10 Degrees: Even on Jackie Robinson Day, sports world still closed for one segment of society

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

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MLB collectively honors Jackie Robinson on Monday, the 66th anniversary of his major league debut. (AP)

The most horrifying realization gleaned from "42," the new Jackie Robinson biopic, isn't how screwed up our country was back in 1947. It's how sports, once a place for great social change, continue to foster an environment in which the ugliest part of the movie still exists today.

Almost everywhere in modern America, the long-held intolerance toward gays has disappeared. We have gay politicians, gay actors and gay teachers. We have gay marriage in nine states and our nation's capital. The military abolished the don't-ask, don't-tell policy. Progress abounds.

Sports, on the other hand, keeps its closet padlocked.

Yes, there is Orlando Cruz, the boxer, and Robbie Rodgers, the soccer player. And the great work of Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo in the NFL is at least giving a hint to players that coming out would be accepted. But among the four major sports, there remains not a single active player willing to sacrifice everything – not just his privacy but the identity he previously held – for the sake of others.

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Deadline.com

Sports needs a Jackie Robinson, someone not only with courage, fortitude and confidence, but the sort of charisma to remind people how ridiculous it is that anyone could oppose somebody's place in a walk of life based on who he loves. It's as empty as doing so based on the color of his skin, something so abhorrent, the overt representations of it in "42" weren't even necessary.

Others have argued against the idea of a "gay Jackie Robinson." At outsports.com, Cyd Zeigler said that "In the process, we set a measuring stick so high we inadvertently push gay pro athletes deeper in the closet." Indeed, because Robinson was so special, holding out for a facsimile is optimistic. It is also necessary.

We must remember, too, this is a different scenario. During one scene in "42," the camera frames a stark image: a row of white players with one black among them. Today, there are rows of multicultural faces, white, black, Latin, Asian. And there are gays in there. We just don't know who. The fact that he is among us already – that he almost certainly has spent years keeping secret one of his identifying characteristics from teammates – makes shifting from that life into an altogether new one as daunting in some ways as when Robinson went from Negro Leaguer to major leaguer.

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So much is different now. Robinson had a few reporters on his trail. The modern media could well destroy the gay athlete who outs himself. Twitter will implode at the announcement. Vultures will descend. Not just sports writers and ESPN cameras. Everyone. NBC and CBS and ABC. News magazines. Foreign press. TMZ will want its pound of flesh. Tabloids will chase him with cameras to get the latest on his whereabouts. This is his new life. He is no longer John Smith, athlete. He is, to them, John Smith, The First Gay Athlete.

Even though lynch mobs aren't actively gathering to target gays, there will be death threats and daily slurs. Think about the bullying that goes on in schools. Blend it with the anti-gay sentiment that pervades society, and it is ugly and toxic, the sort of thing any athlete would avoid. Playing before thousands of people every night would invite it.

So when Toronto's Jose Bautista says "the fact that they haven't come out is beyond my comprehension," he takes a moment to reconsider. His brain defaults to the logical, and to him, of course people would accept a gay player in baseball, because, well, why wouldn't you?

"If this was happening in the early '90s, late '80s, players would have different opinions," Bautista said. "Now, I just don't think everyone would care. It's the same thing as sometime back when a Japanese player came. Maybe people didn't go out of their way to ease the transition, but now it's different because people have gone through it. And everyone knows how much the team benefits from the easing. When everybody takes you in and embraces you, it is so important."

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Jackie Robinson's No. 42 is retired throughout baseball. (Getty Images)

Even more important to baseball is a change Bautista said he witnessed in the last five years among Latin American ballplayers. Bautista grew up in the Dominican Republic and saw a culture that not only frowned upon gay men but demonized them.

"With globalization, the Internet – even though we're a Third World country, we have more access to it," Bautista said. "And with that comes a lot more knowledge, a lot more acceptance. You learn things. Being gay was frowned upon, because people didn't know how accepted it was and how open people were about it."

