Gay Baseball Ump Comes Out Swinging
Three weeks ago, baseball umpire Billy Van Raaphorst was the target of a team manager's anti-gay rant, delivered right on the diamond. Now, the epithet-hurling manager, Brent Bowers, is out--and Van Raaphorst is still calling them like he sees them.
The anti-gay insults flew during a July 31 game in Fullerton, California, recalled an Aug. 23 PostMedia News article. Bowers, who was at the time the manager for the Edmonton Capitals, exploded on the field, calling the umpire a "fucking faggot" and making obscene gestures related to Van Raaphorst's sexuality.
Bowers lost his position in the wake of the incident, and the Edmonton Oilers--owners of the Capitals--brought Van Raaphorst to Canada to serve as umpire in a series that saw the Capitals go head to head with Calgary's team.
"Today's my first day speaking in front of any organization about myself, my sexuality, my family, my situation in professional baseball," Van Raaphorst. told the media. "I'm proud of the way the Oilers have handled things, extremely proud," he added. "I wouldn't be here if they hadn't handled it the way they have. I want to thank them for that."
But along with his calls on the field, Van Raaphorst had a chance to address the Oilers, as well as appearing at Edmonton's city hall, speaking to an audience that included police, non-governmental organizations, and a gay sports group.
Van Raaphorst recalled how after ejecting Bowers for the second time in two days, he was suddenly subjected to an anti-gay diatribe. "Bowers turned around and started yelling at me and it went from zero to 100 like that," with Bowers jumping on "the gay issue, that was the first thing out of his mouth," said Van Raaphorst.
Rather than escalate the situation, Van Raaphorst walked off and let another official handle Bowers, who ended up fired, suspended, and fined. Not that Van Raaphorst couldn't have physically defended himself: the article noted that the 34-year-old former college football player, at six feet, four inches and 210 pounds, would have been a match for Bowers. Van Raaphorst comes, in fact, from a football family--his father and two brothers were also players, with his father having played in the NFL.
All of which makes Van Raaphorst's status as an openly gay sports figure that much more remarkable--not that it didn't cost him. As soon as Van Raaphorst came out in 2001, the article noted, the umpire--rated at the top of his profession until then--abruptly saw his standings plummet.
"I was a double-A umpire and I was ranked very high for three consecutive years, graduated No. 1 in umpire school," said Van Raaphorst. "Not only can I not (account for the sudden decline in the rankings), but there are a lot of people I know that can't give a valid explanation as to the decline in my evaluation during (those) years," leaving the umpire convinced that it was simply a matter of how the sport reacted to an openly gay umpire. "They also coincided with the fact that that's when I had my first boyfriend, in that year, 2001 in the Texas League," he added. "Going into that year, I was evaluated as a top candidate going into double-A and then it declined down to the halfway point."
Now he umpires on the side, making a living as a motivational speaker and a consultant, the article said. But it's as the umpire who made his call--and suffered name calling on the field--that he's gained sudden notoriety--and garnered a tidal swell of support, reported gay sports news site Outsports.com on Aug. 18. Said Van Raaphorst, ""You think you're doing the right thing, but you never know how you come across." Added the umpire, who has gotten well over a thousand supportive messages at his Facebook page, "By just being me I've gotten all these amazing responses."
OutSports also reported that there are more gay umpires making calls on the field every season that one might think. A former umpire for the minor leagues, Ty Hoffman, told the gay sports site that there were at least two active gay umps he knew of--and they were both closeted. Of the more veteran of the two gay umpires, Hoffman said, "His whole thing is, I've been around for a while; the league respects me; other umpires respect me; guys pretty much have it figured out by now, so there is no need for me to actually come out and say 'I'm gay.' He doesn't feel like he actually needs to publicize it.
"That's his point of view," added Hoffman, "though I think it would be really beneficial to the community and sports in general if he did come out, but that's my perspective."
Similarly, the younger umpire told Hoffman that there was "absolutely, no way in hell" he'd publicly disclose his sexual orientation before retiring from umpiring.
Moreover, Hoffman told the site, five gay umpires were active at the same time he was--he just never knew it until after he'd left the sport.
Perhaps the most famous gay umpire is David Pallone, who was in the closet during his nine-year career as a major league umpire, but who went on to write a book, Behind the Mask.
Van Raaphorst fell right off the map of affiliated baseball and wound up umpiring NCAA baseball and the GBL, and being highly regarded in both.
He earns his main living as a corporate consultant and motivational speaker. Umpiring is now a hobby, essentially.
He has been amazed at the unexpected support he has received since the Bowers incident. He has received an estimated 1,200 Facebook messages, about half from Canada.
Despite the obvious professional price he paid for being openly gay, and the difficult process of coming out to his family and friends, Van Raaphorst is glad he did.
"The biggest mistake I made was I made a bunch of decisions because I was scared," he said. "I was scared that if I came out, I wouldn't get to the big leagues of professional baseball.
"At the end of the day, I kind of let myself down. I should have come out. I should have trusted the umpires and my friends more."
His colleagues in the Golden League not only know, they supported him after the Bowers rant, threatening to boycott games if the ex-manager wasn't suspended.
"It's no big deal to them," Van Raaphorst said. "They all had my back and I didn't even ask for the support I got. It just happened.
"They decided on their own that I was an umpire and this is not about anything else but making sure he's supported in what we do.
"I can't thank them enough."
It's too early to tell whether gay athletes and officials should thank Van Raaphorst for becoming, however unintentionally, a spokesman for being openly gay in pro sports, but he's dealing with that role admirably.
Given all he has gone through, Van Raaphorst seems well-positioned to be the reluctant role model he has become, including the process of coming out in the first place.
"I didn't trust umpires, I didn't trust people enough," Van Raaphorst said. "And so I made a decision out of fear.
"Now, what I try to do, it's a little saying I've got, 'Don't make a decision out of fear, make fearless decisions.' "