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Gay baseball umpire talks about the night that changed his life
by Ross Forman
2010-09-08

This article shared 8814 times since Wed Sep 8, 2010
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Billy Van Raaphorst has been relatively quiet since the evening of July 31, despite countless mainstream media interview requests and literally hundreds of e-mails from around the world supporting him. In his first interview with a U.S.-based newspaper, Van Raaphorst spoke with Ross Forman about the shocking events that occurred in the professional baseball game he umpired that night in southern California.

Gay umpire Billy Van Raaphorst is an international hero for, well, just doing his job—where honesty, integrity, pride and sportsmanship are of the utmost importance.

Brent Bowers, meanwhile, is the antihero. While doing his job, Bowers showed himself to be foul-mouthed, hate-filled.

Their two worlds collided, literally head-on, July 31, in the first inning of a Golden Baseball League game in California—in front of 827 fans.

Van Raaphorst, 34, was the crew chief of the three umpires working the professional independent league game that night between the Edmonton Capitals—for which Bowers was their manager—and the host Orange County Flyers. Van Raaphorst was working at third base that night, and this is his third season working in the league.

Rene Franco was the first-base umpire that night and he called a Flyers batter safe—a call that irked Bowers and his team, who thought their first baseman tagged the Flyers' player out.

So Bowers came out to argue face to face with Franco, and the Capitals' players also verbally questioned the call from their dugout—which brought Van Raaphorst into the situation. He attempted to quiet the Capitals' players.

Bowers then shifted his attention away from Franco to Van Raaphorst—and Bowers had been ejected by Van Raaphorst the night before, in the first inning.

Van Raaphorst tried to get Bowers to control his dugout, but Bowers had other things in mind. Bowers moments later rolled up his shirt sleeves to show his muscled biceps, but the move didn't impress Van Raaphorst one bit—and he immediately ejected Bowers for the second consecutive night.

That's when the fireworks really went off.

Bowers returned to Van Raaphorst's face and shouted, according to the umpire's official incident report, "You know what I heard? I heard you are a [ expletive ] faggot. The rumor from several managers and people at the league is that you are a fag. So what do you do, you [ expletive ] faggot? Do you take it up the [ expletive ] ass, you faggot?" And as Bowers said this, he bent over and grabbed his ankles to demonstrate this comments, the report said.

Van Raaphorst, who is gay but was not out to managers and players in the league, was shocked, to put it mildly.

"I had no idea he was going [ at me personally ] . I thought he was going to [ argue baseball-related matters ] . I was completely surprised by [ his comments, ] " Van Raaphorst said. "As I think about it now, I'm pretty proud of the way I handled it because I can tell you, when it was happening, I just kept saying to myself, 'Don't hit him. Don't hit him.'

"This had nothing to do with baseball; this was completely personal. The things he was saying were almost rehearsed."

For his antics, the Golden Baseball League suspended Bowers for two games and he was fined $500. But that wasn't justice for the league's umpires, who stood solid in support of Van Raaphorst—and they threatened to protest the rest of the season if Bowers was still managing in the league.

Bowers was eventually banned for the entire season, but then he quit.

"The response has been amazing. The umpires, for instance. I cannot tell you how thankful I am to them. I didn't ask them to stand up for me; they did that on their own," Van Raaphorst said. "I was shocked, totally shocked, and really proud [ of their stand ] . It made me really, really excited, honored to be an umpire. Umpires always say they have each other's back and that we always support one another. Well, that definitely was the case."

Bowers, born May 12, 1971, in Oak Lawn, Ill., played for the Baltimore Orioles in 1996, appearing in 21 major league games. After retiring for playing, he was the hitting coach for the Gary ( Ind. ) SouthShore RailCats of the Northern League from 2003 to 2004. He was the manager of the Windy City ThunderBolts of the Frontier League in 2005 and 2006.

Van Raaphorst said the owner of the Capitals, Patrick LaForge, who also is a high-ranking executive for the Edmonton Oilers of the National Hockey League ( NHL ) , stepped in quickly once he learned of the incident.

LaForge, in the weeks after the on-field incident, invited Van Raaphorst to Edmonton to speak to local officials, front-office personnel from both Edmonton team, and even the players for the Capitals.

LaForge has been extremely supportive of Van Raaphorst, and the umpire personally called the owner to thank him for his involvement in the incident.

"Often, the LGBT community can jump on companies when they don't handle things properly, but [ LaForge ] needs to be applauded for the way he handled it," Van Raaphorst said. " [ LaForge ] wanted me to know that [ Bower's comments ] were not what [ his ] company is about."

Also while in Edmonton in August, to address LGBT issues in sports and the workplace, Van Raaphorst spoke to local city council members at City Hall. The trip, he said, "was eye-opening for many people."

"This was a company that stepped up and said, 'Hey, we have a problem.' And they addressed it. They said, 'We need your help.'"

Van Raaphorst suggested that, if the company can create the right work environment, then people can be who they are—and the company will get the very best out of their employees.

And he's convinced the trip to Edmonton helped locally—"without question."

Van Raaphorst also met with Tom Renney, head coach of the Edmonton Oilers about LGBT issues—and Renney said he plans to discuss the matter with his players when the team starts training camp for the upcoming season.

So what about Bowers?

Well, he has not officially apologized, nor has he reached out to speak with Van Raaphorst.

Van Raaphorst isn't completely surprised by that.

