OAKLAND — In the Summer of 2011, A’s starting pitcher Sonny Gray was a relative nobody.
He had played three seasons at Vanderbilt, his Alma-Mater, where he developed a reputation as a bulldog on the mound.
Just a mere two years later, Gray was quickly becoming the most thrilling piece of the Oakland A’s minor league system. And by October 2013, he was the most heralded young pitcher on Oakland’s staff since Catfish Hunter.
Earning the opening day start in 2014, Gray said he’d come a long way:
“It was a pretty big moment.”
Gray, 24, grew up in the little-big town of Smyrna, Tennessee, which occupies 23 square miles of land, but only has a population of around 40,000. At Smyrna High School he wowed scouts with his 95 mph fastball, which he perfected with the help of his late father, Jesse Gray.
On the weekends, son and father would pile into their old pickup truck and hit the highway — heading to the local baseball diamond.
Truckbed stocked with bats, gloves, and a bucket of balls, the two would play all day long before returning home for some pizza.
It’s an all-American tale which tugs at the heart-strings of all walks of life, a love story similar to that shown in “The Sandlot.”
By the time Gray was five years old, he’d led his little league team to the state championship. The team won, prompting the elder Gray to shave off his hair, a promise he made to the team if the went all the way.
Fast forward ten years, Sonny had received tragic news.
His father, who worked two jobs in order to pay the bills, never made it home from his night shift at a neighborhood bar. He’d been killed in a car accident, after running a red light and being ejected from the vehicle.
Today, the gunslinger’s story is less tragic.
Gray was drafted out of high school during the 2008 draft by the Chicago Cubs. Much like another star pitcher in their high school days, Colin Kaepernick, he balked at joining the Cubs and opted to college instead.
He’d made his decision — the budding star was headed to Vanderbilt, where his new mentor, coach Tim Corbin, said:
“Sonny is one of the most talented and competitive pitchers that I have coached…He has a special arm and array of pitches, but what makes him different is his ability to compete at a very high level.”
During his final season, versus Brown, Gray posted the most impressive stat-line of his college career: 15 strikeouts and no walks in a nine-inning complete game.
It was a moment that would make him the 18th overall pick, to the Oakland A’s, during the 2011 major league baseball first-year draft.
Much to the delight of Gray, and fans of the A’s, the team was experiencing a serious uptick. The team’s strength was pitching, though, and Gray would seemingly face an uphill battle.
Brandon McCarthy and Gio Gonzalez led the rotation for Oakland, both holding a sub-3.50 ERA over 25-plus starts in 2011. A strong bullpen, with a young Andrew Bailey and an Aussie named Grant Balfour, helped add to the daunting proposition of Gray making it to the majors in a green and gold uniform.
In late 2011, Gray lasted only two innings in his first minor league start. He hadn’t done terribly — only allowing one run — but had also given up four hits. Nevertheless, Gray was quickly promoted to double-A in Midland, Texas, where he flashed the sort of stuff he’d been known for.
Over five starts, Gray only allowed one run, while striking out 18 hitters and walking just six. The season would eventually help define a very short stint in the minors, joining the big club in 2013.
He debuted as a starter with Oakland on August 10th. A road game versus the Toronto Blue Jays, Gray had walked the second batter he faced, then gave up a long ball to Jay’s slugger Jose Bautista.
Three batters later, Gray had retired the side and followed by pitching five scoreless innings.
Gray took the loss, but answered with tremendous ferocity. He’d won five games in the last two months of the season and garnered the first start of the playoffs. Unfortunately for the team, Gray would also pitch the final playoff game of the season, a first-round loss to the Detroit Tigers.
His 2014 season got off to rocky beginnings, walking the first two batters faced and throwing 35 pitches in the first inning. But just like his first major league start, Gray settled down and didn’t allow much at all — just five hits over six innings, to go along with seven strikeouts.
If appearances act as a crystal ball into the future, Gray has a bright one. And he’s hoping to bring things back to where they all began — winning a the big game and bringing home the championship trophy.