Jessie Gray saw the potential. But he never had the opportunity to see it realized.
The moment that happens is likely to come Monday, when his only son, Vanderbilt pitcher Sonny Gray, is drafted — for the second time — by a Major League Baseball team.
Virtually all pre-draft predictions are that the junior right-hander will be one of the top 10 overall choices, which will set him firmly on the path eventually to make it to the Major Leagues.
“The thing is, when [my dad] passed away, it was my freshman year in high school … and that was my biggest jump in ability — from eighth grade to ninth grade,” Sonny Gray said. “That’s when I started getting recognized, and that’s when I started throwing the ball 90 miles per hour. I was always pretty gifted but not to the point you could see it.”
Jessie Gray saw it.
That’s why he personally coached his only son in both football and baseball until he started high school. It’s why he often placed Sonny in leagues with kids a year or two older. It’s why he never missed an opportunity to play catch or to talk about technical details in of the game.
Now, at the end of his third year of college, Sonny Gray is short by any scouting standard — listed at 5-foot-11 — but throws a fastball that travels close to 100 mph and a curve ball that separates him from nearly any other college pitcher this year or any other.
“This was what [Jessie] dreamed,” Cindy Craig, Sonny Gray’s mother, said. “I don’t know that he talked in those terms, but he always dreamed for Sonny to play in the Major Leagues, and he knew he had the potential.”
The father-son relationship remains more closely tied to baseball in the American sports culture than with any other sport. Even though Jessie Gray died in a car accident at the start of Sonny’s freshman year at Smyrna High School, his son has worked to maintain that relationship ever since.
During his high school days, he went to the outfield prior to the start of every game and prayed in front of a sign on the fence, which said “In loving memory of Jessie Gray.” During his college career he has written the word “Dad” inside his hat and looked to it whenever he felt it necessary.
“Jessie was so good to Sonny and so good with Sonny,” DeAnn Middleton, a close family friend, said. “He kept Sonny so grounded.
“But he would brag about Sonny more than Sonny would brag about himself.”
Sonny Gray was a highly touted prospect when he came out of Smyrna in 2008 but wrote to Major League Baseball’s scouting bureau and asked that he not be drafted. The Chicago Cubs took a chance and selected him in the 27th round anyway, but he honored his commitment to Vanderbilt, which spent all of this season among the top 10 in national rankings and hosted an NCAA regional last weekend.
Upon completion of a current May-mester class in bioethics, he will be 12 hours shy of his degree.
“There are two things my dad really wanted me to do,” Sonny Gray said. “One was to go to college and one was to go to professional baseball. That was a big reason for me to forgo the draft coming out of high school and to be so strict on coming to college.
“Hopefully [this] week there will be a time when I can make the start of that other half come true.”
A look at other area college players with the potential to be selected in next week’s Major League Baseball draft:
Jason Esposito, 3B, Vanderbilt
The Kansas City Royals drafted him in the seventh round out of high school (2008) and made him a significant offer that nearly convinced him to skip college. A three-year starter with the Commodores, he is a well-rounded player who can hit for average, steal bases and play spectacular defense.
Prediction: He’ll go early on the second day — at the latest.
Aaron Westlake, 1B, Vanderbilt
He had the option to turn professional last year, when the Toronto Blue Jays selected him on the second day. He likely strengthened his appeal this year when he maintained his power numbers even though the performance of aluminum bats was reduced due to safety concerns. He also excelled as an everyday fielder after having been a designated hitter often during his first two seasons.
Prediction: He’ll go early on the second day.
Nate Woods, OF, Belmont
A two-way player in college, his bat likely provides the best chance for him to make it in professional baseball. Like Westlake, he maintained solid power numbers this season. The Los Angeles Dodgers took him in the 28th round by out of high school (2007), but he went unselected a year ago when he was eligible to come out.
Prediction: Based on his size and versatility — plus the fact that he’s signable because he is out of college eligibility — Woods will be selected. It’s tough to say when.
Richie Goodenow, P, Lipscomb
He transferred from Vanderbilt for his final season to secure a role as a starting pitcher and improve his draft potential. Instead, he started just seven times and had two wins with a 6.59 ERA in 16 appearances. Yet he led the team with a .371 batting average and five home runs as he appeared in all but one game.
Prediction: Some team will take a chance on him late on the third day based on his hitting and then will try to find a position for him.