Kevin McClatchy: Team Player

Kevin McClatchy: Team Player

Photography by Jeff Swensen

Snow falls on a Sunday morning in March as Kevin McClatchy steps barefoot into the kitchen, dressed in shimmery blue, knee-length basketball shorts and a long-sleeved white T-shirt. He scratches his chest, rubs his silvery hair, and pours himself a cup of coffee. “You like bacon? Eggs?” he asks, placing the peppered slabs in the frying pan.

His boyfriend, Jack Basilone, a handsome, energetic guy in his early 30s, is already dressed in a polo shirt and jeans, ready for the morning. “I gotta feed the boys,” he says, referring to the five horses in the stable a hundred steps from the house. “Do you want to go out, Hank?” He motions to the 108-pound chocolate lab who sits expectantly at McClatchy’s feet. “Or is bacon too much for you to handle?” Eventually Hank relents and joins Basilone for his stable chores.

McClatchy scrambles the eggs and looks for cheese, but all he can find is a fat-free cheddar that doesn’t make the cut. Basilone returns and McClatchy sets the plates on the thick, wooden farmhouse table, finds a bottle of habañero hot sauce, and the three of us sit down to breakfast. This relaxed, no-frills meal is the way McClatchy lives his life these days.

He wasn’t nearly as at ease the first time we met in January. He was visiting New York City on a business trip a few weeks after his 50th birthday. All buttoned up in a suit and tie, we’d chatted about his life since he’d come out publicly in a New York Times story last September that sparked a flurry of analysis on blogs and newspapers around the country. McClatchy remained taciturn, rubbing his hands anxiously. Having lived behind emotional armor for years to protect himself from potential scandal, he was still shy about opening up to a stranger. So I was curious: For someone who could live anywhere in the world, why had he chosen Ligonier, Pennsylvania? Was he hiding out?

“No, I don’t think it’s about that,” he replied. “I think it’s more that we enjoy the tranquility. Hiding is the wrong word; we enjoy being around our animals. And it’s not far from any place if we really want to get there.”

The drive to Ligonier takes a little more than an hour from Pittsburgh. It could be a movie set, with a gazebo in the town square, antique stores lining its main streets, and a preserved fort from the French and Indian War nearby. Inside McClatchy’s country house it feels spacious, masculine, tasteful with its Americana paintings and overstuffed sofas.

At the time the sold his stake in the Pittsburgh Pirates, the baseball team he owned for 11 years, in 2007, McClatchy was successful and happy. He had found Basilone, a younger man he loved and with whom he could share his life. Then, in March of last year, he assumed the role of chairman of his family’s 155-year-old newspaper chain, with 30 daily newspapers around the country.

Although McClatchy had told family members and close friends he was gay while in his early 30s, he’d tried to keep it a secret from everyone else. Baseball required it. “I put everything aside,” he explains. “I knew when I was trying to buy the team, there was going to be a huge sacrifice when it came to my personal life. But I thought it was going to be a rare opportunity, so I made that choice.”

Passing as a straight man for most of his life, McClatchy was fiercely dedicated to sports, and he played by the rules.

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Kevin McClatchy with his and his partner, Jack’s, horse, Gaucho.

After committing so many years to baseball, however, he also thought sports could do a better job. It needed to change. He’d met Billy Beane, the pro baseball player who came out in 1999 after retiring from the game, and they became friends. “His story fascinated me,” McClatchy says. Then Rick Welts, at the time the president and CEO of the Phoenix Suns basketball team, came out in 2011, and that got McClatchy thinking it might be time to follow suit. But he wavered.

“It was a timing thing. Everything in my life was going well, and I didn’t want to screw it up,” he says. But he also wasn’t doing it alone. “In some ways Jack helped me to come out faster. His generation, they look at the whole issue much differently than I do. The progress they made has made it easier for me.”

“Any time a bullying story would come up, we’d talk about it,” Basilone explains. “He’d say, ‘Even if I help one person, I should come out openly.’ Those conversations had been two years in the making.”

“I had gone through a certain amount of my life having to tell a lie, not talking about my life, and it got to a point where it made no sense,” McClatchy says. “It became clear to me that I was ready to come out. I am sure there are people out there -- and I’ve heard this -- who say, ‘You should have come out earlier.’ But until you walk in someone else’s shoes, it’s tough to understand why.”

