Originally Published: USA Today
Scott Gleeson, USA Today Sports
Sean Conroy dreams of playing in the major leagues someday.
However, the right-handed pitcher for the Sonoma Stompers, an independent professional team in Northern California wine country, knows there could be challenges if he ever makes it to the next level.
Conroy became the first openly gay pro baseball player last month when he publicly came out shortly before pitching a shutout victory on the team's gay pride night.
"Wherever I go next, whether that's in the MLB or with another team, I'm going to be nervous," Conroy told USA TODAY Sports. "Every time I've come out to a team, I've been able to feel out the situation first and kind of make sure there were no outliers who would react poorly. Anywhere I go, I'm going to have a reputation as a gay player because I've made national news. I'll have to be more prepared on my first day."
Conroy, 23, came out to his general manager Theo Fightmaster, his coaches and the 22-man roster not long after he arrived at the beginning of the summer after he was recruited by the Stompers from upstate New York.
"It's kind of a respect thing," Conroy said. "I told my teammates I was gay because as we were becoming friends, I didn't want to feel like I was hiding or have to lie when they start to comment on girls. If a teammate tells me about how he met a girl at a bar, I tell him about how I met this guy at a bar. I try to keep it one-to-one as much as possible."
Conroy told his family he was gay at age 16 and was open about his sexual orientation with his teammates in high school, summer league and college at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, an NCAA Division III program in Troy, N.Y.
"The coming out process is an everyday thing when you meet new people," Conroy said. "It's who I am, but when I'm at the field, I'm at the office. First and foremost, I'm a baseball player. ... I'm pretty comfortable in my own skin, but it's a growing process for me every day, trying to be a better person."
Conroy, who considers himself a private person, expected to be a pioneer in some regard, but said the spotlight has been bigger than expected.
"I didn't anticipate it entirely," he said. "I didn't expect it to be a big deal. After I found out from an MLB historian (John Thorn) that I was making history, then it kind of hit me."
Conroy said he's surprised he is the only active gay professional player to come out and said of potential closeted MLB players following his example, "I would guess it takes a certain kind of person to be able to handle having such a private part of your life in the public eye, in addition to being a professional athlete. ...I would say I look up to all (professional athletes) who have come out. It's not an easy thing to do."
"I've never held a conversation with an MLB player, let alone a gay one," Conroy said. "It's difficult to know if anyone else will come out. And it's hard to gauge how people would react if I was on their team."
Conroy said he's heard plenty of homophobic language over his career, but noted that one of the main reasons he's open to his teammates is to educate them.
"People think twice about it when they know there's a gay guy on the team," Conroy said. "They'll apologize or say, 'sorry, not in that way.' It's a teaching point in some regards. I would say that my teammates have grown up with the equality side of things, but it's different when none of them have had that gay teammate interaction. The face to face meeting is so much different than what you see on the news."
Conroy expressed gratitude for the way the team has embraced himself and the LGBT community. Players have been encouraging and wore rainbow-striped socks on pride night.
"I definitely feel lucky that I've been put in this opportunity here," Conroy added. "I could see other teams having less understanding environments and coaches. It's definitely important to feel welcomed on the team, to give yourself the best chance to perform at the highest peak."
While the majors is not a completely far-fetched goal for Conroy, his professional lifestyle is strikingly different. The Stompers are part of the Pacific Association of Baseball Clubs. Players live with host families during the 78-game June-to-August season, earn $650 a month on average, and supply their own cleats, batting gloves and elbow guards.
"I just love playing baseball," Conroy said. "It's my first year out of college. I'm trying to have a career at the highest level. If I ever get that chance, I'll be ready."
Even if some in the major league fraternity aren't.