Ex-Cardinals prospect retired due to anti-gay language. Would baseball accept him today?

Tyler Dunnington lives in Scottsdale, Arizona and works in shipping logistics. Like many other baseball fans living in the desert, he gets out from time to time to an Arizona Diamondbacks game and takes in some of the action every year in the Arizona Fall League.

To settle some of his competitive urges, he gets between the white lines in a softball league organized by the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance.

From time to time, his softball teammates are surprised at how natural he appears on the field. Very few know about his career path. Nine years ago, a lifetime ago, Dunnington was a Cardinals minor league pitcher who played only one season of professional ball before retiring.

Dunnington is gay.

The pressure of that, and the extent to which he convinced himself he couldn’t be both out and a ballplayer, led him to retire, and has led him now to a place of understanding the pitfalls of clubhouse dynamics and the work that still needs to be done.

As the Cardinals celebrated Pride Night on Friday, they did so with only one active, out player — Anderson Comás of the Chicago White Sox Arizona Complex League team — in professional baseball.

“I think now more than ever is the time to come out and be yourself,” Dunnington said Friday in a phone interview. “It’s really as big of a deal as you make it, right? That’s what I had to learn. I was putting it on a pedestal of being this crazy moment for me … My family, my friends, no one really cared, and they all treated me as the same person. And I just realized, dang, I could have done this years ago.”

What held him back, in part, was the challenges he faced inside the clubhouse.

Dunnington recalled several instances of open homophobic speech, both from a coach in college and then from teammates as he worked through the lowest levels of the Cardinals minor league system.

Without confidence in the support he might have from the Cardinals, it was easier for Dunnington to walk away. Now, with the benefit of hindsight and personal growth, he’s not certain that was a necessary step.

Instead of speaking to the team, he waited until after retiring to speak to OutSports, an online publication focusing on LGBTQ athletes.

“When I came out with my story, my intent wasn’t to blame the Cardinals, and I know that I didn’t do that,” he said. “There was a gap in communication to start. Following that, I went out there for Pride Night. I met with John Mozeliak and Billy Bean, we sat down, we had a really open and honest conversation, hashed it out. And then, just as part of life, you move on, you move forward.”

Mozeliak, who had just been promoted to President of Baseball Operations, and Bean, an out former major leaguer who works in the MLB Commissioner’s office, walked out on the field with Dunnington to deliver a ceremonial first pitch, and the Cardinals were able to present an image of unity in the wake of controversy.

Even that step, though, started with several missteps. The Cardinals did not invite Dunnington to their event until learning he would be in town for an unrelated political fundraiser. When he was asked to come in early for a meeting, he was under the impression it would be a direct conversation with Mozeliak. Bean’s presence came as a surprise.

“You want your work environment to feel safe and inclusive, regardless of the person,” Mozeliak said when asked whether the club would handle the situation with Dunnington the same today as they did in 2016 and 2017. “As you look back in time, which, I don’t have a detailed memory of exactly what you’re referring to, I assure you we looked at what our practices were. If something like that happened today, we would definitely inquire.”

Mozeliak said the club did look into practices and potential areas of concern at its complex in Florida, but the scope of that investigation was seemingly limited. Dunnington was not interviewed formally by the Cardinals as part of that process, and has not had formal contact with the organization since his appearance at Pride Night in 2017.

Neither Dunnington nor the Cardinals seems uncomfortable with that arrangement. Dunnington said he still keeps in touch with several teammates from his minor league days and was involved in a panel discussion around LGBTQ issues in sports in St. Louis as recently as last year, but he doesn’t currently hold any formal mentoring roles.

Despite Dunnington’s experience in the system and the pledge, at the time, to improve the organizational culture, Mozeliak demurred when asked if the club had the necessary support environment in place to support an out, gay player on its Major League roster today.

“I mean, I would hope so,” he said. “But I don’t know that. It’s a hypothetical.”

He’s not alone in his uncertainty. Dunnington, in large part, agrees.

“Do I feel like everyone from … all three, kind of coach, player, fan perspective would openly accept me? No,” he admitted. “But that’s something that I know that after coming out, I would have accepted and I think the majority would be fine with it.

“I still think players can come out. I think it’s important to find, really, your chosen family when you do, because not everyone will be accepting. You’re going to have people that will be vocal about it, and public about not being accepting of it.

“And as long as you have your chosen family, and people that you can kind of lean into during those tough times, I think that’s what matters. If you can overcome that adversity, you’ll end up being a better player for it.”