Tyler Dunnington was living the life of a minor league baseball player: shuttling around minor cities on a bus, earning minor paychecks, waiting for a shot at the Majors.
In one big way, however, he was different than most of his teammates.
He was gay.
Dunnington kept his sexuality secret during his 2014 season with the St. Louis Cardinals’ Gulf Coast League. After all, at that time, no professional baseball player had ever publicly come out.
During his time as a high school and college star, Dunnington had endured plenty of homophobia.
But it was one locker room conversation that convinced him to quit the game.
When a Cardinals teammate mentioned his brother was gay, two other players asked him how he could possibly be friends with a gay person, even his brother. The two players then mentioned ways to kill gay people, according to OutSports.
On Wednesday, the website published an email from Dunnington in which he said the homophobia drove him to give up the game he loved.
“I was also one of the unfortunate closeted gay athletes who experienced years of homophobia in the sport I loved,” Dunnington wrote. “I was able to take most of it with a grain of salt but towards the end of my career I could tell it was affecting my relationships with people, my performance, and my overall happiness.
“I experienced both coaches and players make remarks on killing gay people during my time in baseball, and each comment felt like a knife to my heart,” Dunnington continued. “I was miserable in a sport that used to give me life, and ultimately I decided I needed to hang up my cleats for my own sanity.”
The Cardinals said they are taking their former pitcher’s claim that he quit baseball over anti-gay comments “very seriously.”
“This is very disappointing and our hope is that every player, staff member and employee feels that they are treated equally and fairly,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak told ESPN in a statement. “Given the nature of these allegations, I will certainly look into this further.”
The Cardinals have also said they will work with Billy Bean, a former major league player who came out as gay after his playing days were over and now is MLB’s first ambassador for inclusion, on the issue.
During his seven-year career in the Majors, Bean once skipped his partner’s funeral to keep anyone in the San Diego Padres organization from learning that he is gay.
Last August, David Denson, a young player in the Milwaukee Brewers’ farm system, made history by becoming the first openly gay active player on a team affiliated with Major League Baseball.
“Talking with my teammates, they gave me the confidence I needed, coming out to them,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “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.’
“That was a giant relief for me. I never wanted to feel like I was forcing it on them. It just happened. The outcome was amazing. It was nice to know my teammates see me for who I am, not my sexuality.”
Some argue, however, that Glenn Burke, an outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the late 1970s, was actually the first openly gay big leaguer, although MLB did not recognize him as such.
Many in baseball have pointed to Denson’s coming out as a sign that the sport is becoming more accepting.
“I think the time is coming for a team to have an active gay player,’’ Arizona Diamondbacks president Derrick Hall told USA Today last week. “I’m confident there are players playing now that are gay.
“I’m looking forward to that day when we can point to one or many players, and say, there’s an example of our inclusion, openness and acceptance.”
Yet, Dunnington’s experience arguably shows how far the game still has to go.
In his email to OutSports, however, the former minor league pitcher expressed regret for leaving the game — and for not coming out while still playing.
“After a little over a year of being gone from the game I’ve come to realize I thought I was choosing happiness over being miserable. That is not necessarily the case,” he wrote. “My passion still lies in baseball, and removing myself from the game didn’t change that. Most of the greatest memories I have are with this sport. After gaining acceptance from my friends and family I realized I didn’t have to quit baseball to find happiness.”
“I not only wanted to share my story but also apologize for not using the stage I had to help change the game,” he added. “Quitting isn’t the way to handle adversity, and I admire the other athletes acting as trailblazers.”
Dunnington is now hoping to return to baseball by joining a team’s front office.