CINCINNATI -- When he was a kid, Sonny Gray watched his first Major League game -- in person -- at Great American Ball Park. Hailing from outside of Nashville, Tenn., Gray's father, Jesse, was a big Reds fan and shared that passion with his son.
"I was young," Gray said. "We parked somewhere where we had to walk over a bridge and a river. I'll do that at some point when stuff settles down. Everyone has one of those memories that always stays with you. It always has and always will stay with me."
Therefore, Gray didn't just enjoy his first Opening Day in Cincinnati on Thursday, he absorbed all of it and thought about the person who would have enjoyed it even more. Jesse Gray died from a car accident when his son was a high school freshman in Smyrna, Tenn.
Scheduled to be the starter vs. the Pirates on Sunday, Gray was able to take part in the Findlay Market Opening Day parade on Thursday by riding in a car with fellow pitcher Anthony DeSclafani. The memories of going to games with his father flooded back to Gray.
"I remember it very vividly, and then it really hit home coming over the river," said Gray, now 29. "The parade was awesome, I was really glad to be a part of it. He'd be smiling right now. I guarantee he'd be at every game. This is a great thing for me and my family. We couldn't be happier to be here."
Gray joined the Reds in a Jan. 21 trade from the Yankees and immediately signed a three-year, $30.5 million contract extension through 2022, with a $12 million club option for '23. He had already been signed by New York to a one-year, $7.5 million contract that avoided arbitration.
After Spring Training began last month, Gray got a late start to pitching in games because of right elbow stiffness. But he turned in three strong starts for a 0.90 ERA in Cactus League action and also worked in a Minor League game, and he had no limitations.
This won't be Gray's first time pitching at GABP. On June 10, 2016, with the A's, he pitched 7 2/3 innings with two runs allowed but took a 2-1 loss. A 2015 All-Star with Oakland, he was moved in Trade Deadline deal to the Yankees in '17. He's faced the Pirates twice, with one start, and has a 7.88 ERA over eight innings.
Gray's 1 1/2 seasons in New York were not successful. In '18, the right-hander went 11-9 with a 4.90 ERA in 30 games. In his 23 starts, he was 9-9 and a 5.26 ERA. Although his velocity remained the same and the spin rate on his breaking ball actually improved, the results weren't good at Yankee Stadium. It was better on the road.
This could be a case where the change of scenery helps a pitcher. For Gray, the scenery in Cincinnati can't be beat.
"I felt very welcomed here since day one," he said. "I've been very excited for this opportunity. It's been something that I've enjoyed every moment of. Baseball's a fun game, it always has been. It's a game you need to enjoy. Getting back to your roots and getting back to going out there and having fun and competing, letting it all hang out there is something I'm very excited for."
Gray writes "Dad" under the bill of his cap, and he will be thinking of Jesse Gray while on the mound Sunday.
"He's helped me get through a lot of times where everything's going great," Gray said. "He's celebrating right there with me. He's also been there for me when times have gotten tough. Just keeping me in the moment, keeping me walking around with [my] head held high. He's been there for me the whole ride."