In late June, several days before Derek Jeter went yard with his milestone 3,000th hit as a Yankee, something even more incredible happened in the State of New York: the State Senate passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage. After New York’s same-sex marriage bill was signed into law, an enterprising sportswriter for the Daily News sought the reaction of some members of New York’s professional baseball community. No Yankees were interviewed, but apparently the players on the New York Mets were split 50-50 about whether gay marriage should be legal. When asked why ambivalence about gay marriage lingered on the team, an anonymous Met said, “Most of us are still Neanderthals.”
It may or may not be true that the majority pro baseball players are Neanderthals, but so far this season, several prominent Major League players have agreed to participate in Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project. The idea behind Savage’s campaign is that young people who are gay may need to hear testimonials from gay adults and sympathetic celebrities about surviving their isolated, difficult, full-of-doubt teen years. LGBT kids need to feel that the future is full of choices; they need to see that adults and young people who once felt uncertainty and shame about who they are now feel pride and a sense of freedom.
The first Major League team to film an It Gets Better video in support of LGBT youth was the San Francisco Giants; the most recent squad to join the campaign is the Boston Red Sox. One thing about the videos that fascinates: these stiff-upper-lip baseball men really don’t know how to talk to the camera when they’re asked about something other than their batting average. At one point, Boston infielder Kevin Youkilis says, “A lot of people go and get therapy—myself included,” which is more amazing than anything anyone else says about sexual orientation in the Red Sox video. While I’m not a Red Sox fan, I felt unaccountably proud of Kevin Youkilis for trying to open up in his It Gets Better appearance. I knew Youk—the grandson of Romanian Jewish immigrants—was one of the few active Jewish Major Leaguers. But talking about his own therapy experience in a public service video about sexual orientation? Youkilis is way more Woody Allen than I expected.
There’s one especially poignant photo of the emotional tumult that took place when Derek Jeter crossed the plate after hitting a home run for his 3,000th Major League hit. In this picture by the photographer Robert Sabo, Jeter’s back is to the camera—we see the famous No. 2 on his pin-striped jersey, and a smudge of dirt on his pin-striped pants, a sign that he’s still full of hustle after all these years. His teammates are flooding from the dugout to give him a milestone mazel tov. There’s A-Rod on the right edge of the frame, smirking under his dark glasses, hands held high as if he’s the one who did something great. But the face in the center this portrait of collective joy is the face of the Yankees’ battered and embattled catcher, Jorge Posada.
Both of Posada’s arms are wrapped around his friend, clutching, signaling something purely generous and unjealous in the embrace. There is a wide smile spread over Posada’s face, which is tucked up next to Jeter’s helmet. It’s a picture of love (which gives this line from the New York Post an unintended resonance: “Posada and Jeter: four rings together”).
When I first saw it in the sports pages, the photo moved me. It also made me think through the semiotics of fist-bumping and rump-slapping and helmet-knocking, the homoerotic and homophobic physical gestures that male athletes display in different sports. When is it okay in baseball for men to embrace? Pat a teammate on the ass? When is it appropriate to keep things to a low-key congratulatory fist-bump? (My wife and I sometimes employ the fist-bump when we’ve gotten the baby to bed, or cleaned up the apartment after having friends over for dinner; the light tapping together of knuckles has a satisfying connotation of We did something good while openly acknowledging that the victory may be short-lived.)
When asked about the embrace at home plate, Posada told reporters that his first words to Jeter were, “I’m proud of you.”
It’s a sweet sentiment between teammates and old friends. But the Yankees can make the season more memorable—and more full of pride—by signing on to the It Gets Better project and making one of those painfully low-rent videos. Production values aren’t important in this case. It’s the players showing their faces, wearing their team colors and speaking up that matters.