LOS ANGELES -- The last image of pitcher Jon Gray in a Rockies uniform may be him slamming his glove against the dugout bench at Dodger Stadium on Sunday afternoon. He had toughed out 106 pitches over five innings but had also just given up the lead when the Dodgers’ Chris Taylor skied a home run.
The Rockies would later lose the game, 3-2.
Yet through some difficult times, including a battle with diagnosed depression last year that had him contemplating whether he even wanted to continue playing, Gray has a better understanding that the No. 55 on your big screen isn’t all there is to the person.
Several contending teams are seeking starting pitching ahead of Friday’s Trade Deadline, and Gray is drawing interest. The Rockies, who want to add to a position-player group that has more complementary players than stars, are expected to strongly consider any offers.
A free agent at season’s end, Gray has repeatedly said that he’d prefer to sign a contract extension to stay in Denver. Yet he knows he may not have that option.
Gray is choosing to view the current uncertainty the way he has learned to handle the ups and downs of pitching. He may be measured by what he does in uniform, but he won’t let that define him. And he vows to keep nurturing the whole person -- which is his best weapon against depression, an ongoing opponent.
“It can defeat you,” Gray said, as he detailed the battle he’s been fighting for the last year. “It can make you feel like everything you're doing, you shouldn't be doing. You feel defeated before you start. And that's kind of what I had to deal with [last season].
“It was hard to kick that. I just didn't feel like myself at all. But when I started to find other things that make me who I am and hold onto that, like, that's what started to kind of build that reassurance in yourself.”
When baseball shut down with the rest of the world last March, Gray and his wife, Jacklyn, sought out the positives, which included a lengthy stay with family in Oklahoma and Arkansas.
But with an abbreviated season also came abrupt change.
Protocols promoted loneliness. Trips to the grocery store, much less dinners out with his wife, were essentially eliminated. Even getting together at the hotel with his catcher and longtime friend, Tony Wolters, was not allowed.
Things weren’t going well on the mound, either, as Gray dealt with a right shoulder problem that robbed him of velocity.
“When I would reach back and try to grab some miles per hour, it was coming out 94 [mph],” he recalled. “That should be my low.”
As the results went south, Gray’s words and tone in postgame zoom interviews could best be described as despairing.
The inflection point came on Sept. 1, after Gray lasted 2 2/3 innings and gave up seven runs on nine hits in a 23-5 loss to the Giants. The embarrassment was tempered only by the fact that the game was “watched” by cardboard cutouts of Rockies heroes and not fans.
During postgame analysis, AT&T SportsNet broadcasters Ryan Spilborghs and Cory Sullivan, former players, discussed how Gray -- through his body language -- looked defeated.
“They were right,” Gray said.
The Rockies shut Gray down with right shoulder inflammation. But it was more than just his shoulder that was hurting. Gray was one of many who grappled with the adjustments brought on by a global pandemic. His baseball struggles only dragged him down further.
“I felt like I wasn't myself, but I had to go out there wearing my name and it just hurt,” Gray said. “It's like the part of the story is coming up, and you're the villain -- and, like, you have to play that role.
“Honestly, I felt bad about being around the team. I was bringing negative energy. I wanted to be myself for a lot of the day.”
And as difficult as it was at the ballpark, Gray also wasn’t himself at home.
“I just had trouble being in a happy mood all the time,” he said. “I took myself as a baseball player from the field to home. I would be that same guy. Everybody else has to deal with it, too. Everybody else feels that. It was something I really wanted to change. This wasn’t fair.”
It took Gray opening up about his feelings of depression -- first to Jacklyn, his high school sweetheart whom he married in 2015, then to his therapist and the Rockies -- before he saw a path out of it. With help from his agent at CAA Sports, Jeff Berry, Gray also addressed some of his physical issues by incorporating acupuncture into his rehab and training regimen.
Within the Rockies organization, manager Bud Black, pitching coach Steve Foster and bullpen coach Darryl Scott, who had worked with Gray during his Minor League days, were among those who rallied around Gray. He was inspired by talks with closer Daniel Bard, who had become a mental skills coach with the D-backs when his own performance anxiety interrupted his playing career. Then-general manager Jeff Bridich helped set Gray up with professional help.