McClatchy always had big ambitions. At 15 he started to dream about owning a professional sports team. At Trinity-Pawling, an all-boys boarding school, he spent a Thanksgiving with the family of his roommate, Dan Rooney, who owned the Pittsburgh Steelers. “I went to a practice and I met Joe Greene and all these guys on the team. I was just enamored of the whole thing,” he says. “I told Danny, ‘One day, I’m going to own a team like you guys do.’ ”

The youngest of three children, he was born in Sacramento, where his family’s first newspaper, The Sacramento Bee, was founded in 1857. When he was three, his parents divorced and he moved with his mother to San Francisco. When she got remarried (to architect John Carl Warnecke, a friend and confidant of President John F. Kennedy), he became the youngest of a family of seven children. But he wasn’t lost in the crowd, because he excelled at sports.

He played football, baseball, basketball, and soccer. Summers meant tennis camp. It was all he could think about.

“He was always an adorable child,” recalls his mother, Grace Kennan Warnecke, now 80 and living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He took a bus to Marin Country Day School, where they didn’t have grades, just smiley faces or frowns. “McClatchy was always all smiles,” she says.

That’s why she was mortified when the family moved to Washington, D.C., and McClatchy’s new school called to say that her son couldn’t read. Humiliated, she had him tested and discovered he had severe dyslexia. They decided he should attend Trinity-Pawling, in New York’s Hudson Valley, which had programs for students with learning disabilities. He had grown up surrounded by people who had succeeded by using words, but McClatchy was searching for another way.

“My dad gave me some pretty good advice: ‘You shouldn’t work for our company,’ ” he says. “You definitely learn a lot more about yourself when you get out of your family’s shadow.”

After graduating from UC Santa Barbara, McClatchy decided to focus on the business side of newspapers and was hired for an unglamorous job at the Miami Herald, taking real estate ads by telephone. At 26, he was slowly working his way up the corporate ladder in advertising and marketing when his father, C.K. McClatchy, died. For better or worse, McClatchy found himself drawn back in the family business, working for a family-owned paper in northern California. It was one of the low points of his life. Although he’d started to realize and accept that he was gay, he found himself alone and frustrated. That’s when he read an article about Fred Anderson, who had bought the Modesto A’s minor league baseball franchise in 1994.

Undeterred by Anderson’s seniority, McClatchy called him up. “I told him, ‘I think you’re making some mistakes with your strategy with your minor league team,’ ” McClatchy says. “He told me I should come in and explain all the mistakes [he was] making in his business.” Figuring he had nothing to lose, McClatchy went to see Anderson, then in his 60s. Three months later, McClatchy was president of the team.

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After McClatchy decided to buy an interest in the Modesto A’s, the two men found themselves strategizing on how they could buy the Oakland A’s. “I thought he was crazy,” McClatchy admits. “We didn’t have that kind of money.” Although that deal fell through, it showed McClatchy a way that he might own a pro sports team and fulfill his childhood dream. So when the Pittsburgh Pirates came up for sale, he pounced. This time, with a consortium of investors and $95 million behind him, he was determined not to lose the deal. On February 14, 1996, McClatchy assumed the posts of CEO and managing general partner.

“Everybody was stunned,” his mother says. “Everyone thinks he was some rich boy who went out and bought a team, which isn’t true. The fact that he succeeded -- it was amazing.”

At 33, McClatchy was now the youngest manager of a professional baseball team. He joined an irascible bunch: George Steinbrenner, Ted Turner, Marge Schott. These people didn’t censor their thoughts, and they didn’t know (or care) much about this young interloper.

“The first time I met Marge, she turned and handed me her drink. I think she thought I was one of the busboys,” McClatchy says. “I grabbed her drink and I put it down, and then I tried it again.”

Despite the triumph, McClatchy was quickly tested when someone threatened to leak to the press that he was gay. “There was no question that it would have adverse effects in the ownership group,” McClatchy explains.

Investors might have recoiled, but the other team owners were also a political minefield, especially since a manager needs a majority of the 30 to be voted in. In case the news leaked, McClatchy finally came out to his older sister, Adair, and his mother.

She found his news difficult to digest. “First of all, I thought his life was going to be so difficult because he had to stay hidden,” Warnecke explains. “I suppose I had some little dream of him walking down the aisle, and grandchildren. But the upset -- that was very, very brief. I was perfectly OK with him being gay.”

