Originally Published: The Press Democrat
Lori A. Carter, Reporter
When pitcher Sean Conroy takes the mound in Thursday’s Sonoma Stompers game, he has two reasons to be a little nervous.
One, it will be the first start of his professional baseball career after serving as a reliever in the team’s first 18 games of the season.
And two, as the starting pitcher on Pride Night, Conroy will be acknowledging publicly that he is gay.
According to the Stompers, Conroy, 23, of Clifton Park, N.Y., is the first openly gay player to enter the professional baseball ranks.
His appearance, as part of gay pride celebrations this month throughout the Bay Area and the nation, is sure to generate headlines for the Stompers, who won attention last week with a visit from the controversial and always colorful Jose Canseco.
A few gay pro baseball players have come out after their careers ended, but none while playing Major League Baseball or in the minors, according to the Stompers, an independent minor league team unaffiliated with MLB or its farm system.
Conroy seems at ease with his milestone.
“I’ll be thinking of one, then the other. Then it will go away,” he said of making his first start, and of laying bare his private life while standing out there on the mound all by himself. “After the first pitch, everything goes away.”
Since he came out to his parents at age 16, Conroy has never actively hid his sexual orientation, so coming out Thursday won’t be a surprise to his friends or family, or necessarily a big pronouncement on gay rights.
But he understands the potential positive influence his experience can have on young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people struggling with their identities.
“I’ve always played baseball because it was fun, and I loved the sport,” Conroy said. “Being gay doesn’t change anything about the way I play or interact with teammates.
“I hope that in leading by example, more LGBT youth will feel confident to pursue their dreams, whatever those dreams may be.”
His historic start comes as the team celebrates Pride Month and leads into Pride Weekend in Northern California. Saturday and Sunday is San Francisco Pride Weekend, following several gay pride events in Sonoma County this month.
“I’m incredibly proud of Sean for taking this monumental step,” said Stompers president and CEO Eric Gullotta. “This is a courageous step he’s taking and we’re humbled that the Stompers are a small part of it.”
The recognition wasn’t anything Conroy sought. Many of his teammates knew — as did his high school and college teammates — and he’d spoken with Gullotta during a carpool one day. Conroy said he never felt the need to hide who he is or declare his orientation, letting the situation come up naturally.
Gullotta mentioned it to team general manager Theo Fightmaster, who said he wanted to help Conroy tell his story with the backdrop of area pride events.
He told Conroy he’d like to “help him carry that torch” if he felt comfortable with the potential notoriety.
“This is not the easiest workplace environment to do that in,” Fightmaster said. “In a perfect world, it doesn’t matter. But, sadly, it still does a little bit.”
“He wants to be that role model,” he said. “It’s a special young man that can not only throw a pretty good breaking pitch, but also looks at the big picture.”
Conroy’s big picture is his baseball dream.
The 6-foot-1, 195-pound right-hander is 1-0 in six appearances and hasn’t allowed an earned run. In seven innings of work, he’s struck out six hitters, walked one and allowed two hits. He leads the Pacific Association with four saves and is holding opposing hitters to a meager .125 batting average.
Undrafted out of Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute in New York this year, Conroy was the college team’s ace this season, which ended in May. He was 6-2 with a 1.87 ERA in 82 innings, striking out 87, his senior year.
The Liberty League Pitcher of the Year and second-team Division III All-American caught the eye of Stompers sabermetricians. They loved his stats and alerted team ownership, who signed Conroy the day after his college season ended.
Since arriving in Sonoma County a month ago, Conroy has moved in comfortably with a host family just outside Sonoma and made friends on the team, including second baseman Sergio Miranda, who suggested the rest of the team may try to show its support for Conroy publicly in some way.
“I was joking with some teammates that I should wear those high rainbow socks,” Conroy said. “I love having the support, especially on Pride Night, when the fans are there for the cause and not just me.”