Gays in MLB? Sure there probably are some, but not many that are out. Oh wait, make that none. So for his fictional tale, entitled Fontana, author Joshua Martino conjured up a super hot (natch), 20 year-old outfielder for the Mets and imagined what would happen if he came out of the closet. All hell breaks loose in Queens, for starters. Right? More importantly, who does Martino see playing the lead in the movie adaptation…Taylor Lautner. Interesting choice, Taylor playing a superstar gay being pushed out of the closet. Could he pull it off?
We chatted with Joshua Martino and got some more details about his book (out now!) and the inspiration for the story.
1. Okay Joshua, let’s start off with the elevator pitch for your book.
My novel is the story of Ricky Fontana, a shy and Hollywood-handsome 20-year-old outfielder for the New York Mets. He’s the best hitter in baseball, though he’s better known to adoring female fans as the ultimate sports sex symbol. Ricky is atop the baseball world during a historic hitting streak when tabloid sportswriter Jeremy Rusch discovers Ricky’s biggest secret: He’s gay. The novel imagines the fanfare and furor that follow the emergence of the first gay sports superstar.
2. Why a gay MLB player? Where did the idea come from?
I’m a baseball nut. The novel’s premise comes from my wish to see the game catch up to other public institutions in representing the nation’s diversity. Baseball desegregated seven years before some states allowed blacks to share a bus or drinking fountain with whites. “Fontana” predicts baseball’s second integration: when an openly gay man shares a uniform with straight men—and kids wear his name on t-shirts.
That’s what fascinates me about the topic. For many straight men, sports are a refuge from women. Where else in American life are women so thoroughly excluded? Instead, male athletes are the objects of admiration. (You should hear scouts objectifying a prospect’s body like fratboys at Hooters!) So what would it mean for straight men to admire a man who desires other men? When boys say, “I want to grow up to be just like Ricky Fontana,” how would their parents respond? Baseball’s second integration has significance beyond equality—it challenges the function of our national pastime.
3. Who would you call your influences — how would you categorize the book?
Although young Ricky falls in love, the book is more suspense than romance. Readers will know before they begin that Fontana is gay. Thus, the intrigue is how and why he keeps his secret from a prying reporter who adores Fontana yet resents his many advantages.
4. What sorts of books would you compare yours to?
I wanted my novel to take on the subject of gay athletes in a new way. Erotica and romance writers have titillated readers with locker room trysts, and there are comedies that treat the topic smirkingly. “Fontana” strives for realism. I try to represent a scenario that could happen soon, and perhaps similarly to how I’ve written it. Most important to me is drama. I’m interested in the emotional conflict of the gay ballplayer and his teammates, and I also consider the meaning of a gay baseball player to fans.
5. Don’t give us any spoilers, but is there an overarching message in the book? Or is it more of a good time kind of thing.
Every year or so, a sports magazine surveys athletes and asks if they would play with an openly gay teammate. The vast majority say yes. Yet no athlete in the four major American sports has come out during his career. My novel’s message is that there must be a reason why gay players stay in the closet. Perhaps sports reveal a boundary of our tolerance. It’s one thing to approve of Ellen or Rosie or Anderson Cooper because few of us aspire to be TV show hosts. Yet millions of Americans want to be Derek Jeter. We root for him. We identify with him and feel invested in his success. Maybe the gay men currently playing in the major leagues sense that some fans are more comfortable keeping gays at an emotional distance.
There’s a reason that the euphemistic way to say that someone is gay is that “he plays for the other team.” In sports, gay men are still very much the “other.” Hopefully my novel prods readers to ponder the sanctimonious streak that prevents us from including others on our team.
6. Who would play the main characters in the movie of Fontana? You’ve thought about casting it, I’m sure.
Ricky Fontana is barely out of high school, tall, dark, and handsome. If Taylor Lautner’s free, he’s got the part! My narrator, Jeremy Rusch, is a boozehound windbag in love with his minor fame. Do you think Rush Limbaugh could spare a few months for filming?
7. Who’s your favorite MLB player?
Well, I’m straight, so perhaps my taste ought to be questioned! But how about New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte? Tall, broad, and a bit too much schnoz—my mother always said he looks a little like me. Better vanity be my foremost sin than being a boring writer.
8. Has any active player come out?
Two major league ballplayers have come out after their careers, but none during. Maybe that says more about what gay athletes expect from fans and the media. Being first won’t be easy. One model for Ricky Fontana is Jackie Robinson, who became the first black major league baseball player in 1947. Jackie’s also first to come to mind when I hear the word “hero.” The vicious racism he endured from fans and fellow ballplayers seems almost incomprehensible today. I suspect the first gay ballplayer should also expect a healthy dose of hate, though many fans who have awaited his arrival would celebrate him as a hero.
And maybe that’s another reason to stay in the closet. It’s hard enough to hit a baseball traveling 90 miles per hour without the pressure of representing the hopes of gay America. If the first out ballplayer went into a terrible slump, wouldn’t many assume that he wasn’t any good because he’s gay?
9. What’s your next subject?
I’m not sure what’s next for me after “Fontana.” Maybe a sequel? I won’t reveal if any of the characters die at the end, but if Ricky Fontana comes back as a vampire in the second book, maybe that improves my chances of getting Taylor Lautner to play him in the movie!
Fontana is in bookstores on July 17th…but available now online.