam. They shared a condo 20 miles away from Jack Murphy Stadium, so as to avoid the detection of other Padres players. But when Bean hit his first big league home run on July 15, 1993, teammates Trevor Hoffman and Brad Ausmus showed up at his place with celebratory beers. Bean had to frantically push his partner out a separate exit to the garage. Sam hid there alone for several hours while a distracted Bean hosted his unexpected guests.

"That day sucked, man," Bean says now.

The darkest days came when Sam became ill with complications from HIV just before Opening Day in 1995. Bean was by Sam's side in the hospital the night he died and will have to live the rest of his life with the agonizing memory of the 24 hours that followed. That very day, the Padres sent him down to Triple-A after their final exhibition game. He reported to duty in Las Vegas and missed his partner's funeral, all because he still couldn't bear to reveal his secret to the team.

Some time later, after Bean had met and fallen in love with another man, these were the indignities and the realities of MLB's clubhouse culture that would compel him to give up the game he loved … for love.

"It seemed like the only decision I could make was to back away from everybody," says Bean, who stepped away from baseball following the 1995 season. "I was so uncomfortable and so full of shame, and there was not a positive role model anywhere."

"Billy Bean, Billy Bean, the boy of every girl's dream"? That was a lie Bean could no longer live, even if walking away meant distancing himself from close baseball friends like Lovullo.

*****************

Lovullo would get the news about Billy Bean the same way so many others did -- on the news.

In 1999, more than three years after Bean had quietly quit baseball to settle in Miami with a restauranteur named Efraìn Veiga, Bean finally publicly outed himself in a Miami Herald article about a restaurant the two were launching. Bean had no idea the story of the "gay ballplayer" would attract as much attention as it did, with outlets like the New York Times and ABC News' "20/20" clamoring to follow up with him.

"I was mad at myself for not picking up on that or empathizing," Lovullo says. "I walked through my own progression of guilt."

The way the reveal was handled inspired frustration of a different sort.

"It didn't make me feel very good that I had to watch whatever show it was," Lovullo says. "That was the part of it that went sideways for me for a couple days."

Bean adds it to the long list of things he wishes he had done differently.

"Some people in my own family found out about it on television," he says, "which was not an easy conversation with them, either."

Forgiveness, though, is an integral ingredient for a lasting friendship. And while Bean's restaurant and the relationship with Veiga did not last, stripping away the secret and reintegrating himself in the lives of those he had deserted has created a more permanent peace in his life. 

The real repair of his relationship with Lovullo came in 2005. By that point, the two had talked on the phone but not seen each other in north of a decade. Lovullo knew how fond his now 98-year-old grandfather had been of Bean, so he called around the holidays to tell Billy that Poppy was not doing well.

"If you're heading out this way," Lovullo said, "I have something special I want to do."

Bean remembered Poppy's indefatigable and infectious love of the game and constant support of Lovullo and his teammates. What a joy it was to know a man like that, a man whose optimism lifted you up in those moments when the game was intent on beating you down. And what a privilege it would be to pay your last respects to such a man in person.

"I'll be there," Bean responded.

Age and illness had blinded Poppy, who was laid up in a retirement home. But when Bean entered the room and began talking to Lovullo, Poppy instantly recognized his voice.

"Billy," he called out. "I love you, Billy. I've missed you."

*********************

Love has us here, in this dimly lit room where Bean gives his speech to an attentive audience of D-backs players.

It was Bean's love of the game that compelled him to come back to baseball, albeit in a remarkably different role than the one he once played on the field. Bean was hired as MLB's first ambassador for inclusion in 2014, in part to be a source of support so that nobody in baseball would have to suffer as quietly as he once did. His role has since expanded to a broad spectrum of social issues, including the league's anti-bullying efforts.

Video: Billy Bean sits down with Brian Kenny to discuss role

And it was Lovullo's love of Bean that helped ease his friend's reconciliation with the sport. It was admittedly unnerving for Bean, in that first year, to travel from club to club, wielding his life story via video, and giving a talk about inclusion. But it meant so much to him when he met with the Red Sox and Lovullo, who was then Boston's bench coach, stood up and spoke up on his behalf. 

Lovullo did it again on this day, imploring his players to pay heed to Bean's message. But neither man can go back to a time when Bean needed an advocate most and was too afraid to ask for one.

"The environment we grew up in was kind of tragic and sad," Lovullo says. "You'd hear things, and you'd know it was wrong but you didn't want to say anything because you were going to rock the boat. Where I was in my career, I could never, ever say anything, and I probably didn't have the courage to speak up."

Bean has an unmeasurable but honorable goal of inspiring today's players to, at the very least, engage in more considered conversation with the hope of creating a more enlightened clubhouse culture than the one he once played in.

"Nowadays, there's so much more information," Bean says. "Self-identification happens a lot earlier, and open-hearted families and parents teach their children about everything in the world. It allows for an earlier evolution. I was living in a very stone-age space."

Today you'll occasionally find players wearing a T-shirt advocating "Equality" in the clubhouse. You'll find pride nights at many Major League parks. Rob Manfred has made diversity, in all its forms, an emphasis in his commissionership.

Video: Billy Bean discusses June Pride Nights on MLB Central

Even so, as recently as a few years ago, when Lovullo was viewed by many in the industry as a manager-in-waiting, Bean worried that their friendship might somehow adversely affect Lovullo's chances of getting a gig. Granted, that was probably a nonsensical concern. MLB's embrace of Bean in his current role (he has met with all 30 clubs at one point or another in the last four years) is evidence of the acceptance he's earned. But it does bring up an interesting question: How would the baseball world have reacted if Lovullo, when hired by the D-backs prior to the 2017 season, had kept the covenant made at that long-ago farewell dinner in Toledo and named Bean the game's first openly gay coach?

Because Bean walked away as long as he did, that arrangement never proved possible. So the vow evolved. Lovullo was in the running for multiple managerial openings over the years. And when his interviews would end in disappointment, Bean would reach out and tell him, "Hey, remember, I'm going to be there for your first game." 

"It made me come out of a funk when I would not get the job," Lovullo says.

When Lovullo's time finally came and Opening Day arrived at Chase Field last April, there was Bean, as promised, in the front row behind the D-backs' dugout, the next-best thing to being with Lovullo on the bench. That the D-backs were walk-off winners that day -- the first spark in a successful 2017 season in which they won the National League Wild Card Game and Lovullo won NL Manager of the Year -- was, in Bean's mind, a matter of "Lovullo magic." But the outcome of that game was only one small part of what made that day special.

Video: Must C Clutch: D-backs rally for the win in the 9th

"When he saw me behind the dugout, it was 30 years coming back," says Bean, who you can see behind the dugout in the above clip. "That's one of the most important moments that I'll ever have. Because I honored a relationship in a way that I did not a lot before."

Here in the clubhouse, on this mid-March day, the relationship has come full circle. It's a long way, physically and metaphorically, from Santa Maria, but Lovullo and Bean are teammates again, in a sense, because Bean's invitation to speak to Lovullo's club is an effort by both men to improve the game, to create a better clubhouse culture -- one in which, hopefully, a player will one day feel comfortable coming out without fear of isolation and insults. The kind of culture Billy Bean never knew as a ballplayer.

"I can't imagine what he was going through on a daily basis," Lovullo says. "It makes me sad to think about. But I know he knows that I wish I could have supported him differently."

He's supporting him here, now, in this room where Bean no longer feels unwelcome as a gay man. This room where that support can change a life. 

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcasts and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.