Tiny Baseball League Makes History with First Openly Gay Pro

Baseball history was made in Northern California wine country Thursday night when the sport's first openly gay active professional started the game as a pitcher.

Sean Conroy, 23, took the mound for the Sonoma Stompers, a 22-man team that is part of the independent Pacific Association of Baseball Clubs.

The atmosphere at the ballpark was low-key, with no obvious signs it was a historic night or even a gay-pride-themed game except for the rainbow-striped socks and arm warmers some players - but not Conroy - wore.

When starting Lineup was announced, Conroy got the loudest cheer. He walked his first batter and struck out his second.

The Stompers recruited the upstate New York native out of college in May. General Manager Theo Fightmaster says Conroy privately shared his sexual orientation with teammates and management before agreeing to come out publicly in time for the team's home field gay pride night.

"The first conversation I had with Sean was, 'I want you to know this organization supports you, we respect who you are," Fightmaster said.

"His goal has always been to be the first openly gay baseball player, so he was very much in favor of telling the story, of carrying that torch," Fightmaster said.

Nancy Dito, 67, attended the game with 25 friends from a local group for LGBT seniors and was picked to throw out a first pitch. Dito played varsity sports in high school and was a 1972 Olympic hopeful in women's basketball, but the sport did not end up being part of the Games that year.

"It's great they cheered for him," Dito said of the warm reception for Conroy. "I think it's courageous and wonderful he's doing this."

Major League Baseball historian John Thorn confirmed that Conroy is the first active professional to come out as gay. Glenn Burke, an outfielder for the A's and Dodgers, and Billy Bean, a utility player with the Tigers, Dodgers and Padres, came out after they retired.

"Of course that over the years there have been rumors of this Major League player or that one being gay, but that's just idle chatter and counts for nothing," Thorn said. "In terms of an openly gay player as (the) pitcher in your neck of the woods, we haven't had one yet."

Conroy, a right-hander who has earned four saves and allowed only two hits in the seven innings he has pitched so far as a closer for the 15-3 Stompers, said he had been open with his high school, summer league and college teams and told his family he was gay at age 16. It would have been strange not to do the same once he moved across the country and started making friends on the team in Sonoma, he said.

"People would talk about their girlfriends and who they were going out to see that night. Instead of getting the different looks or questions when I didn't join them, I'd rather tell you the truth and let you know who I am and have real conversations instead of the fake ones," Conroy said.

As far as coming out publicly, Conroy said he regards it as a way to help his team and to set an example for other players.

"It's not that I wanted it to go public, but I didn't care if it was open information. It's who I am," he said. "I am definitely surprised that no one else has been openly gay in baseball yet."

Bean, who serves as Major League Baseball's ambassador of inclusion, called Conroy a pioneer.

"It will be a great day for the LGBT community. I hope he pitches well and gets another opportunity to start another game," Bean said. "It doesn't matter if he pitches in the big leagues or not, he's going to become a leader (tonight) in many ways."

Conroy's history-making start comes at a watershed moment for gay rights, with the U.S. Supreme Court scheduled to rule any day now on whether to make same-sex marriage legal across the nation.

The Stompers did not plan to make a special announcement or call attention to the milestone so Conroy can focus on his pitching, Fightmaster said.

"As a small independent team we do try to find ways to be relevant, and this is certainly in that category. But I think the Giants would do the exact same thing if they were in this situation," he said.

The life of a Stomper is certainly a far cry from the majors. Players live with host families during the June-to-August season, earn $650 a month on average and supply their own cleats, batting gloves and elbow guards. Arnold Field, their home turf, seats 370 people.

Conroy hoped to catch the eye of a big league scout but hasn't focused on much beyond this season.

"I'm just looking to play well and do as well as I can wherever they put me," he said.

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