Thanks to his dad, Gray was built for success
SAN FRANCISCO -- Jesse Gray was his son's biggest fan and his best friend in a house full of girls. Most Saturdays and Sundays, Jesse would pile Sonny and his friends into the back of his pickup truck with bats, gloves and a bucket of balls, have at it at the local field as long as the sun would allow and return home to boxes of pizza.
If sleepovers are for special occasions, then every weekend was a special occasion at the Gray house in Smyrna, Tenn. Sonny's baseball teammates were around for almost all of them in the summer, and his mom would make sure her extended family of Little Leaguers had a big breakfast come morning.
"Those were the best times," said Sonny.
The boy had a ball in his hand since he could walk, and he made a habit out of throwing one around the house with dad at all hours. When he was 4, he made an All-Star Pee Wee team made up of 5- and 6-year-olds. By the time he was 5, baseball tournaments already doubled as family vacations, and Sonny's dad doubled as his coach.
Sonny's team made it to the state tournament that year, and Jesse promised his players they could shave off his long hair if they won it. They did.
It's one of Cindy Craig's favorite memories. There are a lot of them, Cindy said, when asked about Sonny and his dad, and most of them revolve around baseball -- for the game became synonymous with their relationship.
Jesse coached his son all the way up until high school.
"He loved his girls, but Sonny was his boy," said Cindy, also mom to two daughters, Jessica and Katie. "It was a very special relationship, that's for sure. Being a good dad was so important to him. He was one of the good ones."
Jesse held two jobs to support his family. In between them, he made a habit out of leaving each of his three children notes to read at home. He would then stop by Sonny's football or baseball practices before getting back in his pickup truck and driving to a nearby bar, where he worked through the night in the kitchen.
On Aug. 25, 2004, Jesse wrote notes to the kids, but he never made it home the next morning. He was killed in a car accident coming back from work, his life ended too soon, at the age of 41. Sonny was just 14.
Oakland's ace right-hander has several father figures in his life. Philip Shadowens, his high school football coach, is one of them. Cindy also remarried, and Barry Craig is a wonderful stepdad to Sonny.
"Some kids want to be great," said Shadowens. "Obviously everybody dreams of doing great things, but some kids are just simply driven to be great, and they will accept nothing but greatness from themselves. And that's been Sonny Gray ever since I've had the opportunity to meet him and coach him."
They were just finished with a team meeting when Shadowens and his players were relaxing in the weight room before a game. Their eyes were glued to ESPN and a story about LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who would become the No. 1 overall pick by the Raiders in 2007, and his ability to throw the football 67 yards in the air from one knee.
That's when Sonny left the room.
"In typical Sonny fashion, he quietly gets up like he's going to his locker," Shadowens said. "About 10 minutes later, I open the door to our field house, and we're a half-hour before game time, and there's Sonny on his knee seeing how far he can throw the ball. He was determined that JaMarcus Russell was not going to be able to throw the ball farther than he could. I think he threw it 58 yards from his knee.
"Of course, I told him he was crazy, but he had it in his mind that if someone could do it, then he had no doubt he could do it just as well or better. That's carried him all the way through his athletic career. I think he still treats everything that way."
There's a quiet but very profound competitiveness in Sonny. He's unflappable, he's never unnerved and his confidence -- even more than his curveball -- is his biggest weapon. It's just not as flashy. Cindy insists her son never tried to be a star.
"It just happened that way," she said.
There are still people who tell Cindy her son is a better football player than he is a baseball player. Vanderbilt wanted him to be both, but baseball had stolen Sonny's heart first, and the diamond was where his dad had mapped out a plan for him anyway.
Sonny was to be the first in his family to go to college, nevermind the scouts' urging him to turn pro. The Cubs tried to lure him to the big leagues out of high school in the 27th round of the 2008 Draft, but Sonny honored his commitment to Vanderbilt, knowing his dad would have deemed it an important step in his journey to the Majors.
That he's starting Opening Night for the A's on Monday is everything Jesse ever dreamed for his son, but more.