Still, he can't deny the concerns among teammates over showering with a gay player. (Similarly, in "42," Ralph Branca needed to encourage Robinson to shower with the rest of the Dodgers.) And last year, Bautista's then-Blue Jays teammate Yunel Escobar, a Cuban, was suspended for wearing eyeblack with the word "maricon," which translates to "faggot." This is why the padlock exists.

One can only hope the collective power of public shaming will keep the bigots and homophobes from inflicting the destructiveness of hatred when an athlete does out himself.

That is how we win.

It won't be one guy putting his arm around his teammate, like Pee Wee Reese supposedly did with Robinson. It will be an entire team embracing its teammate with hugs and acceptance.

It won't be NFL executives avoiding stupid questions about girls to prospects. It will be them asking the right ones, like: "Are you in a relationship?"

It won't be one league partnering with You Can Play, the superb equal-rights organization. It will be all of them joining together to remind everybody that sports can be a place of acceptance.

It won't even be a rash of pro athletes who come out after the first. It will be the kid in high school now, or in a couple years, who is an absolute star … and happens to be gay – a kid who, because of the environment that his predecessors made possible, comes out in high school, gets recruited by major programs, spends his college years out and thriving, ends up getting drafted and makes it to the apex of his sport while out the entire time.

He is the one for whom today's pioneer is doing the most. Sure, there is something sad about living a life with such a huge secret packed away, but some people want private to remain private, and that is their prerogative. And so this does take a special person, and a special team to ensure his safety, and a special general manager to support him. It takes so much, and that's why it still hasn't happened: sports isn't as ready as it wants to believe it is.

For too long the sporting culture has opposed the idea of a gay player, for it to so swiftly parallel society's evolution. The recent growth of tolerance brings sports closer to where it should be: a place welcome for everyone, no matter skin color, economic level, sexual orientation or anything else. It once was the bastion of that, and it can return only with a groundbreaker of whom …

1. Jackie Robinson would have been proud. Even if "42" turns Robinson into a caricature of all things good and right, there are some people whose place in history invites such treatment. In the sports world, there may be none greater than Robinson.

It's why Bud Selig created another of his committees last week: to "provide equal opportunities for all people." What he meant was that the number of African-American players has dwindled to early-integration levels, and MLB recognizes that losing any segment of its population – particularly one as successful in athletic endeavors as the African-American population has been – is a negative trend.

[Yahoo! Movies: Trailer for '42' biopic on Jackie Robinson]

It could be argued, of course, that if he truly wanted to "provide equal opportunities for all people," he would take a look at what the latest collective-bargaining agreement wrought – a system in which Latin American teenagers are getting significantly less in bonuses, something that's going to be tamped down even more with the advent of an international draft – and have as much care and concern for kids who get taken advantage of by trainers feeding them steroids and taking exorbitant cuts of their bonuses than these hypothetical kids who aren't playing baseball.

But nobody wants to be on that committee.

So it's Round 3 of the get-black-kids-to-play-baseball effort, following the RBI Program and the Urban Youth Academy, and while Rome supposedly burns …

2. Carl Crawford keeps hitting. Coming into Sunday, he led the National League in batting average on the strength of seven multi-hit games. Six other players have as many; three – Adam Jones, Austin Jackson and Brandon Phillips – are African-American. And the player leading baseball in multi-hit games, Torii Hunter with eight, is as well.

Now, this is not to say the issue doesn't exist. It does, and it's worth looking into. And hopefully baseball will recognize it must do two things: capture the kids early or recapture them late. Keeping them around middle school through high school is a tricky endeavor; friends and family and society generally push black youth to football and basketball. There are exceptions, and they are just that: the anomalies.

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Carl Crawford (Getty Images)

So let them play high school football or basketball, and, hell, let them even try it in college. But know that a huge number will fail, and for those who do, invite them back to baseball. Start second-chance academies that will house a player for two years: clothe him, feed him and teach him how to be a baseball player. And then make these players draft-eligible – and just as prepared, if not more, than those who have spent three years in college. Take a portion of their signing bonuses to be reinvested in the academies, and they soon will feed themselves.

