FORT MYERS, FLA. – Sonny Gray's youth baseball teams did not lose.
From the 5-6 age group through the 11-12 team, the UNA Bears won every game but one that Gray can remember. And although those teams boasted a future major league pitcher in Gray, it was the coach, his father, who really nurtured that talent.
"We were turning double plays when we were 5 years old," Gray said. "It was coached. We practiced. We did the right thing. But he took the time."
Jesse Gray would always take a knee to be at eye level with his players so he wasn't towering over them while coaching. He made the boys comfortable, and they listened.
Scenes like that permeated Sonny Gray's childhood, spent mostly on baseball diamonds and football fields in the Nashville area. They are memories he looks back at often, the ones he made with his father before they could no longer make more.
When Sonny was a freshman in high school, his father, coming home from his second job at his brother-in-law's bar/restaurant, died in an early-morning car accident. Jesse Gray was 41 years old.
Sonny, now 32, has lived more years without his dad than with him. Since his father's passing, Gray led his Smyrna High School baseball team to the Tennessee state tournament, and the football team twice won state with him at quarterback. He brought Vanderbilt to the College World Series for the first time in program history. He made his big-league debut with the Oakland Athletics in 2013. He married, and with wife Jessica, has two young sons of his own, 7-year-old Gunnar and 3-year-old Declan.
Now he will embark on his 10th major league season with his fourth team, after coming to the Twins from Cincinnati three weeks ago. The Twins will look to Gray's two-time All-Star résumé to lead their starting rotation on the field and to his character to help develop young pitchers off it.
And for that, Gray will remember his dad, the man who taught him the fundamentals of the game and how to pitch. The man who envisioned his son's MLB future when he first started playing baseball at age 4.
"My dad, I feel like he had this picture out of his head, like 'This is what's going to happen,'" Gray said. "... If we're talking about living out a dream, this is what it's been for me my whole life, from since I was 4. This is it."
The worst of days
Baseball seemed destined to be a big part of the Gray family. Jesse Gray met his wife, Cindy, at a 1981 softball tournament. He played in it, as a former high school ballplayer, and she helped run it. They married in 1986 and had their first of three kids, Jessica, in 1988. Two years later came Sonny and six years after that, Katie.
Cindy remembers her husband as a happy, big-hearted person, someone who cared about those around him and always wanted to help. He was the same with his kids, loving them fully while expecting them to achieve as much as they could with his help along the way.
He built each of them something by hand: a desk for Jessica, a playhouse for Katie, a bed for Sonny. The bed had a football-shaped headboard and baseball-shaped footboard. The legs were baseball bats. Little baseballs screwed into the tops of the bedposts.
Sonny Gray woke from that bed early on a Thursday morning in late August 2004 to hear of his father's accident. He hadn't even known that his dad had another job beyond his days working for a car-wash chain. The family rushed to the hospital and learned how Jesse Gray's car had collided in an intersection with another vehicle as he was coming home from his shift. The other driver died; Jesse was alive only because of a ventilator.
Sonny remembers being in the hospital room, his father hooked up to machines and tubes. More family and coaches from his school arrived later in the morning. Gray, his mom and oldest sister had to decide to end life support. And right after that unbearable choice, the hospital asked whether they would like to donate his organs.
"I was trying to be as grown-up as I could, and I was like, 'Use every piece of him that you can,'" Gray recalled of his 14-year-old self. "'If it helps another family from having to go through this, use every piece of him that you can to help them out.'"
Gray still had one decision left to make. He had a freshman football game that night, and his coaches assumed he wasn't going to play. But he knew what his dad would have wanted.
"I remember showing up for the game. The whole town was there," Gray said, voice shaking, eyes red. "... And I remember they did a moment of silence before the game. That was tough. Then the game started, and the game was the game. We won, I did well.
"And then after the game. I remember just sitting in full uniform, full pads. I found a little corner, like away, and I just remember sitting on the ground and just losing it."
It was the first time he had cried all day.
'We did it, Dad'
Since his father's death, other father figures have come into Gray's life, from his coaches to his stepdad, Barry Craig. His mother remained a pillar for him and his sisters. Time has dulled the pain of his father's absence, but the grief has never entirely left.
"Baseball, that's what they did, Jesse and Sonny," said his mom, now Cindy Craig. "And then [Jesse] didn't even get to watch one pitch of a high school game. And then he's missed all these other milestones."
His father might not have been there physically, but he's always with his son. When he made his MLB debut, Gray took a baseball, a hat and a letter that said, "We did it, Dad" to the cemetery to leave at his dad's grave. On every cap Gray wears on the mound, he inscribes three things in white marker on the underside of the brim. One is his lucky jersey number, 54. Another reminds him to attack hitters. And the last is simply "DAD."
"I do a lot of this for him," Gray said. "It's kind of three keys for me that when I do need something, I always have it with me."
Gray, a 2011 first-round pick, went on to excel in his first three Oakland seasons. His 2016 statistics dipped, and the rebuilding Athletics traded him to the Yankees for prospects during the 2017 season. After one full season in New York, the Yankees dealt him to Cincinnati in a 2019 trade that seemed to revitalize his career. In 2020, he helped the Reds make the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
'Never met a stranger'
From Cincinnati, he brought a tradition to the Twins of encouraging pitchers to watch each other's bullpen sessions so they can learn about and help one another. Gray's entertaining bullpens always attract fellow starters and some relievers, who observe as he shouts out hypothetical situations before he pitches, such as facing a lefty with a 2-0 count.
When he's done, he stands before the group of pitchers crowded into a back corner of the bullpen to give his breakdown and solicit advice. Gray is talkative and has "never met a stranger," as his mother puts it.
"He does enjoy talking the game," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "He likes bringing people together, other guys on the pitching staff. And there's nothing better than that."
Gray's ability to lead and listen is one of the many ways his dad's presence still influences his life. His father is there when he plays catch with his own sons, when he always picks up the phone when his youngest sister calls, when he texts his mom an out-of-the-blue "Thinking about you, love you."
He's there when he tosses a ball to a young fan in the stands and when he exemplifies a veteran pitcher young starters Bailey Ober and Joe Ryan can strive to emulate.
"I don't think he realizes it, but he's doing the same coaching style as his dad," Cindy Craig said. "Really personable, where he would just get down on their level and look at them in their eyes and just have a conversation.
"All the kids looked up to him. And just loved him."