She kept his secret. “People would come up and say, ‘Oh, he’s so cute. Now I have this daughter Peggy...’ but I knew he wasn’t going to be interested in Peggy. I finally invented an imaginary girlfriend in Chicago,” she says.

Pittsburgh is ferocious in its love of its sports teams, and McClatchy didn’t quite anticipate the amount of attention he’d receive. Women asked him to autograph their breasts—one even wrote and performed an “Ode to Kevin McClatchy.” People would stop him on the street to share their opinions on why the team continued its unfortunate losing streak. After the partners gathered finances to build a new stadium, PNC Park, which opened in 2001, it was hailed as one of the best ballparks in America. McClatchy enjoyed the limelight, but he found himself shrinking from public view. “For 15 years I probably didn’t go out to dinner,” he says. “Simple stuff you like and enjoy, I didn’t do it.”

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In New York City, McClatchy did chance going into a gay bar, but was clocked by a college frat brother who yelled his name while he ran away.

In 2007 McClatchy stepped down as CEO of the Pirates. Now in his 40s, it was time for him to find the next challenge -- and finally begin having a personal life. “Jack would have hated me in baseball. It wouldn’t have worked out,” McClatchy admits. “If we lost, I would not talk; everyone avoided me. I was not fun to be around at all.”

In March of last year, he was made chairman of the board of the McClatchy Company. Years after his parents divorced, he’d become the paterfamilias of the company his father had built. “It’s a great time, in a strange way, to be involved in the industry,” he says. While the company’s CEO handles the brunt of the business decisions, McClatchy remains involved in the vision for its future. “Newspapers have faced challenges before, but if we evolve and change, and appreciate digital marketing, we can save newspapers as we know them. It’s one of the most important things we can do in society.”

“People have an insecurity, and they like to use the locker room as an excuse,” McClatchy says. Dressed in blue jeans and a plaid button-down, he relaxes on his sofa as he opens up about the problems faced by pro sports. It’s days after a report of NFL scouts prying into a player’s personal life, asking questions about his sexual orientation, has leaked and caused a firestorm of criticism. “There is no other business in America where you can go ask questions of employees like that,” he says. “We have men and women sacrificing their lives to protect our lives overseas that are showering with each other. We have firefighters, police officers, who can make it work. We need to stop using it as an excuse.”

Newspapers may be his job, but sports still get him fired up. “I think sports can do a better job,” he says. “I think there’s got to be a lot more education and sensitivity training—not just the HR directors in the front office, but with the coaches and the minor league coaches. The last thing I want to see is a high school student make bad decisions in his life because he thinks he can’t play. There has to be a message that if you’re gay, it’s OK to play.”

He’s still friendly with Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and, before he came out in the Times, he called Selig to let him know about the story and offered to talk to managers and teams about why baseball needs to change, and the inevitability of an out gay player.

“This is going to happen, and it’s not a big deal,” McClatchy told the commissioner. “Baseball is a game of statistics; it doesn’t lie. Your ability doesn’t lie. If you’re batting .320, whether you’re dating a guy or a gal, it’s not gonna matter.” But the commissioner -- or anyone else in management -- has yet to approach him.

“Although it’s not an official policy in sports, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is still running strong,” he says. “When I came out, somebody who’s a fairly high-profile business person said to somebody else, ‘Why did McClatchy feel the need to come out? We were fine with it. Why did he need to do it? Just don’t talk about it, it’s cool.’ I think a lot of that goes on in sports, but it’s changing. And it will change quickly once that first professional athlete comes out.”

A few days before this year’s Super Bowl, Chris Culliver, a backup cornerback for the 49ers -- one of the first professional sports teams to support Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project -- had provoked outrage after telling a radio reporter that gay players were not welcome on his team. The usual mea culpa was issued, and Culliver agreed to meet with representatives of the Trevor Project, which works with LGBT youth. For McClatchy, though, it was just another reminder of the scale of the task ahead.

“I think some people don’t get exposed to some of the bigotry that is out there,” he says. “But I’ve heard it for years. That issue is not done.”

But it’s Sunday afternoon, and that means there’s a basketball game -- or a few -- to watch. In this home he’s created, McClatchy can survey it all. He gets out his remote and positions himself in front of his three large flat-screen TVs. Let the games begin

Tags: Sports