There will be high draft choices. And there will also be those from other walks of life like …

3. Matt Adams who get chosen in the 23rd round and still manage to make it – and hit the ball like it's nobody's business.

Adams is on one of those crazy hot streaks baseball loves to gift one player early in the season. He went 2 for 4 on Sunday – and his batting average went down 32 points. Adams has played in just five games this season. He has homered in three, and his slash line of .611/.632/1.222 looks like two superstars' combined.

Speaking of looks, that's why Adams slipped so far in the draft and is just now, at 24, getting a shot with the St. Louis Cardinals. He looks like the child of Eric Cartman and Boss Elf from "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Be that as it may, Adams always hit, from Slippery Rock (Pa.) University up through the Cardinals' system and now in the big leagues.

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Matt Adams (AP)

One problem: There's nowhere for him to play. Right now, in the corner-outfield spots and first base, the Cardinals have Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig. And waiting to take over for Beltran next year is Oscar Taveras, arguably the best hitting prospect in baseball. So it leaves Adams stranded, in a similar to position to the one …

4. Evan Gattis could face in a few weeks. Right now, Gattis is one of the best stories in the game: a 26-year-old who quit baseball because he didn't like it, went to rehab, bummed around, worked as a janitor, returned to school, went to the Atlanta Braves in – you guessed it – the 23rd round of the 2010 draft, a year after Adams, and has done nothing but pummel balls since.

This week, he popped three home runs, drove in nine runs and mixed in three walks among his four strikeouts. The only reason he's here is because Brian McCann's shoulder surgery likely will keep him out until May.

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As good as he's been, Gattis isn't going to pull a Wally Pipp on McCann. His long-term prospects at catcher are dubious anyway, and therein lies the problem: with Justin Upton and Jason Heyward in the corners and Freddie Freeman at first base, there are no spots for him there, either. So the Braves have a year until McCann hits free agency to do everything they can to turn Gattis into as respectable a catcher as he can be. Because …

5. Paul Maholm and the rest of the Braves' pitching staff certainly don't want to throw to someone with subpar skills, being that the Braves still are a team fronted by their pitching staff. It's a scary staff, too, if Maholm can be even half of what he's been since joining Atlanta last season.

Another 7 2/3 shutout innings Sunday brought his season total to 20 1/3. When he's not striking out guys – 20 so far – he's inducing nearly 1½ groundouts for every flyout.

Following the Maholm-led 9-0 shutout of Washington on Sunday, the Braves are 11-1. Their staff ERA is 1.82. Take out the 11 mediocre innings of fifth starter Julio Teheran and it's 1.19. More relievers have allowed no runs (five) than any (three). In Atlanta's 109 innings pitched, just 111 batters have reached base. And opponents have hit just six home runs – three coming off Teheran. As great as they've been …

6. The St. Louis Cardinals' rotation was even better this week. Before Trevor Rosenthal, Mitchell Boggs and Fernando Salas combined Sunday on a meltdown reminiscent of the Cardinals' bullpen woes of last April, the team had thrown 39 consecutive shutout innings, an inconceivable number to rip off for a team that didn't play the Marlins.

It started with Lance Lynn, who yielded one run in six innings, and moved to back-to-back-to-back shutouts with Jake Westbrook, Shelby Miller and Adam Wainwright leading the way. On Sunday, Jaime Garcia followed with seven more shutout, which meant that during an entire turn of the rotation, Cardinals starters gave up one run in 38 innings. It was like a team filled with …

7. Clay Buchholz in slot Nos. 1-5. Buchholz was the latest to flirt with a no-hitter Sunday, making it through seven against the team that loves to get no-hit, Tampa Bay. A broken-bat single ended that, and Buchholz had to settle for eight shutout innings with 11 strikeouts.

