More than a year ago, the LGBT-focused sports website Outsports broke a disturbing story: former Cardinals minor-leaguer Tyler Dunnington, who came out as gay after his retirement, revealed that he had experienced anti-gay bigotry throughout his time in baseball, including during his brief professional career with the GCL Cardinals in 2014. “Two teammates in particular,” reported Outsports’ Cyd Ziegler, “questioned their straight teammate on how he could possibly be friends with a gay person, even his brother. They even mentioned ways to kill gay people.”
“Each comment felt like a knife to my heart,” wrote Dunnington in an email to Outsports. “I was miserable in a sport that used to give me life, and ultimately I decided I needed to hang up my cleats for my own sanity.”
Dunnington’s allegations made local and national headlines—briefly. In a Post-Dispatch story the next day, Cardinals GM John Mozeliak called the reports “very disappointing” and pledged to “look into this further” and “take this very seriously.” A week later, the P-D ran a brief update on a separate allegation involving one of Dunnington’s coaches at Colorado Mesa University.
And then the story seemingly disappeared down the memory hole. At no point in the last year did the Cardinals ever disclose, or the media report on, the results of the club’s investigation into what Dunnington alleged. We don’t know how the club conducted its review or what it concluded; we don’t know if any players were disciplined or counseled; we don’t know if any other actions were taken or policies put in place to prevent something like this from happening again.
The Cardinals did not respond to my repeated requests to provide that information for this story. My attempts to reach Dunnington himself were also unsuccessful; he has mostly eschewed media coverage and public comment since the story broke, though he did speak last July at a fundraiser for the Missouri Courage Scholarship, a college scholarship program sponsored by Pride St. Louis. In a video of his remarks at the event, Dunnington gives a bit more detail about the things he’d heard: “Teammates of mine…were talking about how [homosexuality] is very much a choice, and ways to kill him, talking about hanging him.”
While it’s absurd to expect organizations to police every stray remark made in a clubhouse full of college-aged athletes, conversations about “ways to kill gay people” indisputably cross a line from typical juvenile offensiveness into something that needs to be addressed. The radio silence from the club and obliging disinterest from the media make it hard to say anything else very definitively. Worst of all, perhaps, is the fact that the apathy towards Dunnington’s story suggests a cynical hierarchy when it comes to who we care about protecting from abuse; it’s hard to imagine that all of this would’ve been so quickly and thoroughly forgotten if it had been a top prospect, not a 28th-round pick and major-league longshot, who had come forward with these allegations.
Make no mistake: it’s a near-certainty that there are dozens of gay men currently playing professional baseball. Tyler Dunnington was undoubtedly not the first and won’t be the last gay player to pass through the Cardinals’ minor-league system. But the club isn’t interested in telling us, and local media apparently aren’t interested in finding out, what steps it has taken to try to alter an environment that was already hostile enough to make one ballplayer quit the game.
Meanwhile, outside the baseball world, activists are bracing for a potential assault on LGBT rights under a unified Republican federal government, and the Trump administration has already rescinded Obama-era guidelines aimed at protecting transgender students. A “bathroom bill” similar to the notorious North Carolina legislation that has led to widespread boycotts of the state is being debated in the Missouri Senate. And Missouri continues to lag far behind other states when it comes to protections for LGBT people, having consistently failed to pass even basic anti-discrimination laws that prevent people from being denied employment, housing, or public accommodation on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
So here’s a simple suggestion for the Cardinals: hold an official Pride Night at Busch Stadium this summer, and invite Dunnington and others to speak to the media and fans about their experiences and the ways all of us can do better. Thirteen major-league clubs held official LGBT theme nights last season, but the Cardinals—despite an annual unofficial group event sponsored by Pride St. Louis, and despite the Blues holding their first Pride Night earlier this year—were not one of them, nor do they have one scheduled this year. There’s no reason that shouldn’t change.
The need for such an event is particularly acute given the featured speaker at this year’s “Christian Day at the Ballpark”: former Cardinal Lance Berkman, who controversially appeared in a 2015 political ad opposing an equal-rights ordinance in Houston, and later defended his involvement by remarking that “tolerance is the virtue that’s killing this country.” The Cardinals’ institutional buy-in to the long-running Christian Day event is significant, with manager Mike Matheny and many players regularly participating. On its own, Berkman’s appearance might not be conspicuous, but in conjunction with the organization’s reticence on Dunnington and resistance to holding a Pride event, it sends an unfortunate message.
I’ve made a habit out of defending Cardinals fans against what I believe is a groundless, counterproductive, often sneeringly classist caricature of them as bigoted backwater hicks. But I absolutely agree with Will Leitch on one thing: the Cardinals themselves have consistently failed to live up to their responsibilities as a community institution.
Whether out of ideological conviction or simple organizational caution, the club is constantly two steps behind, absent from stories it shouldn’t be, and out of touch with and unreflective of the city it’s supposed to represent. Its silence when racist abuse was hurled at protesters outside Busch Stadium in 2014 was disgraceful, and of a piece with its chronic lack of engagement with its African-American fanbase. It has used its growing in-house media operation to advance revisionist narratives about the history of its relationship with the City of St. Louis and public stadium financing. Its chief broadcast partner (which it now owns a 30% stake in) has the worst track record of on-air diversity in baseball.
Quite frankly, the Cardinals as an organization have not done enough in the past to rule out the ugliest possible interpretation of their handling of the Dunnington situation: that they ultimately aren’t all that troubled by what he alleged. Mozeliak’s vow to “take this very seriously” is entirely incongruous with the club’s handling of the matter since then—how, then, are we not to conclude they weren’t just lip service from an executive eager to put some bad press behind him? It’s bad enough that the organization might think this way; it’s much worse that it might have worked.