How Sonny Gray went from small-town star to Athletics ace
Begin with this: A Sonny Gray story that has nothing to do with baseball, because, as you quickly realize, the best Sonny stories have nothing to do with baseball. This was nine years ago, long before Sonny would become the ace of the Oakland A's and one of the best pitchers in baseball, and it was hours before kickoff at Smyrna High in Tennessee, where Sonny was the starting quarterback. The Smyrna football players were hanging out, watching TV in the field house, when an ESPN segment came on showing JaMarcus Russell incredibly throwing a football 65 yards from his knee. The Smyna players were mesmerized by the clip and couldn't stop talking about it.
Later that day, just before his team was to take the field for their pregame warmup, head coach Phillip Shadowens wandered out to the field and saw something strange: His sophomore quarterback on the empty field, on one knee at the goal line.
"What the hell are you doing, Sonny?" the coach barked.
"Trying to see if can throw it as far as JaMarcus Russell," Gray said, before launching the football into the air. The ball landed on the other side of the field, at the 42-yard line.
And that was the time Sonny Gray — then just 15 years old, barely 5-foot-8-inches and 150 pounds — threw a football 58 yards from one knee.
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The legend of Sonny Gray begins in Smyrna, a town 30 miles outside of Nashville. There was something about him -— his sense of humor, his mop of bleached blonde hair, his perpetual smile (one of his old nicknames was Sunshine) — that made the most popular kid wherever he went; he was voted Homecoming King and Best All-Around in his high school yearbook, and "it was like everyone younger than him went to the Church of Sonny — everyone liked him, and everyone cared about him," said Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin, who began following Gray's career his sophomore year of high school. Said Derek Johnson, Gray's pitching coach at Vanderbilt, "I keep wondering now when the town of Smyrna is going to erect a statue of him."
Spend time talking to the folks from Smyrna, and you realize that best Sonny stories have nothing to do with baseball. There was the time during his senior year, when Gray lobbied hard for the lead role in the school's production of High School Musical. "People were kind of in shock when he got the part — he wanted to be the lead even though no one had any idea whether he could sing," Shadowens said. The production drew standing-room-only crowds. "Everyone around wanted to see if Sonny could sing, and he thought he could, even though he couldn't," Shadowens said. "And that's Sonny in a nutshell: There isn't anything he thinks he can't do."
On the football field, Gray led Smyrna to their first ever state championship in 2006, then led them to another championship the following year — no public school in the history of the state had ever won back-to-back titles at that level. "He had the strongest high school arm I've ever seen in my 20 years coaching in the state," said Shadowens (now the head coach at Blackman High in nearby Murfreesboro). "He reminded me of Drew Brees back there. If he would have chosen to play football, he would be playing on Sundays."
Of course, there were also the magical things Gray could also do on the baseball field, with a fastball that helped him strike out 75 hitters in 38 innings his senior year. But with Gray, it was always about the swagger. The first time Johnson and Gray crossed paths, Johnson was watching his Vanderbilt pitchers during bullpen session and noticed a skinny kid standing by the railing, a visitor from a local high school. In his Tennessee twang, the kid told Johnson, "I throw harder than any of those guys right now."
Said Johnson, now the Cubs' minor league pitching coordinator, "I was like, 'Who is this kid?' Then, watching him throw a few weeks later, I found out that he was right: He did throw harder than any of our guys."
The legend of Sonny Gray continued at Vanderbilt, where he became the ace of the Commodores his sophomore year and as a junior went 12-4 with a 2.43 ERA and 132 strikeouts and led Vandy to its first ever College World Series birth. By then, Gray was developing the power curveball that moved like it was straight out of a Wachowski Brothers movie. "The first time he showed me how he gripped his curveball, I was amazed," Johnson said. "I'd never seen anything like it. His thumb is drawn up on side of ball, almost like what it would be for a changeup. He takes his thumb out of the equation and creates a hook with his hand, and as a result he has knack to throw with a tight spin. His hands aren't big, and for him it was a way to spin the ball with smaller hands."
Gray had a delivery at Vanderbilt that seemed like an arm injury waiting to happen — because of his size and the high maintenance delivery, Johnson called him the Tazmanian Devil, and worked with Gray during his time at Vanderbilt on simplifying his motion. "It was always about trying to shave him down, but doing so gradually, because you want to try to make your delivery and your stuff more efficient without taking away the best parts of them," Johnson said. "His best part was always his ability to turn his body, rotate, and throw hard. He found a comfortable medium now where it's shaved down and not taking the best part of him."
The other reason for Gray's dominance in the SEC during his Vanderbilt years was, according to his coaches, his outsized confidence. "When I think of Sonny, I think of guys like Doug Flutie or Johnny Manziel, because here was a kid who was on the small side who could improvise with a great arm, and everything he touched seemed to turn into winning," Corbin said. "He's got this belief within him that he can do anything he wants to. There are a lot of people that have good arms who can spin a baseball that might be Sonny's size. But he's able to separate himself because he has believability behind every single ball he throws."
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There's one other story about Gray that most of Smyrna will never forget. This was 10 years ago, when Gray was a freshman, just starting to bloom as one of the top athletes in the state. Growing up in Smyrna, there was no bigger influence on Sonny than his father, Jesse, his Little League coach and best friend, the man who taught him everything, including to love the game. On the morning of Aug. 25, 2004, Jesse got into a car accident driving his truck back from a long night at work. Shadowens was at the hospital with the Grays that morning, and after Jesse was taken off life support, he said to Sonny that obviously, he didn't expect him to play in the football game that night.
"Coach, my daddy would want me to play," Sonny said.
Recalled Shadowens, "He looked me in the eye, and it was the most direct thing Sonny has ever said to me. It still gives me chills thinking about it. There was just no way I wasn't going to let that kid play."
That night, Gray threw for over 300 yards and four touchdowns, pointing to the sky after every score. "I've never seen anything like it in my life," Shadowens said. "It inspired so many people."
Of course, Gray is still a legend in Smyrna. Those who know and love him were watching when he made his first major league start in Toronto last August, when he tossed eight shutout innings and struck out nine hitters in his second start, when the A's turned to him in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Tigers last October. Before Gray made his playoff start, Shadowens texted him, "No moment's ever been too big for you. Go have fun like you always do." Gray went out and outpitched Justin Verlander, shutting down the mighty Tigers lineup over eight scoreless innings as the A's won the game 1-0.
And now, in 2014, Gray is off to a brilliant start in Oakland, with a 1.91 ERA in seven starts (he was the American League pitcher of the month for April) for the first-place A's. He is an early Cy Young frontrunner, one of the key players in what should be a white-knuckle race in the AL West, one of the bright young stars in the game, with so much left to learn and do. "He has been a Friday night guy his entire life," Corbin said, "whether it's on the football field, or baseball in the SEC, or Sonny as the lead singer in the school play without a voice, or now, as a pitcher for the Oakland A's. Sonny will always rise to the moment."