Archdeacon: For Miami’s Brian Zapp, pride replaces a secret

The secret was becoming unbearable.

For eight years Brian Zapp kept a big part of himself hidden.

He told absolutely no one and as the years went by – as he put it the other day – he became “a different person.”

He often became someone he was not.

Yet he also became someone he was.

Growing up in Waterloo, Ontario – about an hour southwest of Toronto – he soon became one of the best teenage baseball players in the province.

He was a standout infielder on his club team, the Great Lakes Canadians. Twice he was invited to play in the Blue Jays Showcase, a competition hosted by the Toronto Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre that brought together the best players from each Canadian province.

Since then he’s come to Miami University, where he just finished his junior baseball season and has become one of the team’s “best liked” and “most respected” players, said Coach Danny Hayden.

Yet, for as good of a baseball player as he was, there was one pitch he just could not handle.

He told no one he was bisexual.

“If someone did find out, to me that would be the end of my baseball career,” he said. “And that would be kind of like the end of my life.”

But by the fall of 2020, his sophomore season at Miami, he realized his life was derailing under the weight of his secret.

“It was really tough depression wise,” he said. “There was a lot of strain from my sexuality. I couldn’t suppress it anymore. I couldn’t go a day – not to classes, not to baseball practice – without thinking about it.

“I would go back to my room and isolate myself. I’d just sit there and let things spiral.

“I didn’t get to the point where I seriously thought of killing myself, but I also didn’t want it to keep building so that I would harm myself. You hear stories now, especially with college athletes, who do something drastic to themselves by keeping their secret in.”

Baseball had long been a place where he could express one side of himself, but he said that changed, too:

“I began to hate baseball. It was the game I was supposed to love, but I couldn’t get the thoughts out of my head.”

And every so often, as happens at all levels of baseball and in other sports, too, guys would utter a homophobic slur without even thinking about it. But he said it became harder for him to ignore:

“Inside I wondered if I ever could be who I really was.”

Finally, for his own sanity, he decided to come out to one person, his mom, Linda Pineau.

When he came home in December, he wrote her a letter expressing the thoughts and fears he’d kept hidden for years.

He told her he was bisexual.

“I felt bad he hadn’t told me sooner,” his mom would later explain to a Blue Jays’ film crew. “I felt bad he hadn’t told anybody because I felt he’d been suffering in silence.”

Zapp said his mom hugged him and told him it didn’t matter to her. She loved him just the same.

While that offered some relief, it didn’t resolve anything once he got back to school in January of 2021.

That season he played in 50 games for the RedHawks and started 46, primarily at third base. He hit .217 and had six home runs.

But he kept his secret until the following fall.

For the first time, he tried dating someone, but Oxford is a small college town and he had 40 teammates that he went to extremes to avoid. The clandestine relationship became an ill-fated affair that soon ended.

He began to rethink everything and determined his baseball accomplishments “didn’t mean as much to me if I got them while living in fear. I realized if I stayed in the closet, I’d regret it the rest of my life.”

At the end of September, nine months after he told his mom, he told his dad, Ken Zapp, by phone. A month later he told a cousin by text. And then in November, in his first face-to-face admission, he finally told his best friend who was another Miami player. Finally, he decided to come out to everyone in an Instagram post after his final exam in December, just before he made the seven-hour drive back to Waterloo for Christmas.

He spent two weeks crafting the admission, which he had his mom read first.

But after that final exam, he started to waver and began the drive home without sending the message. But 20 minutes into his trip, he decided to “rip the Band Aid off” as he put it. He pulled into a parking lot and with a quick “copy, paste…and post” he revealed his secret.

“I’m bisexual,” he said with a purposely-blunt start to his 400-word post.

He then shared some of the struggles he’d been dealing with and kept hidden.

Although he said he realized the significance of his admission – “There’s never been anyone in college baseball to come out while playing and I’m extremely proud to be the first,” – he wasn’t ready for the response.

As he continued driving – listening to music on his Bluetooth – the text message notifications began to arrive. He could see who was sending them – there were Miami teammates, Canadian classmates, family members, complete strangers – but he couldn’t see what they were saying.

Eventually he pulled over to get gas and began to read. He was overwhelmed by the love and support he got.

He admits there were a few “nasty” responses, but they were completely eclipsed by those who embraced him

He especially heard from the baseball community. Closeted college baseball players reached out to thank him for his courage and inspiration.

He heard from Brian Ruby, who, three months earlier, had been the first active pro baseball player to come out as gay, and from Billy Bean, the former Major League player, who revealed he was gay after his playing career and now is MLB’s Ambassador of Inclusion.

His most cherished baseball responses though came from the RedHawks team, especially coach Danny Hayden, who called as soon as he read the Instagram post.

