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8/8/2014 10:00 A.M. ET

Finding the road to progress, inclusion

A return to baseball in an exciting role that is the first of its kind

One of the things that most every Major League Baseball player has in common is the long and winding road to get to the big leagues. Just look at the back of every player's baseball card. You'll see stops in many different cities on their way to the Majors, which is why it's hard to get close to your teammates when there are so many changes during the course of each season. Teams divide up into smaller groups. It's just the way it is. In the Minors, players who speak Spanish inevitably room together, and pitchers always seem to pair up. For me, as a closeted gay man, there was no specific subgroup for me to join, but I did my best to forge friendships regardless. As I said, everyone's path is different.

In 1993, I was playing for the San Diego Padres. On a road trip in late July, we learned that we traded Bruce Hurst and Greg Harris (two of our starting pitchers) for two young players on the Colorado Rockies. Our owners were making major changes to our veteran team, and what looked like a salary dump turned out to be one of the great trades in Padres history, as we acquired right-hander Andy Ashby and a young catcher named Brad Ausmus.

Like everyone on our team, I met Brad in the clubhouse before a game at Wrigley Field. His reputation for being an intelligent guy with a razor-sharp wit is well deserved. Right from the start, I was amused by his confidence to mix it up with the other players. Brad, a Dartmouth graduate, was never at a loss for words, and because there weren't many college grads in the big leagues, we had that in common. We got along great and became good friends. In the offseason we played hoops with Tony Gwynn and a large group of players who lived in San Diego, and in Spring Training we were roommates.

The first spring that we roomed together was in 1994. My career was in the best place it had ever been. On the surface all seemed well, but I was hiding a secret life. It's hard to imagine, but nobody had cell phones then, and when I wanted to speak with my partner, I would go down to the lobby to talk on a pay phone. Brad would sometimes ask why I didn't use the phone in the room, and I'd always say that I didn't want to bother him. The truth was, I was talking to a man, and mixing my two worlds was of no interest to me.

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus and Billy Bean have been close friends since they were teammates on the Padres 20 years ago. (AP)

When I was playing, I was certain I would never tell anyone, or ever be strong enough to come out. I struggled badly with self-acceptance. I thought people would always believe those awful stereotypes. I managed to keep the secret for a long time, but it wasn't easy. There were many close calls, and I remember always feeling nervous, with my heart pounding in my chest.

There were a few times during those years, when I was hanging out with Brad and his wife, Liz, I thought I was ready to tell them. If two people were ever the right ones to trust, it was them. I'll always wonder, if I had told them, how things would have been different.

I was getting close to telling them, until that fateful day, just one day before the 1995 season started, when my partner, Sam, died right in front of me, at 7 a.m., from complications related to being HIV positive, in a San Diego hospital. (I have fortunately remained HIV negative to this day.)

Sam's passing was a moment that forever changed me. We had one spring game left, and it was at Angel Stadium at 1 p.m. that day. I was raised by a former Marine, so like a well-trained soldier, I found a way to block out the pain and go do my job. As the baseball gods would have it, I was in the starting lineup.

After the game, I was surprisingly sent down to Triple-A Las Vegas to make room for the last-minute signing of Fernando Valenzuela. I'll never forget, sitting at my locker, in shock, as Brad, Andy, Trevor Hoffman, Archi Cianfrocco and Phil Plantier came over to my locker to tell me to hang in there, and remind me that I would be back in a week or so. I'd had my heart broken in baseball many times by then, but this avalanche was too much, and my emotions were getting the best of me. I refused to shed any tears, so I kept my head down, thanked the guys, and rushed out of the clubhouse, leaving my gear in the locker. I needed to reach out, ask for help, but I simply wasn't capable.

I played the rest of that season, and statistically, it was my best ever, but I was hurting. Losing Sam, hiding my secret, it got the best of me. Somehow I made it through the year without telling anyone what happened. As Spring Training approached in 1996, I simply didn't show up. For the life of me, I don't know how I was able to give up so easily. I worked my whole life to make it to the big leagues, and just like that ... I quit.

* * * * *

A few years later, Brad bravely agreed to be interviewed about me -- his former closeted gay roommate -- by Diane Sawyer on national TV. His humor and matter-of-fact nature on the subject won him scores of new fans. After the news, the first time I saw Brad and Trevor, we grabbed dinner in San Diego. We talked, laughed and joked with each other. I was nervous that they would look at me different, but it was just like old times. They both asked why I never talked about it, and it was like a sledgehammer to my chest. I knew I messed up, that I'd let my fear get in the way.

Over the years, I stayed in touch with Brad and Liz. I watched their daughters grow up. Over coffee each morning via box scores, I kept tabs on him, and a few of the other guys I played with. I was happy for Brad's success, and it was amazing to watch Trevor make a Hall-of-Fame case, but mostly, I just missed playing.

After I left baseball, my life changed in many ways. I learned some important lessons from the LGBT community. In turn, I began sharing my story. I regained my confidence and I decided to help others who struggled like me. It took time, but I came to terms with myself. I went to work in the business world, found some success, but I never stopped missing baseball.

About 18 months ago, I was having dinner with Brad and Liz in San Diego. At that time, Brad was working for the Padres after an amazing 18-year career in the big leagues. At dinner, we were talking about all kinds of things, and out of nowhere, Liz asked me, "Why aren't you working in baseball?" She simply didn't see the same obstacles I had kept in front of me. I told her I still wasn't sure if baseball was ready for someone like me. Brad kept telling me to go for it.

Jason Collins (left) and Billy Bean congratulate each other after throwing first pitches at Dodger Stadium last year. (AP)

As I was driving home that night, I realized how lucky I was to have made such a good friend when I was playing. Brad made a call for me, and a short time later, I met for lunch with new Padres owner Peter Seidler and his wife. The meeting went well, we talked baseball, and I remember the last thing Peter said to me was, "Baseball needs Billy Bean in it." I didn't ask for a job, but I could tell the environment was getting better. Later that summer, I was asked by the Dodgers to introduce Tommy Lasorda at a fundraiser at Dodger Stadium, and a couple weeks later, in front of a sold-out stadium, I threw out the first pitch with Jason Collins, the first openly gay NBA player.

Less than two months ago, I had just arrived in Portland at the Nike LGBT Sports Coalition Summit. I received a message on my phone from an MLB executive named Paul Mifsud. I called Paul back, and he asked if I would come to New York to meet with a few people at the Office of the Commissioner.

Exactly one week later, I walked into the Ford C. Frick boardroom and introduced myself to four gentlemen who help run the game we all love. We talked for hours, and less than three weeks later, I was introduced by Commissioner Selig as MLB's ambassador for inclusion -- a progressive position that is the first of its kind by any of the four major men's sports.

It was another memorable moment in the Commissioner's esteemed career, one of considerable social and historic importance. And as I listened to him at the All-Star Game Fan Fest news conference, it finally hit me. I had come full circle. From the darkest time of my life, when I was afraid to ask for help, to this day, when I was returning to the game I love. Only now, my job is to help make sure that nobody else ever does what I did. It is my responsibility to make sure that everyone who is part of the MLB family knows that there will always be help if they need it, and they can thrive in a fair and equitable workplace that embraces all aspects of diversity.

Almost 20 years after leaving the game, I got called up again. Just like my first time, I have goosebumps. Time to go to work.

Billy Bean is the ambassador for inclusion for Major League Baseball. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.