Minor Leaguer Denson joins list of trailblazers
About five months ago, I received a text message from a young man who wrote that he was a player in the Milwaukee Brewers' Minor League system. The message was polite and brief, simply asking if I would be willing to call him back.
When we spoke, it was clear he was a little nervous. He asked me a few questions about my job, made a little small talk about the upcoming season and then he said something I'll never forget. He said, "Billy, we are the same."
Right then, I knew what was happening. I was talking to a baseball player whose dream is to make it to the big leagues, and who also just happens to be gay. David Denson was looking for someone to talk with, someone to trust. Someone who knows what it feels like to keep a secret, but always feel like you're one three-word sentence from being an outsider.
David is 20 years old and in his third season in the Brewers' organization. He's playing in a different era than I did, and that makes me happy. Without his knowing it, he has benefited from the courage of a few but very important athletes/role models who came before him: Dave Kopay, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Jason Collins, Brittney Griner, Robbie Rogers, to name a few.
When I was playing, there were days I thought I was going to pop from the pressure of hiding my secret. It was hard to lie about my life away from the ballpark, especially to my family. David and I had a very long talk on that first call. He had much to say and asked many questions. I told him to call me whenever he was frustrated or wanted to talk. Quickly, the calls and texts became more frequent, and soon we were checking in with each other just about every day.
During a tough stretch early in the season while David was struggling at the plate -- as well as with his decision -- I quietly traveled to Appleton, Wis., where he was playing at the time, for a visit. I wanted him to know he had a friend in his corner. David talked about all the things going on in his life, but mostly, we talked about baseball. Soon after, his positivity returned, along with his enthusiasm and desire to get to the ballpark each day.
It was evident from the start that David was eager to come forward about his sexual orientation. Because of his age, I knew it was my job to share my mistakes and also make sure he took a minute to see things in a practical way. I wanted to prepare him for the possibilities that would come with his disclosure, good and bad. My first question to David was, "Do your parents know?"
David told me that he had come out to them and his sister earlier in the spring. That was a huge relief. I've seen so many LGBT youth who did not have support from their families, and it's always difficult. I spoke with David's father a few times and sensed they are a very close family. He and David's mother only want what is best for their son and his career.
One mistake I made as a player was thinking that if I were to come out, that I had to do it behind a microphone and tell the whole sports world at once. Over the past year, David was wise to share his secret slowly with those closest to him. He was only worried about how "baseball" would react, which is the same issue for every other player who happens to be closeted. And it was David's teammates with Rookie-level Helena that created the moment when he decided to "go for it."
A few weeks ago, one of his teammates was kidding around with him in their clubhouse and made an insensitive remark about gays. David told him that you should watch what you say, "You never know if you're talking to one of them." It was then that David told his team. That night, I got a text message that read, "You'll never guess what I did tonight?" When I called him and he told me, I asked how the team responded, and he said, "They got my back."
In 2015, I believe that uncertainty is the primary reason an athlete who happens to be gay chooses to stay in the closet. It's not the battle we are afraid of -- it's that we might not get the chance to go to battle, so we keep it to ourselves.
David's disclosure was big news last week, and people will now be watching a little closer. Some people will choose to judge him, but he says playing at peace will be worth it. David's journey is just beginning, and just like every other player, there are no guarantees.
Since last Sunday, David has hit a couple of home runs, and he was promoted back to Class A Wisconsin in the Midwest League on Sunday. It's been a big week. I'm proud of David, he's a brave young man. I'm also proud of the Milwaukee Brewers. They provided support and counseling for one of their young players when nobody was looking. I'm filled with gratitude that MLB recognizes the power of acceptance and inclusion. David's powerful image will continue to extinguish old stereotypes, and that helps make the world a safer place for a whole lot of kids. I can't think of many things better than that.