“I knew he’d still be in the car driving and I imagined all the emotion he was feeling,” Hayden said. “I told him I was very proud of him for doing that. And I’d do everything I could to support him inside of our program. I said, ‘We’ll get through whatever comes next…together.’”

When he got home, Zapp said his dad hugged him and told him how proud of him he was, too.

And now, six months later, Zapp is experiencing pride all over again.

It’s Pride Month and 10 days ago the Toronto Blue Jays featured him – as a Blue Jays Showcase alum – in a video made by a camera crew they sent to Oxford last spring. They posted the clip online and then made it part of a celebration at a recent game to which they’d brought him in as a guest.

“They showed the video on the Jumbotron!” Zapp laughed.

‘The guys have my back’

Zapp remembers watching his parents play in slo-pitch softball leagues.

“After the games they’d flip the ball to me and I’d get to run the bases,” he said. “At home, if no one would play catch with me, I’d go in the street and just throw the ball up and catch pop flies.

“I kept pushing my mom to take me out of soccer and put me in baseball. She did and pretty soon baseball became a way of life for me.”

At the same time though he was experiencing another way he didn’t quite yet understand.

“When I was maybe 12, I just knew I was different than everybody else. At school everybody was talking about their crushes. But I started to realize my crushes weren’t always about a girl. Sometimes it was a guy. But that wasn’t talked about, so I just avoided the subject.”

He went to his senior prom with a girl, though the date was really just a shared friendship.

He said if he wasn’t playing sports, he likely would have come out of the closet after high school.

But he wanted to play college baseball and feared it would hurt his recruitment.

He liked the Miami campus when he visited and was impressed by the business school and the baseball program.

“From freshman year he was someone who had the time and capacity to help somebody if they needed it,” Hayden said. “People naturally gravitated to him because he was such a good guy.”

As a ball player, he’s a left-handed hitter who has shown some real pop in his bat Hayden said. In his first three seasons, Zapp has appeared in 116 games for the RedHawks.

Except for the one teammate he told a month prior, none of the other RedHawks, Hayden said, knew of Zapp’s secret until the Instagram post.

Just as they were surprised by his admission, Zapp was surprised by their positive response.

He was especially moved by Hayden

“I knew he’d be understanding, just from his views on things,” Zapp said. “But I was kind of surprised and really grateful at the way he contacted me all the time and made sure I was doing good.”

His teammates followed suit and this past season he heard none of those homophobic cracks that sometimes surface in baseball clubhouses. Nor did he hear anything untoward from opponents or from the stands.

“If anything ever was said, I’m pretty confidant the entire team would come out of the dugout behind me,” he said. “The guys have my back.”

As Hayden put it: “This coming out in 2022 is a lot different than if it was 2002. It would have been a big deal for Brian then. Today I don’t think people have major reactions to it like that because we’ve grown a lot as a society.”

‘I fell in love with baseball again’

With many folks, Hayden is right.

With others, he is not.

In the past year a sharpened atmosphere of anti-LGBTQ hate has surfaced.

A few days ago at a Kalama, Washington high school, an LGBTQ student was knocked unconscious in an unprovoked attack by another student.

Last weekend 31 white extremists were arrested after being discovered inside a U-haul trailer with, according to court documents, detailed plans and tactical gear they planned on use to disrupt a Pride event at a park in Couer d’Alene, Idaho. The police who made the arrests have now gotten death threats.

Thursday, Bishop Robert McManus of the Catholic diocese of Worchester, Massachusetts, punished the Nativity School, a tuition-free school for underprivileged boys, for flying a rainbow flag in front of the school. He demanded the school no longer call itself Catholic and that Mass no longer be said on school grounds.

The Daily Beast reported that in the past year over 300 pieces of anti- LGBTQ legislation have been tabled in Republican-led legislatures across the nation.

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden signed an executive order meant to stymie discriminatory legislative attacks on the LGBTQ community. While Biden’s efforts are seen as mostly symbolic, the individual actions of someone like Zapp can have a direct effect on people.

He said he came out publicly for a few reasons.

He hoped to educate his social media followers and teammates and he also wanted to inspire people in the closet and let them know they are not alone.

And, of course, he wanted to come out for himself.

For the most part, he said this past season was: “the best of my life…I fell in love with baseball again.”

This summer he’s back home in Waterloo, working out to get bigger and stronger.

The Blue Jays’ video – now reposted by Miami University – has highlighted his story again and brought responses from across two nations.

It also gotten him an offer to take part in the ongoing Toronto Pride festival, though he said he didn’t know if had time because of his workout regimen.

Then again, his most-meaningful pride celebration happened six months ago after his Instagram post.

That’s when his dad and mom hugged him and told him how proud they were of him.

That’s when Hayden called and told him how proud he was, too.

And then many of his teammates texted that same message.

“Proud of you brother,” wrote one

“Proud of you dude!!!” wrote another. “Inspiration to everyone. All love.”

Brian Zapp no longer has a secret.

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