On the season, he's now at 22 innings, one run and 23 strikeouts. Buchholz's command could use some help – the 10 walks portend some trouble once hitters recognize how far he operates from the strike zone – but Buchholz resembles his 2010 self, when he won 17 games with a 2.33 ERA.

[Yahoo! Sports Radio: Dave Brown on struggles of Angels, Jays]

Whether new manager John Farrell sprinkled pixie dust on Buchholz and Jon Lester is left for devotees of witchcraft to determine. Neither's stuff is demonstrably different – if anything, one scout at Sunday's game noted, Buchholz's fastball is down a tick in velocity – but they're a combined 5-0 with a 0.88 ERA for the first-place Red Sox.

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Boston's Clay Buchholz kept Tampa guessing all of Sunday. (AP)

The Farrell Factor remains a to-be-determined proposition. Maybe his methods work better with some pitchers than others. Certainly it didn't work with Ricky Romero and some of the other Blue Jays pitchers. Maybe it's different in Boston. Maybe his connection with Buchholz and Lester, because of the history, transcends the normal manager-player construct to extract the best from both in the primes (Buchholz is 28, Lester 29) of their career. More and more, the elite are in their 20s, and the best pitching matchup this week is between …

8. Matt Harvey and Stephen Strasburg, a pair of 24-year-olds. They face off on Thursday in differing circumstances: Harvey trying to prove he's as good as his first three starts and Strasburg trying to prove he's as good as his first three seasons teased.

The other nine best matchups of the week, in reverse order:

• Thursday: Patrick Corbin vs. CC Sabathia – Sabathia popped a 92-mph fastball and four at 91 his last start. The velocity decline is very real.
• Saturday: Lance Lynn vs. Cliff Lee – Vintage Clifton Phifer is back. He also starts Monday against Bronson Arroyo.
• Monday: Gavin Floyd vs. Mark Buehrle – This will be the 399th start of Buehrle's career. And his first against the White Sox.
• Thursday: Matt Cain vs. Kyle Lohse – Rematch of 2012 NLCS Game 7.
• Thursday: Jose Fernandez vs. Tony Cingrani (?) – The best rookie pitcher this season could face the best Triple-A pitcher if Cingrani takes the DL-bound Johnny Cueto's spot in the rotation.
• Thursday: Chris Sale vs. R.A. Dickey – The most diametrically opposed pitching matchup imaginable.
• Thursday: Alexi Ogando vs. Jeff Samardzija – Two of the 10 hardest-throwing starters in the big leagues this season.
• Thursday: Adam Wainwright vs. Cole Hamels – Wainwright back to ace level: 24 strikeouts, zero walks in 22 innings.
• Wednesday: Max Scherzer vs. Felix Hernandez – The King's velocity is down big. What will happen when …

9. Prince Fielder takes a massive hack at a fastball? If anything like this week, it will do one of two things: go over the fence or drop in for a hit. Nobody is hotter than Prince right now. He's in the midst of a nine-game hitting streak. And when he's not dropping hits, he's walking: nine this week alone, compared to just two strikeouts.

Let's put it this way: This week, Prince Fielder came to bat 29 times. He reached base 21 of them. His evolution from power-hitting prodigy into one of the best all-around hitters in the game – and among his average, power and plate discipline, he is undoubtedly that – has been one of the great success stories for baseball as it seeks young, African-American players.

Whether it's Fielder or David Price or Andrew McCutchen or Giancarlo Stanton or Justin Upton or Derek Jeter, the representation of American-born black players in baseball hasn't dwindled to the point …

10. Jackie Robinson would look at the sport and not recognize it. Those are stars, not just recognized by fans but embraced and loved.

They have Robinson to thank. All of baseball does. On Monday, Jackie Robinson Day, every player will wear his No. 42. Because in the end, all of them will be the same: ballplayers.

And as we wait for the courageous man to reveal himself as the first gay active athlete, may we all remember the lesson Robinson taught. He wasn't any different because of how he looked, just as someone isn't any different because of who he loves. He just wanted to play ball, same as everyone else, because that's what he was.

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