"I'm not one way or the other on it. I didn't know what he was thinking when he started [ the anti-gay comments ] and I still haven't tried to read his mind," the umpire said.

Would he talk to Bowers today?

"Sure. Not talking to anyone does not help anything," Van Raaphorst said.

Van Raaphorst has been besieged with mainstream media requests and his Facebook inbox has been inundated—with nothing but favorable responses.

"The support I've gotten has blown my mind; it's amazing," Van Raaphorst said. "From people in all walks of life, from all over the world, including many who I never thought would write me. I got numerous e-mails from people in Canada, people who I've never met, and they were just apologizing and telling me how great Canada is. They were apologizing for an American who worked for a Canadian company."

He also has heard from closeted college athletes, some now playing for Division I teams—and he has heard from Christian conservatives.

A pastor even reached out to Van Raaphorst to say that, despite his sexuality, he was very proud of the way Van Raaphorst handled the situation and the way he represented himself.

So what's ahead for the umpiring hero?

"We'll see what the future holds," he said. "I'm open to more speaking engagements, to help make sure that the right thing gets done."

And, hopefully, a return to the minor leagues.

"I think Major League Baseball needs someone at that level which it now does not have, nor did it have [ years ago when I was umpiring in professional baseball ] , and that is, a role mod who just happens to be gay," Van Raaphorst said. "I think the bigger problem is that homophobia is not addressed [ in professional baseball ] . I honestly don't think it would be that hard to address it today, in the year 2010. But the problem is, it's not addressed at all. And it could be in a big way, because there are lots of players, managers, [ team ] owners and umpires who have gay and lesbian friends or relatives."

Van Raaphorst is convinced baseball will promote an openly gay player or umpire, eventually. [ Dave Pallone served as an umpire in Major League Baseball in the national league from 1979 to 1988, but he did not come out until he was retired. Glenn Burke, who played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics from 1976 to 1979, was also out to his teammates and coaches, and came out later to the public; he died of AIDS-related causes in 1995. ]

"When? I don't know. Your crystal ball is as good as mine," he said. "The first gay player or umpire will be sort of like Jackie Robinson, [ who was the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball ] —and there will be plenty of questions surrounding that person, [ such as, ] can we protect him? What if someone says something on the field? Will he get along with the other guys in the locker room?"

Van Raaphorst will umpire the Golden Baseball League playoffs, which start Sept. 10.

"The response since the incident has been shockingly supportive," Van Raaphorst said. "I was really surprised it was not awkward [ when I went back on the field ] ; it's just been baseball." Players have approached Van Raaphorst since the incident, but all have been supportive, he said. Each tells Van Raaphorst that they are glad he's still on the field.

The new Edmonton Capitals manager, Gordon Gerlach, also has praised Van Raaphorst's on-field skills.

More Billy Van Raaphorst:

—Born and raised in San Diego

—Earned All-State honors as a football player at Grossmont High School before graduating in 1994

—Played center for four seasons for the San Diego State University football team, 1994-97

—Attended the prestigious, long-running Harry Wendelstedt Umpire School in 1998, where he was voted the top student out of about 200

—Made his minor league umpiring debut in 1998, in the Northwest League

—Was promoted to the Midwest League in 1999

—Was promoted to the California League in 2000, and was voted the No. 1 minor league umpire ( in Class A and below ) after the season, thus was promoted to the Texas League for the 2001 season

—Had his first boyfriend, though still in the closet, in 2001

—Went to the Eastern League in 2002, then was released from the minor leagues after the season

—Since 2005, he has worked as a business consultant and corporate speaker for Buffini & Company

—In 2005, he started umpiring college baseball, and now works games in the Big West, Mountain West and West Coast Conferences.

—Has a partner, Jason Gant, an architect, and the two celebrated their one-year anniversary Sept. 6

—Has played in San Diego's LGBT flag-football league for years

—Has played in the annual Gay Super Bowl for the past four years, and his San Diego team advanced to the championship game in the 2009 tournament, held in Washington, D.C.

—Has not only played in, but been on a championship team in, the Pride Bowl flag football tournament, held annually in Chicago

—Participated in the 2006 Gay Games in Chicago, winning a bronze medal in flag football

—Sporting quote: " [ Playing in the LGBT flag football league ] has been a great experience. Often, the gay community can be disconnected from sports because of the perceived homophobia in sports. It's great to be re-connected to sports and be able to play it with a bunch of guys who just happen to be gay but also love sports."

—In the closet: "I didn't [ come out while in the minor leagues ] because I didn't trust a lot of the [ fellow ] umpires; I didn't know how they would react [ if they knew I am gay. ] But the way these [ Golden Baseball League ] umpires reacted speaks volumes. They truly stood up for something, someone who they believe in."

—Questioning: "While in the Texas League, that's when all of the questions started to come [ out about my sexuality ] . From my umpiring crew. From other umpires [ in the league ] . They'd ask, 'Who are you dating? When's the last time you had a girlfriend?'

—Almost outed: "Before going to the Texas League, I remember being on the phone with a guy who I had met, and my crew chief had picked up the phone and was listening on the other end. After the call, he asked me who that was, and I lied to him about who I was talking to."

—No more lies: While in the Eastern League, he told one of his umpiring partners that he is gay. "I was done lying," he said.


This article shared 8814 times since Wed Sep 8, 2010
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