Gray building relationship with mentor Stro

September 13th, 2021

WASHINGTON -- A group of young fans donning Nationals gear ran down the stairs in the stands to get as close as they could to the field as walked toward the visitors' dugout at PNC Park in Pittsburgh on Sunday morning. The right-hander stopped and signed autographs, passing the memorabilia back and forth through an opening in the netting until he had connected with the entire group.

The 23-year-old Gray was maybe 10 years older than some of the onlookers, but he already values the importance of paying it forward. He’s been on the receiving end of a gesture early in his pro career, and he wants to pass on the sentiment.

The connection began in Spring Training 2020. Gray, then a prospect in the Dodgers' organization, conducted an interview with Baseball America during which he shared that Mets pitcher is one of his favorite players. Over the years, Gray has admired and appreciated Stroman’s dominance, competitiveness, confidence and support of his teammates.

A few hours after Baseball America tagged Stroman in a tweet for the article, Gray received a follow and a message from the All-Star right-hander. The gist of it: Reach out whenever.

“I would say that quote tweet from Baseball America just kind of sparked things,” Gray said.

Since then, the two have also conversed over Instagram, exchanging words of encouragement and well wishes. But it wasn’t until late this summer at Citi Field -- after Gray had been acquired by the Nationals along with Keibert Ruiz in the blockbuster trade that sent Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Dodgers -- that Gray and Stroman had an opportunity to meet.

When Gray checked his phone before an early September game, he saw a direct message from Stroman asking where he was.

“Come outside,” Stroman wrote.

“It was awesome,” Gray said. “You want to be, I guess, star struck, but he came across just as a normal dude, as everyone else is. That was really cool.”

There was much to be shared: Gray had made nine Major League appearances at the time; Stroman had seven seasons on his resume. They talked baseball, mechanics and the headlining trade. Then the two New York natives chatted about the possibility of getting together to work out this offseason.

“I bounce things off of him, he bounces things off of me and we kind of just build a relationship that way,” Gray said. “Just baseball players being baseball players and getting to enjoy an offseason and working together and just learning, continuing to learn.”

The meeting was a standout moment for Gray just two months after making his big league debut, and it helped him appreciate the kind of impact he could have further into his playing days.

“I think it’s huge just because -- relating to myself and Stroman -- New York kids, Black kids, it’s really important for other Black kids that are playing baseball, and kids in general that might be undersized or under-recruited like myself, to go out there and just have an example to be like, ‘All right, I can be like that guy if I go to a Division II or a Division III school and I can make it to the big leagues and fulfill my dreams,’” he said. “[That’s] the lens I’m thinking through.”

For every autograph he pens, photo he takes and conversation he has, Gray hopes he can make connections with young fans who will be inspired by the experience, as he was with Stroman.

“Pay it forward,” Gray said. “So when I’m five, six years down the road, I’m going to have some fans that want to meet me and talk shop and work with me. He’s paying it forward, and that was a pretty cool moment to talk with him, him take some time out of his day to say some kind words. It’s definitely going to be something I remember.”