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Retired MLB umpire Dale Scott on coming out, Pride, and robo umps

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The 30-year veteran umpire sat down to talk about his life on and off the field

Pittsburgh Pirates v Colorado Rockies Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Last year I wrote a piece on the Yankees holding their first Pride Night, in all but name, joining the league as the last club to do so. I fully intended to use this exact post, one year later, to talk about what the Yankees had done differently, if anything, given the somewhat milquetoast recognition of the queer community in 2019.

Of course there is no baseball at all, which makes it difficult to critique things like Pride Nights. But since this is June, and we should be using this month especially to elevate and center queer voices, I figured I could have conversations with some folks around the game who share both my community and my love for baseball. This leads us to Dale Scott.

Scott, now 60, was a major league umpire from 1986 until his retirement due to post-concussion complications in 2017. In those 31 years, he worked three World Series and All Star Games, and finds himself scattered throughout notable moments in baseball history; being the last umpire to eject Billy Martin, working Andy Hawkins’ pseudo no-hitter in 1990, and being behind the plate for the legendary 2001 World Series. More relevant to June, Pride Month and the purpose of this post, in 2014 Scott became the first sports official to come out.

Like a lot of queer folks, Scott walked with each foot in a different world — once he came out to himself in high school, he was careful to misdirect his personal life, especially as it came to his professional career, working his way though the minor leagues as an umpire.

“I understood [being gay] just wasn’t something I could talk about at the time,” Scott recalled over a Zoom call last week. “I had no issue with being gay, the issue was how am I going to deal with it in this society?”

Dale’s story is a fascinating journey through the changing way North America has viewed queer people in recent decades. He calls it “playing the game”, the obstacle course of not intentionally outing yourself while simultaneously staying true to your own feelings and identities, perhaps most poignantly at a time when his MLB career was just taking off — and a time when North America was consumed by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

It’s been a mission of mine to build a network with queer folks who lived through the AIDS crisis — for those who were fortunate enough to only know the pandemic through news reports or Philadelphia, it’s difficult to explain the magnitude of what the queer community lost in such a short time. Queer writers and survivors of that terrible period talk about how you’d have a regular gathering of friends, but each time you got together there would be one or two fewer, and you never knew who was going to be next.

We call it The Lost Generation for a reason — echoes of genocide, which if you remember government and wide societal response to the crisis is really what it was, committed against a group that has always been marginalized. In 2020, I’m fortunate enough to know HIV+ people who live their lives with almost no real changes from normalcy. We go to restaurants and bars together, we work out together, our relationships are no different than ones I have with friends who aren’t HIV+. As Dale Scott was maturing and working in close proximity with other men, his experience with the virus was very different:

To be queer in the late ‘80s was to experience this kind of stigma on a daily basis. What makes Dale’s story so moving to me is that he had to shoulder all of that, while working in a field that broadcast him to millions of people every night. Being an umpire doesn’t carry the fame or fortune of a major-league player, but you still exist in a field of public entertainment.

One of the things I wrote about in last year’s Pride Night piece was the experience of coming out over and over — you never just do it once. When Scott did officially come out after the 2014 season, expecting, he had done it dozens of times before, with the league office and his own coworkers. In a lot of ways, the general public was the last to find out - even players knew about Scott’s personal life.

“People aren’t idiots,” he recalls, explaining how eventually folks around the game put together just who Dale’s “roommate” was, and connecting the dots about his lack of a more conventional partner over the years. Two umpires in the late ‘90s pulled Scott aside and made it clear that his “lifestyle” was never going to be held against him as an umpire or a person, and that helped bring down some of the walls he, like all queer people, had built between his professional and personal life.

But perhaps my favorite of his coming out stories comes from a series in San Francisco — of course! — when Dale was first made crew chief and assigned a group of some of the game’s most respected umpires: Jim Joyce, Jeff Nelson and Ron Kulpa.

This kind of acceptance is often valued by queer people, especially queer men. The ability to joke in lighthearted ways about sexuality is fine, and often welcomed, but so many of us have either had horrible experiences, or are afraid of a horrible experience, that we immediately head off any attempts to make light of our personal lives.

Again, we see how Dale’s particular career choice adds intersections to the obstacles queer folks face every day. He works a relatively high-paying job, which affords him some privilege, but because of the very small and public world he belongs to, there’s added risk to being shunned. Traveling 140 days a year with the same umpiring crew would lead to a whole lot of unpleasant experiences should your coworkers be less accepting, and that fear could trap a lot of people in a cycle of denial. Dale Scott deserves credit for never tolerating that kind of cycle, and his crews deserve credit for allowing him to live his own life.

Yet stories like these reveal a lot of the contradictions within sports — MLB was very open to Scott, including his husband on insurance and union benefits before the US Supreme Court upheld same-sex marriage, and his coworkers respecting and encouraging his coming out. Yet I know closeted players in the minor leagues who couldn’t dream of coming out for fear of backlash, and there are so few recognized queer role models in the Big Four sports that Scott found himself a “coach” of sorts.

This is a position a lot of queer pioneers find themselves in — there’s just nobody else within your circle who really “gets it”. Scott’s adamant that MLB has taken a progressive stance towards queer folks within the league — between Billy Bean’s hiring as Vice President with a focus on outreach and diversity to the above-mentioned inclusion of queer folks in economic and financial protections. Still, the lack of out players within the game, and teams’ sometime reluctance to engage with the queer community the way they do with say, military or police, shows there are still gaps to close when it comes to true inclusion.

Taking all that in stride though, Scott’s optimistic that the “if you can play, we don’t care” mentality is growing within the game, while the influence of more hardline or religious players wanes, and we agree on that. It’s of particular interest to me whether the first out player will be a perennial All Star or not, and the difference in what true progress looks like - is progress the MVP coming out, or the 26th man on a roster being safe and secure enough to?

Our conversation did of course turn to the game itself, in particular the changing role of umpires in 2020, and the differences between the way the game worked when Scott debuted in 1986. The stylistic differences between an era where Rickey Henderson was the game’s best player to a time when Mike Trout is on top are great enough, but perhaps no role has changed so fundamentally due to technology than that of umpiring.

“You throw in QuesTec...the evaluation of every pitch you call, ball or strike. You throw in replay...I seem to have just missed out, and I’m glad I did, on the automated strike zone,” Scott laments, making the case that umpires are both more accurate than they’re given credit for, and that having a real person call pitches is a fundamental part of the game’s soul.

If there’s a role for electronic zones, in Scott’s mind it’s to make umpiring more consistent — making players, managers and crews respect the rulebook definition of a strike. Scott’s fear is one shared by a number of people in and around the game, I think, that too much automation would be more similar to a simulation rather than a “real” game. Replay has a spot within the game — the Jim Joyce/Armando Gallaraga play is an example Dale lists readily — and umpires, as a collective, strive to improve, but in the eyes of a man who was once one of the game’s senior-most umpires, automated zones are a bridge too far.

Dale Scott was, and continues to be, a pioneer for queer people within the game, and boasts a wealth of experience both about the mechanics of baseball and the culture that surrounds and permeates it. I hope one day to be able to count him as just one more queer person within baseball, and hope that telling stories like his helps that happen.