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Cubs’ Jeff Samardzija says gays in locker room not new to him

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Updated: March 17, 2014 11:18AM



MESA, Ariz. — Some NFL executives and players might still be wrapping their heads around the idea of having an openly gay player in their ranks next season.

But Jeff Samardzija has news for those in baseball: At least a few Cubs already have experienced it.

‘‘I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms, and I’ve experienced it,’’ said the Cubs pitcher, referring to a past minor-league teammate who confided in teammates that he was gay.

Unlike NFL prospect Michael Sam, the minor-leaguer didn’t make his sexuality public, Samardzija said, but it was widely known and acknowledged in the clubhouse.

‘‘And then you go about your business,’’ Samardzija said. ‘‘I think the thing that gets [overlooked] is that regardless of your background, everybody’s here to do a job.

‘‘You win games with talent and good numbers and things like that. You don’t win games with looks and styles and this and that. As a teammate, all you want is a guy to have your back, a guy to play hard for you and a guy that goes out there and battles with you every day of the week, regardless of preferences.’’

Sam, the Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year at Missouri, will become the first openly gay active player in American major-league sports once he’s drafted this spring.

Although the response publicly in professional sports has been largely supportive, some hasn’t been. And it’s anything but clear what effect Sam’s openness will have on his draft status and, ultimately, the quality of his career.

Never mind the impact baseball’s eventual Michael Sam will have.

‘‘I think it’s important to be on the right side of history,’’ Cubs president Theo Epstein said. ‘‘Clearly, we’ve reached that time in this society where you can do the right thing and it’s not any brave stand anymore. It’s just the right thing to do.

‘‘If there’s a player that can help you, you can’t look at things that don’t matter. Sexual orientation doesn’t matter with respect to wining games, with respect to having strong character, with respect to fitting into the clubhouse and making strong bonds with teammates.”

Cubs players sounded open and tolerant when asked about the subject in recent days.

‘‘To each his own,’’ said pitcher Edwin Jackson, a veteran of eight different big-league clubhouses. But Jackson also said he wasn’t sure how much an openly gay player would be accepted in baseball.

‘‘It’d probably be mixed [reaction],’’ he said. ‘‘Some people probably will be fine. Some might have a problem with it. Others will maybe have no comment.’’

‘‘I’m not naïve,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘The first time that it happens, there will be some things that will come up, and you have to support the player through the adversity that may come up. No one’s naïve about it. But I think it’s important.’’

Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney called any potential intolerance ‘‘ignorance.’’

‘‘I think it’s time to move past that,’’ he said. ‘‘I have heterosexuals and homosexuals in my family. I’ve got aunts and uncles that have lived their life the way they want to live their life. So it’s nothing new to me. I would hope that in this day and age, we’ve learned as humans that people come in different colors, shapes, sizes, and they have the right to be who they want to be and we don’t have the right to judge.’’

Cubs reliever James Russell, who grew up around ballparks when his dad, Jeff, pitched, called it a ‘‘tough subject’’ in part because ‘‘baseball’s such an old-timey game.’’

But he said just the influence of social media and entertainment media in recent years has changed the cultural perceptions of homosexuality, maybe even in clubhouses.

‘‘Especially like the TV shows now,’’ he said, ‘‘it’s almost becoming like a norm in the world. It’s just something that people have to learn to grow with, whether you agree with the lifestyle or not.

‘‘Personally, it’s not my lifestyle choice, but who am I to say you can’t do that? There could be somebody in this locker room that is in Michael Sam’s position now. And if he were to come out and say something like that, by all means, we’re all part of a team, and we’re in it to win a championship, and he’ll be out there to fight for that with us. You’ve got to respect it in that context.’’

Epstein said what’s often overlooked in Sam’s story is that he was open with teammates long before he said anything publicly, and he was a team leader as Missouri went on to the SEC title game, a Cotton Bowl victory and a No. 8 national ranking.

‘‘That’s proof positive to any skeptics out there that it can be done,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘Obviously, every situation’s different. But pick a point in time, whether it’s 20 years from now or two years from now, and when you look back on this, it’s going to be really clear what the right thing was in every possible meaning of the word.’’

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

Twitter: @GDubCub



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