All that support left a lasting impression.
“I look at the Rockies as an extension of our family,” Jacklyn Gray said. “Everyone understood where he was coming from. It’s great to feel that, because it makes you feel like you're not just a monkey in a cage and, ‘Hey, we want you to perform.’ It’s great to be in an organization like that.”
Gray began to turn the corner when he could put baseball aside.
He found joy in going on bike rides with Jacklyn. At the suggestion of his wife, he also picked up a paintbrush for the first time in years and returned to other creative pursuits.
“There are so many things I got back into that made life feel new again,” he said. “I love baseball, too, don’t get me wrong. That’s something that’ll never change. But it’s also fun to mix things up. When I get home, I don’t even have ESPN or any of that stuff. I’m pretty much all into things I find interesting.”
Suddenly, baseball wasn’t so all-encompassing.
“When our family and friends talk to him, we call him Jonathan,” Jacklyn Gray said. “I feel like Jon Gray is kind of his baseball persona, per se. So it's definitely nice to have people there that, you know, see you as a person and not just a player.”
She found a way to let Jon get back in touch with Jonathan.
“I was like, ‘Hey, you used to be really into painting, like, in high school. Why don’t you get back into it?’” Jacklyn said. “He said, ‘I'm gonna paint a picture of our dog, Trunks.’ I'm like, OK … yeah … sure.
“Within three hours, he's finished with his painting. This is the first time he's picked up a paintbrush probably since high school. It looks identical to our dog. I could not even believe it.”
Jon’s creativity extended to other areas, too. He crafted and personalized the board game Aggravation. He saved Amazon boxes and turned them into cardboard castles for their animals to play in.
Though he continues to meet with therapists and doctors, Gray found that the best route out of depression for him was to pay attention to the prism through which he seeks truth.
“You create these negative tracks in your brain, and if you’re thinking negatively all the time you’ll stay in those tracks,” Gray said. “I’ve been trying to create positive ones for, shoot, the last year and a half, two years. It’s still a struggle, but I find myself getting out. It’s not like I’m stuck.
“It takes an everyday realization of where I actually am, what I’m actually doing, instead of living in my imagining of what I think things are.”
Gray is pitching well again this year, at 6-6 with a 3.67 ERA. He’s been even better -- 5-2, 3.14 ERA -- at hitter-friendly Coors Field. His 126 ERA-plus (MLB average in 100) is in line with his two best years -- 138 in 2017 and 133 in 2019.
Baseball, especially pitching, imitates many forms of art in that quirks -- mistakes, even -- add character.
All the pitches aren’t working? OK, keep the paintbrush moving and something good may come out of it. Gray’s 2020 perfectionist self might have lost control when things weren’t right. But the 2021 Gray turns flaws into beauty.
“Jon has such a big heart,” Black said this spring. “He's hard on himself. I just wish …
“You’ve got to understand that this game is hard, and being a perfectionist is both good and bad sometimes. You have to have the right perspective on both.”
So how can others tell when Gray’s mind is clear?
“The more intensity you see out of Jon, that’s when he’s enjoying it,” teammate Kyle Freeland said. “That makes him who he is. When he’s locked in on the mound and looks pissed off, that’s when he’s having the most fun out there.”
Which is why Gray’s dugout reaction last Sunday, even after watching his lead disintegrate when Taylor popped a fifth-inning curveball over the left-field wall, was a positive. Although he was ticked off, he relished every minute of the competition. And afterward, he was OK with the performance.
Depression can show up at any time and create traffic that’s hard to escape, on the mound and everywhere else. But like a pitcher going from thrower to craftsman, Gray continues the constant work of finding ways to fend off negative thoughts.
“It was like every aspect of my life was not good at one point,” Gray said. “But looking back, I'm kind of glad it happened. It kind of made me realize a lot of things.
“It seemed like I could just watch my life go by and not even care. But I'm starting to see those opportunities every day. That's been the biggest help, just to be able to do what’s in front of me.”