I was lied to.
Turns out, I’m glad I was.
I was told that Golden Baseball League umpire Billy Van Raaphorst was to be in Edmonton as part of the league’s rotation. Not true. He was invited here.
This, I thought, was a bad, bad idea.
Van Raaphorst was the umpire who was the target of a tirade by former Edmonton Capitals manager Brent Bowers on July 31 seemingly meant to question Van Raaphorst’s umpiring skills, but oh-so wrongly aimed at his lifestyle.
I thought bringing Van Raaphorst here would be like throwing gasoline onto embers. Like taking a single incident and turning it into a travelling circus.
I thought it would be an insult to the man — shining a spotlight on him and introducing him not as “Billy Van Raaphorst, umpire,” but as “gay umpire Billy Van Raaphorst.”
A Pride parade is all good, but parading someone around as an individual is a whole other thing.
And I thought it was also an insult to the team. Not to mention a distraction as they face the monumental task of having to sweep the Calgary Vipers to even have a chance at making the playoffs.
What changed my mind? Listening to Billy Van Raaphorst speak on Friday.
He was articulate without being rehearsed, disturbed by the incident without being righteously indignant: A man who clearly does not want to be in this spotlight, but has decided that — based on the issues — he’ll step into it even though it isn’t, as he said, “my comfort zone.”
The incident became a flashpoint on several levels. There’s the simple issue of an umpire who had thrown a couple of players off a team. It was an issue of the brotherhood of umpires — who had threatened not to go back to work after Bowers was initially suspended for two games by the league — and, of course, an issue about the long held discussion of homophobia in the world of team sports.
“In the minor leagues, I never wanted to come out because I wanted to get to the major leagues and just umpire,” said Van Raaphorst, explaining that he only admitted his lifestyle publicly in 2002 after he felt that his progression up the umpiring ladder was brought to a conclusion not totally based on his work. He admits he lied to friends and co-workers at the time.
“I wanted to get to the major leagues so I could work, not because I was black or white or green or gay or anything else.”
There is a public element in coming out to family and friends, but there is a whole other level when it becomes generally public like this.
“I made a mistake in the decision I made, because I was scared. I didn’t want to be there for any other reason than to be an umpire.
“So I have this saying now: don’t make decisions out of fear, make fearless decisions.”
Van Raaphorst also met with the Capitals players and said the same to them: “I’m here to umpire. I’m here to work.
“What happened in Orange County happened. We can’t unwind it. I don’t want it to be a distraction anymore.”
Van Raaphorst said he was also in baseball mode as the crew chief when Bowers walked out to “argue.”
He was shocked.
“It went from zero to 100 just like that. I had no chance to put the brakes on it, no chance to stop it.”
And despite some reluctance to be a spokesperson, Van Raaphorst said he couldn’t deny that, at that moment, this would become something beyond the lines of the baseball field.
Will it change things? That’s the hope and that’s why he is willing to be in this spotlight.
“I’m not going to speculate on what other sports leagues are going to do. I can say that I’m proud of the way the Oilers organization have handled things. I’m proud of the way the umpires stood up for me because I didn’t ask them to do anything, (they did it) on their own.
“That’s a positive, and hopefully that continues to build for the future.”
But, with this being about public awareness, I think there needs be the same thought toward the tainted side of the coin, too.
The word is tolerance.
As for Bowers, the big dude screwed up big time. He brain-cramped. So wound up in baseball mode, he lost touch with common sense. Cramming his big foot into his big mouth not only cost him a sweet gig, it cost him considerable shame and loss of respect. If he says this is a personal learning experience, should all doors be closed to him forever?
If part of this is about the process of moving towards Billy Van Raaphorst no longer being “the gay umpire,” shouldn’t part of this also be about letting Brent Bowers move past being “the anti-gay baseball manager?”