"Oh my goodness, he would be so proud," said Cindy. "He would already be in Oakland right now. We probably would be moving there so he wouldn't miss a game."
"I wish he could be here to see it all playing out in person," Sonny said. "It's crazy to talk about something for so long and work for it every day and watch it happen."
Oakland's decision to put young Gray on such a big stage isn't a new one. The A's 2011 first-round Draft pick, with all of 10 big league starts on his resume, was picked over 16-year veteran Bartolo Colon to start the decisive Game 5 of last year's American League Division Series against the Tigers.
Outsiders were skeptical, but also excited by the decision to go with the then-23-year-old kid, who would go up against Justin Verlander for the second time in six days, having already gone toe to toe with him in Game 2's riveting pitchers' duel that resulted in a 1-0 A's walk-off victory.
This time, Verlander bested Gray, who took the loss in Oakland's final game of the year, a 3-0 affair. But sending Gray to the hill proved to be one of the few things the A's did right that day.
"He wants the ball," said catcher Stephen Vogt. "Game on the line, he wants to be pitching. He wants so badly to succeed, and he never gets down. He'll give up a home run and bear down even more. I've never seen him fazed by anything. He's all about the moment. His stuff is great, and good stuff will always bail you out, but for him, it's more than that. It's his mentality, that bulldog presence."
"Nothing does startle him. Nothing does bother him," said Shadowens. "In fact, the bigger the moment, the more he thrives, the more excited he is, yet the more calm he is. That's why he's been able to perform in so many clutch situations."
Sonny was at his best on the worst day of his life.
Woken by his mom at 4 a.m., Sonny and his sisters went with her to Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
"I didn't really understand the significance of anything that was really going on," he said. "I knew it was kind of bad, but at the time, I didn't know how bad."
Their dad was pronounced dead not more than two hours later. In an unthinkable situation, Sonny did what made most sense to him.
"He told me, 'I'm playing football tonight,'" said Shadowens, at the time barely able to stand against a wall in the hospital. "I said, 'No, you need to be with your mom and your sisters. You don't need to play football.' And he said, 'My daddy would want me to.' He went out and threw four touchdown passes that night as a freshman."
It didn't matter that they were tagged with a five-yard penalty before the game even started, because the Smyrna team took so long to come out of an emotional locker room. Sonny's teammates became brothers and rallied around him. On the field, they pointed to the sky after each touchdown, and they hugged the bravest quarterback they'll ever know.
Cindy was in the stands with her daughters for the 28-6 win.
"It was hard, very hard for me to just sit there and watch, to be honest," she said. "But this was the normal that we knew, and it just made me so proud watching him, and he was right. That's what his dad would've wanted him to do."
"When his daddy died, I could've bet my next 10 years of paychecks that that young man was going to be a success, because nothing else was acceptable to him," said Shadowens. "Obviously you lose your father, and you have to kind of grow up to some degree. But you could see early on that the kid was driven to be great at everything he did."
Gray quarterbacked Smyrna to back-to-back state championships. On the baseball field, he was learning how to pitch.
"I lucked into Vanderbilt seeing me," Sonny said. "They had come to see a guy from Kentucky pitch."
As a freshman, Sonny hit 90 mph three or four times in a 10-0 win. Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin introduced himself to Cindy after the game, and mother and son were on a recruiting trip to the university three weeks later.
"You go from not even knowing you're a pretty good pitcher to going to Vandy," he said. "Everything happened so fast."
When the pitcher's 3-year-old niece, Jayla, sees any baseball player on TV these days, she thinks it's Uncle Sonny. Every time Cindy walks into the grocery store, they ask about Sonny. It's a real homecoming scene when he returns to Rutherford County each offseason.
"He owns this town, to be honest with you," said Shadowens. "Everybody who knows Sonny Gray loves Sonny Gray, because he treats everybody like they're important to him. That's a unique quality when you've had as much success as that young man has had."
But Sonny will never brag about it. That was his dad's job.