SONOMA, Calif. - Baseball history was made in Northern California wine country Thursday night when the sport's first active professional player to come out as gay pitched a shutout before an enthusiastic crowd that seemed more impressed with his performance than his role as a pioneer.
Sean Conroy, 23, led the Sonoma Stompers to a 7-0 victory during his first start with the 22-man team that is part of the independent Pacific Association of Baseball Clubs. The right hander struck-out 11 players and allowed three hits over nine innings.
"He wanted to be that guy, and coming out here and doing this shows you what kind of man he is," Tim Livingston, the team's radio broadcaster, said after a ground ball ended the game and Conroy's teammates jogged over to hug him. "To see this little field here in the middle of nowhere, when we look back it will have been the perfect setting for this."
The atmosphere at Arnold Field, the Stompers' 370 seat home field, was low-key, with no obvious signs it was a historic game or even gay pride night at the ballpark — except for the rainbow-striped socks and arm warmers some players — but not Conroy — wore.
The Stompers did not make a special announcement or call attention to the milestone so Conroy could focus on his pitching, General Manager Theo Fightmaster said.
When the starting lineup was announced, however, Conroy got the loudest cheer.
"We've had gay people here forever, it's not like it's a big deal," said Barry Bosshard, who along with his wife, Laura, is putting up Conroy and another player at their home during the Stompers' 78-game season. "But it's major pressure on him because he's never really broadcast it and he is a very humble, private person."
The Stompers recruited the upstate New York native out of college in May. Fightmaster says Conroy privately shared his sexual orientation with teammates and management before agreeing to come out publicly in time for the team's home field gay pride night.
"His goal has always been to be the first openly gay baseball player, so he was very much in favour of telling the story, of carrying that torch," he said.
Nancy Dito, 67, attended the game with 25 friends from a local group for LGBT seniors and was one of three fans picked to throw out a first pitch.
"It's great they cheered for him," Dito said of the warm reception for Conroy. "I think it's courageous and wonderful he's doing this."
Major League Baseball historian John Thorn confirmed that Conroy is the first active professional to come out as gay. Glenn Burke, an outfielder for the A's and Dodgers, and Billy Bean, a utility player with the Tigers, Dodgers and Padres, came out after they retired.
"While this pitcher who was unknown to me before your call may not be a prospect for Major League Baseball, he certainly deserves our applause," Thorn said.
Conroy, who had earned four saves as a closer for the Stompers before taking the mound as a starter for the first time, said he told his family he was gay at age 16 and been open with his high school, summer league and college teams. It would have been strange not to do the same once he moved across the country and started making friends on the team in Sonoma, he said.
As far as coming out publicly, Conroy said he saw it as a way to help his team and to set an example for other players.
"It's not that I wanted it to go public, but I didn't care if it was open information. It's who I am," he said. "I am definitely surprised that no one else has been openly gay in baseball yet."
Conroy says he hopes to catch the eye of a big league scout but hasn't focused on much beyond this season.
The life of a Stomper is certainly a far cry from the majors. Players live with host families during the June-to-August season, earn $650 a month on average and supply their own cleats, batting gloves and elbow guards.
Bean, who serves as Major League Baseball's ambassador of inclusion, said none of that diminishes his contribution to professional sports.
"It doesn't matter if he pitches in the big leagues or not, he's going to become a leader (tonight) in many ways," Bean said.
Conroy's history-making start came at a watershed moment for gay rights, with the U.S. Supreme Court scheduled to rule any day now on whether to make same-sex marriage legal across the nation.
Mark Vogler, 50, co-owner of a local company that sponsors LGBT tours and events in wine country, marveled from behind a fence not far from the catcher as he watched Conroy throw some of what turn out to be 140 pitches.
Vogler grew up in another part of Sonoma County and left as soon as he could because the anti-gay hostility was so high.
"To see Sean walk out and not get booed and have his teammates support him, its heartwarming," he said.
Rodriguez reported from San Francisco.