DAN LE BATARD
JUPITER -- The champion Marlins are stitched together tightly, not unlike the baseball around which they bond. The potential barriers, of religion and politics and language, all get toppled in the name of team and triumph.
So there is first baseman Hee Seop Choi, bowing politely upon meeting new Marlins teammates with whom he can't really speak. And there is big-bellied Armando Benitez, all Latin machismo, tossing a tin of Copenhagen across the clubhouse to Kid Rock-ian A.J. Burnett, with whom he has zero in common beyond an ability to throw a baseball very hard. And there is jovial Dontrelle Willis, going from locker to locker, making his way in and out of the white, black and Hispanic clubhouse cliques with laughter and hugs and enough wattage to light a stadium.
But what if one of them were gay?
Would this still be the tightest, most fun clubhouse in baseball?
''What it would be,'' Marlins pitcher Brad Penny says, ``is very uncomfortable in here.''
The caveman culture of sports, allowing adults to remain adolescents for a living, is not yet one of tolerance, enlightenment or understanding -- nor will it be anytime soon. You will find more homophobia per square foot in a professional sports locker room than you will find just about anywhere else in America outside of a Klan meeting, ''faggot'' remaining the most common and searing of slurs. So while homosexuality makes that arduous walk toward America's altars, more mainstream than ever from South Beach to San Francisco, found amid the laughter on prime-time television, you still won't find it anywhere near here, in the locker room where being a felon, rapist or cheat remains preferable to being gay.
''I wouldn't have a problem with it, but some people in here would,'' Marlins reliever Tim Spooneybarger says. ``This is a very personal work environment. Very intimate. Not many lawyers get together after work and shower with 30 other lawyers.''
It is very hard for one of today's athletes to become Muhammad Ali or Jackie Robinson, to have that kind of cultural impact from the sports section, but this is the final uncrossed horizon in sports. It's an odd and amazing thing to say in 2004, the year a 14-year-old female played among male golfers and a transsexual has entered an Australian golf tournament for females, but there has never been an active athlete in major American sports to announce he or she is gay.
Swimming? Tennis? Golf? Sure. But those are loner sports that don't require harmony, reliance, teammates. It gets appreciably more difficult to come out of the closet when it will turn the guy dressing next to you, in your colors, into the opponent, too. And there hasn't been anybody with the conviction to risk unemployment, physical harm and ostracizing in the name of this cause.
So pity poor Kazuhito Tadano this season. He's a young Cleveland Indians pitcher who starred in a gay pornographic movie three years ago. Shunned by Japanese baseball, he held an awkward press conference recently to announce he isn't gay but made the movie because he needed the money to get through college. His only solace is that, because of the language barrier, he might not understand some of the awful words about to come his way.
Asked once how he would react to a gay teammate, Atlanta outfielder Andruw Jones said he would begin with a simple, ''What the hell is wrong with you?'' That's about the kindest of what awaits the gay athlete with the courage to be today's Ali, today's Robinson, wherever he might be hiding, afraid to come out.