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An Honest Man, Glenn Burke Deserved Better

I was up in San Francisco last summer when they had the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen on a baseball diamond.

It was before a game between the Giants and the Rockies and all the players were out on the field taking part in Until There’s A Cure Day.

A cure for AIDS, that is.

There were more than 40,000 people in Candlestick Park that afternoon - a dollar from each admission was donated to the fight against AIDS and it wasn’t long before the festivities took on a life of their own.

Mary Fisher, the AIDS victim and activist spoke, Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” was played on the public address system and the Giants all wore red AIDS ribbons on their uniforms. And when they ran out to fill in the loop of a huge human ribbon formed by volunteers in red T-shirts, the Rockies suddenly were out there, too.

The people in the stands stood and cheered while the players hugged each other and Dusty Baker and Don Baylor led them in a fist-pumping celebration.

“There was not a dry eye in the house,” recalled Robin Carr Locke, the ex-Giants’ publicist who came up with the idea of Until There’s A Cure Day. “I’m talking about hardened baseball and media people, too. The word had just come out that Glenn Burke was dying and he was certainly in our thoughts.”

The obituaries seem to imply that when Burke died Tuesday night he was the first major-league baseball player to succumb to AIDS, but this is not the case. Burke was the first player to admit to being gay and contracting the disease and therein lies a crucial difference. Glenn Burke had a lot of problems, but lack of honesty was seldom among them.

When Magic Johnson announced he had contracted the HIV virus, I spent some time at a Los Angeles AIDS clinic and was told that a well-known former big-league player had died of it there. I mentioned this in passing in my article and got a frantic call.

“You weren’t supposed to write that,” a volunteer at the clinic said. “He never wanted it to come out.”

“But he’s been dead two years,” I said. “It might do some good.”

“Please,” he said. “We promise people confidentiality here. Don’t do it again.”

I assured him I wouldn’t.

Burke’s attitude was different. Life may have dealt him a bum hand and baseball, too. Some of the players out on the Candlestick Park infield that day may have snubbed him had they been his teammates. But that was no reason to run and hide or to pretend.

And then there is this.

Burke did not get AIDS from having sex with women or from a blood transfusion or even from an infected needle while taking drugs. He got it in what is by far the most common way. He got it from gay sex.

Is that still a stigma many people can’t get past? Is it particularly something that the culture of professional sports can’t deal with? You bet it is.

Al Campanis offering to pay for a honeymoon if Burke would get married is one side of the coin. Billy Martin saying, “I don’t want no faggot on my team” is another. It is all part of the fear and the nonacceptance of anyone who is “different” that has haunted baseball through its history.

It was good to read kind statements about Burke from Tom Lasorda, who was his manager, and Manny Mota, who was his teammate. I hope that in the book Burke had just finished writing he will tell us that not everyone he knew in baseball reacted to him with cruelty and ignorance. But I have my doubts.

Even in San Francisco, perhaps the most tolerant city in the world when it comes to accepting people who are different, it took Carr Locke three years to sell her vision of an AIDS-awareness day at the ballpark. And its tremendous success did not keep her from being one of the first people the Giants fired when the players went on strike two weeks later.

“That will always be the highlight of my life with the Giants,” said Carr Locke, who has a fine job at Nike’s corporate headquarters in Beaverton, Ore. “Just to show you how psyched up everybody was, the team hit five home runs and beat the Rockies big-time.”

I wonder if anybody thought of dedicating one of those home runs to Glenn Burke.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Ron Rapoport Los Angeles Daily News