Billy BeanIn this week’s print edition, which hit stands on Friday, we announced our selection for LGBT Texan of the Year, and with little surprise, it was Texas native (and Dallas Cowboy recruit, though short-lived) Michael Sam. But Sam isn’t the only outhlete who impressed us this year. Brittney Griner, Tom Daley, Jason Collins and Robbie Rogers all spoke out.

But as sports writer Dan Woog observes in this piece, it was also a former athlete who started to get a lot accomplished behind the scene, by becoming MLB’s first Ambassador of Inclusion: Billy Bean.

During his entire baseball career, Billy Bean says he lived in a “tiny, dark closet.”

In 1995, he walked away from the sport he loved. He felt he could no longer hide his sexuality. But he also believed he could not be out as a professional athlete.

Bean went on to successful careers in radio, television, restaurants and real estate.

Then last year, while he was attending the Nike-sponsored LGBT Sports Coalition meeting in Portland, Major League Baseball came calling. A high-ranking official admitted, “This phone call probably comes 15 years too late.”

A month later, MLB made it official: Bean was named its first Ambassador for Inclusion.

Underlying its importance, the announcement came on a big stage: during the annual All-Star game in Minneapolis.

Bean’s new job highlights Major League Baseball’s evolution on LGBT issues, and its confidence in that path. A year ago, the organization formulated a policy prohibiting players from harassing and discriminating against others based on sexual orientation. Now they’ve named an openly gay former player to a league-wide position and given him wide latitude to figure out exactly what his job entails.

The first thing Bean did was put together an “all-star team” of experts. Representatives from GLAAD, Athlete Ally, You Can Play, PFLAG and other groups made themselves available to help educate players.

But as a former player himself, Bean knows that the demands on athletes’ time are great. So he’s reaching out further, to each MLB team and to their fans as well.

He’s doing it like the singles hitter he was. Bean is not going for a dramatic home run; he’s spraying hits around the field.

During the World Series, for instance, he met with San Francisco Giants CEO Larry Baer. In the midst of so many distractions — “the whole world was watching the team,” Bean notes — the executive listened, and told Bean how important his work was.

Then, Bean traveled to Phoenix for the annual meeting of all 30 MLB general managers. Later this winter he will be part of the Rookie Career Development Program, educating professional baseball’s youngest athletes about LGBT issues.

He’s opening up dialogues with every team. Each has its unique culture. Teams like the Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs have created inclusive environments, and done outreach to LGBT fans. Many other teams, though “don’t discuss the subject much,” Bean says. “My job is to bring positive attention to it.”

These days, people are willing to listen. “That’s the greatness of baseball,” says Bean. “They understand it’s not fair for one (gay) player to shoulder the burden of this new frontier. It’s important for an organization to understand that these issues impact and involve everyone.”

Bean was not hired to work with the one or two MLB players who may be in the process of deciding whether to come out. His job is to help the sport understand that there are gay players, executives, broadcasters and fans — in varying stages of “outness” — and to embrace everyone in the wide baseball community.

Baseball has come a long ways from 1995, the year Bean retired. “If things were like this when I was playing, my life would’ve been very different,” he says.

He points with pride to the New York Yankees. One of his first initiatives this summer was to take general manager Brian Cashman and assistant GM Jean Afterman to the Hetrick-Martin Institute, the nation’s largest social services agency for at-risk LGBT youth. The executives showed off their 2009 championship rings, then encouraged the teenagers to be true to themselves and follow their passions … wherever those might lead.

“That’s the power of baseball,” Bean says. “It can be very exciting and inspiring. Our job now is to even the playing field, so that everyone feels they can participate.”

A few months ago, at the LGBT Sports Coalition meeting in Portland, Bean met four college baseball players. Thrilled at the chance to talk with a former Major Leaguer, they described their fulfilled, exciting lives as gay athletes today.

“Ten years ago,” Bean says, “if you met people like that they’d be in dire circumstances. But the arc of the conversation has changed. I feel really grateful to be part of it.”

MLB commissioner Bud Selig acknowledged the past when he introduced Bean to the media. “I wish our game had someone in place” to whom Bean could have turned as a player, Selig says. “A friend, listener, a source of support.”

Billy Bean is doing exactly that today — not just for players, but coaches, managers, executives and fans as well. As a player he was not a home run hitter, but as “Ambassador for Inclusion” he’s definitely a grand slam.