Published August 13, 2010
SAN DIEGO – Let's start with transparency. The analogy comparing black people's fight for equal rights and gay people's makes me uncomfortable.
You can't conceal skin color in a closet or anywhere else. Denying gay people the right to marry doesn't equate to denying black people freedom, the right to vote, equal education, etc.
But I am not a fool. Discrimination is discrimination. Debating degrees of intolerance is pointless and counter-productive.
What happened to Billy Van Raaphorst inside a tiny independent league baseball stadium on July 31 was as despicable as anything Jackie Robinson endured breaking into the majors 60 years ago.
And the story of how Billy Van Raaphorst's childhood dream of becoming a Major League umpire turned into his nightmare companion illustrates how little progress we've made in the super-macho sports world as it relates to tolerance of homosexuals.
On the last day of July, for the second straight game, Van Raaphorst tossed flamboyant Edmonton Capitals manager Brent Bowers in the first inning.
Bowers argued balls and strikes from the dugout on the 30th. A close play at first base set him off on the 31st. On both days, Bowers played to the crowd, rolling up his sleeves and mocking the 6-foot-4, 220-lb Van Raaphorst with a "gun show."
On the 31st, Bowers took things a step further, launching into an anti-gay tirade that would make Mel Gibson blush.
"You know what I heard?" Bowers screamed. "I heard you are a f---ing (expletive). The rumor from several managers and people at the league is that you are a (expletive) ... So what do you do you f---ing (expletive)? Do you take it up the f---ing (expletive), you (expletive)?"
As his verbal meltdown continued, Bowers, a second-round draft pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in 1989, bent over and grabbed his ankles.
"Is that how you like it, you f---ing (expletive)?... I know he's a (expletive),'' Bowers ranted. "I was told by Garry Templeton (a manager in the league) and Kevin Outcalt (commissioner of the league) that he is a f---ing (expletive)."
Van Raaphorst, a former 290-pound center at San Diego State, resisted the urge to defend himself.
"I kept telling myself, 'Don't hit him,'" Van Raaphorst remembered. "I felt trapped. I couldn't do what I wanted to do."
How appropriate. Van Raaphorst, 34, spent much of his early life trapped by his sexual orientation.
The middle son of former Ohio State and San Diego Chargers kicker Dick Van Raaphorst, Billy was born into the stereotypical, All-American family. His oldest brother, Jeff, starred at quarterback for Arizona State, winning the 1987 Rose Bowl MVP. Billy's younger brother, Mike, served as Carson Palmer's backup at USC.
The Van Raaphorst name carried and carries significant weight in Southern California. Billy was not coming out of any closet.
As a kid, he played football and fantasized about calling balls and strikes inside big league ballparks.
He was a good enough player to crack the two-deep and start a few games at San Diego State. He shared a locker room with Kyle Turley, Ephraim Salaam, La'Roi Glover, Az Hakim and several other future pros.
Billy never quite fit in.
"We all kind of assumed there was something different about Billy," Turley said. "Billy was a good dude, a good teammate, a stand-up guy, but he was just a different cat. There was always something a little quirky about him. He was never the macho, alpha male."
Van Raaphorst dislocated his right knee his fourth year at San Diego State, quit the team and immediately pursued his passion for umpiring. He enrolled at the Harry Wendelstedt Umpire School, the Harvard of umpiring. He graduated No. 1 in his class. He joined the minor league system and began the arduous task of earning his way to the majors.
Things sailed along smoothly until he reached double-A ball in 2001. His ranking plummeted to No. 27. The next year he dropped to No. 45 out of 47 umpires and was released from the minors.
He said his dramatic fall coincided with his decision to live as a gay man.
"I knew I was gay pretty much all my life, but I'd never acted on it until 2001," Billy told me on Monday. "I'd suppressed it so hard trying to fit in in college football and minor league baseball. I'd never been to a gay bar until 2001. I'd never had a boyfriend."
He visited a gay bar in early 2001. He started dating a Tulsa man later that year. He began lying to his umpiring crew about his post-game activities and whereabouts instantly.
"I can't prove that they found out, but it's my belief they did," Van Raaphorst said. "I started getting a lot of questions about who I was dating."
He crashed in double A. An umpire isn't on the major league radar until he reaches triple A.
"It's a significant accomplishment and speaks to his talent that he reached the double A level," said Pat Courtney, a spokesman for Major League Baseball. "There are only 68 major league umpires. It's a select group."
Billy wanted to complain and fight his 2002 release.
"There were certain family members and friends who didn't want all of the attention that would've brought," said Van Raaphorst, who is now regarded as a top-flight collegiate umpire. "The worst two decisions of my life were to not come out (as gay) and to end my (Tulsa) relationship because I was scared.
"I don't make decisions out of fear anymore. I try to make fearless decisions now."
Good for Billy. Bad for Brent Bowers.
The Golden Baseball League initially suspended Bowers for two games and fined him $500. The punishment did not satisfy Billy or common sense. Umpires across the GBL rallied in support of Billy and threatened a work stoppage. The league and the Edmonton Capitals forced Bowers to resign.
"I wish I had those 10 minutes back," Bowers said from his home in Chicago. "It was just heat of the moment. I felt like (Van Raaphorst) hurt me and hurt my team, kicking me out of the game two days in a row. It doesn't justify it. It was totally wrong. I apologize. I would apologize to anybody. I've grown up so much in the past week."
The Edmonton Capitals announced they were making all of their employees go through diversity training. They might want to make room for a former employee.
"I didn't care that (Van Raaphorst) was gay," explained Bowers, who has yet to apologize directly to Van Raaphorst. "My mom works with a lot of gay hairdressers and I joke around with those guys all the time. My cousin, she's a lesbian. It doesn't matter to me, as long as people are happy."
Let's end with transparency.
I've been the neanderthal idiot in the locker room. I've been the neanderthal idiot employee suspended and banished to diversity training after a 1998 taunting exchange with New England Patriots fans.
Intolerance is a disease, whether sexual, religious or racial, that we all must fight on a daily basis. The cure is for each of us to realize we're all capable of being just as stupid as Brent Bowers.
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