PORTLAND, Maine — When former Major League Baseball umpire Dave Pallone gets chided by sports fans, it’s usually because of a call he made at first base back on April 30, 1988. And for that, he describes himself as fortunate.
Pallone stalled before signaling that New York Mets baserunner Mookie Wilson was safe, and the delay allowed another Met to score the winning run from third. Then-manager of the opposing Cincinnati Reds, Pete Rose, stormed the field, got into a shouting match with Pallone and ultimately shoved him twice — the confrontation is now among the more famous umpire-manager conflicts and Pallone still gets angry notes from Reds fans.
That type of abuse is better than the possible alternative, the former umpire said, considering the vitriol absorbed by other gays in today’s society for their sexual orientations.
Pallone was just a few years removed from a 10-year stint as a National League umpire when he wrote the groundbreaking 1990 book “Behind the Mask: My Double Life in Baseball,” in which he opened up about working as a gay man in the world of pro sports.
On Thursday, Pallone is scheduled to visit the University of Southern Maine to talk to students, faculty and coaches about diversity and the importance of respecting individuals’ sexual orientations. After a series of workshops at the school during the day, the former umpire will give a free public speech at 6 p.m. at Corthell Hall in Gorham.
“I still probably hear more [insults] from the Pete Rose thing,” Pallone told the Bangor Daily News during a telephone interview Wednesday. “For me, personally, my life is a good one. Compare that to just this past week in Atlanta. A man was brutally attacked and beaten just for being gay. That’s never happened to me, but it continues to happen in 2012.
“When I go out and speak, I try and get it through the heads of our young men and women what’s happening in our country and that they can change it.”
Pallone is asked often when he thinks America will see its first openly gay active professional male athlete. He said used to venture guesses, but now just says, “I don’t know.”
“Baseball at that time was the American pastime, and people could not wrap their mind around it,” Pallone said. “I’ve heard that question many times, and each time I have an answer it’s wrong. I figured way back in 1990 that by now it would have happened. I wrote in my book that I thought it would happen by the turn of the century. That was 2001, here we are in 2012 and it hasn’t happened.”
He said he hopes to see an active male pro athlete come out of the closet in his lifetime, and he thinks he will. Make no mistake, Pallone said, there are gay men playing professional sports in America today. The public just doesn’t know who they are.
“People who say there can’t be any gay athletes in professional sports, they’re just fooling themselves — it’s just a statistically problematic thing to think about,” Pallone said. “The problem we face in our society is that it’s vilified. We’re continued to be looked at as second-class citizens in 2012, and until we have a society to change that, we’re still going to have athletes stay in the closet and not help younger athletes feel comfortable enough to come out.”
Pallone said he has received more than 400,000 letters since his book was originally published — it was recently re-published to commemorate its 20th anniversary — and many of them have been from readers who “felt like they were the only ones who were living with this fear that they’d be found out.”
The former umpire applauded Tuesday’s decision by a federal appeals court that California’s same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional, and also the announcement last month that same-sex marriage is due to be the subject of another referendum in Maine in November.
But he said he expects the final decision on the hotly contested debate to come from the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The Supreme Court is going to make the decision for everybody,” he said. “We’re going to have a huge firestorm either way. The next few years is going to be very interesting to see how it plays out.”