Life in the 10th: Class with Former Reds Reliever Bill Bray

I was a week late to the beginning of the end of the beginning: the final semester of my undergraduate education. I wasn’t suffering from early onset senioritis; rather, I delayed the trip back to school to attend the memorial services for my closest childhood friend, who passed away in January.

Maybe that’s why, when I did make it to school, I didn’t notice that Bill Bray, formerly an esteemed reliever for the Nationals, Reds, and M.C.’s Hammers[1], was sitting a few seats down from me in my small creative nonfiction seminar; my head was elsewhere.

But, what’s more likely is that I didn’t recognize Bray because, in sweats and a t-shirt, with a crew cut and shaven face, he was fairly inconspicuous. Sure, at 6’3” with a solid build (215 IB according to Baseball Reference), Bray looks like a baseball player. But, as is the case with baseball’s greatest young superstar Mike Trout, a lot of baseball players just kind of look like normal dudes[2]. As far as I knew, Bray — or Bill, as he is referred to in class — could have been a former marine in pursuit of his degree[3].

Aside from a few Tribe baseball players, not many people recognize Bray around campus. And he seems to prefer it that way. Despite emanating confidence, Bray, raised in Virginia Beach, has a southern sense of modesty. Asked if anyone treats him differently when they find out he played pro ball, he says, “I hope not. I think at first when they find out, they ask questions. But I haven’t found that I’ve had anyone treat me weird. You know, normally, too, I don’t feel like many people find out within the first month of class. I don’t really broadcast it.”

Bray left William & Mary in 2004 after being drafted 13th overall by the Montreal Expos. And though his name may be unfamiliar to those who aren’t Reds fans or baseball junkies, his career was by no means a bust[4]. Bray pitched six seasons (2006–2012, missing 2009 due to injury), racking up 197.1 innings pitched out of the bullpen and a collective 3.74 ERA. When he wasn’t hampered by injury, in 2008 and 2011, he was among the game’s most valuable relievers. Upon announcing his retirement via Twitter on March 16, 2014, @Aceballstats tweeted that “Bill Bray (@wpbray) faced Prince Fielder & Ryan Howard more than anyone else in his career, they hit a combined .071/.212/.071 against him.” Bray, in other words, was best against baseball’s best power-hitting lefties, the players who, as a lefty-specialist, he was paid to get out.

Bray says that his greatest asset on the field was his ability to pitch in these sorts of tight situations. “I was very good at coming in with men on base. But I didn’t like the lefty specialist role. I didn’t want to face just one batter. I never wanted to be somebody that, as a lefty specialist they say you can’t pitch to right-handers. Like, I took that as an insult. It drove me nuts.”

These days, Bray would kill to pitch to just one batter. He wakes up every morning missing the game. He’s romantic towards baseball— in one essay he even said that he thinks it’s “perfect”[5]. He misses the routine of it. He misses the clubhouse atmosphere. But what he misses most is that sense of competition. He misses the feeling of winning. “I think about those experiences of striking out a batter in a tough situation. And those are the feelings that I miss most.”

The endorphin rush from a good game is probably the closest Bray’s come to addiction. He was a pretty straight laced family man even before he had a family of his own — probably the product of growing up with an authoritative father who worked as a state narcotics agent. It’s cliché, but pitching was Bray’s substance. So why did he choose to retire last year, at 30, a year and a half after throwing his final big league pitch? What made this injury different from the myriad injuries — including one to his left elbow that caused him to get Tommy John surgery and miss the 2009 season — that he suffered earlier in his career?

The beginning of the end was a 2012 groin injury. During rehab, Bray was forced to alter his mechanics, which led to a shoulder injury. “I knew my career was over when I was coming home from the doctor’s office after I had hurt my shoulder. And all of a sudden this peace came over me. You know, this idea came over me — it was like this lightning bolt — like, ‘you know, I’m okay. And everything’s going to be fine.’”

If that moment sounds transcendental, it’s because it was. Bray is guided by his Christianity, and he says that in that moment he could feel God communicating with him. When I ask if he has any idea why God would take baseball away from him, he says, “I think I’m in the process of figuring that out. And I’ll get there. I’m just thankful for the time that I did have. I think that I got the most out of my body.”

To tweak a line from the 1998 film “Smoke Signals”: Some days, it’s a good day to die. And some days, it’s a good day to play baseball.

For the Jamestown High Eagles, Tuesday March, 31st is the latter type of day. The sun is out, and the air is crisp. The winter snow has melted, but the indigenous insects have yet to notice. It’s one pair of parents’ wedding anniversary, and the mothers in the stands commiserate about all the big days that they too have spent watching their sons struggle at the plate.

“Play ball!” the umpire growls.

Away, facing the Bruton Panthers, Jamestown has Sean Hughes on the mound. Sean is a burly right-hander with short, curly blonde hair, a low-90s fastball, and legs that are thicker than my torso. He’s a senior who’s committed to play ball at Boston College next year. It’s his first start of the year, but he already looks like he’s outgrown the high school game. Few Bruton hitters get clean aluminum on the ball; conversely, in Sean’s first at bat he strokes a first-pitch double to the wall, sending in two runs. At the edge of the Jamestown dugout, sitting on a bucket of baseballs, watching intently is Bill Bray. He’s the team’s pitching coach. He doesn’t speak much. But he claps when Sean strokes the ball.

Coming back to school and coaching represents an intermission between baseball and a career post-baseball for Bray. After he finishes his undergraduate finance degree in May, he’ll attend William & Mary’s law school in hopes of landing a job as an MLB executive or employee of the league’s Player’s Association. A career as a baseball player is about doing, and in Bray’s intermission the verb of import has changed: his task is learning, and his job is educating. From Bray, Sean says he’s learned to control himself on the mound. “I used to get rattled a little bit easier. But now, just because it’s a double or something, it’s not a big deal; there’s still more baseball to be played. So that’s a big thing. And physically, he’s taught me how to control myself going forward off the mound.”

Bruton is not a good team. Coming into the game against Jamestown they are 1–2, though they’re probably worse than their record. They can’t hit and they can’t catch a fly ball. Which is why the most impressive moment in Sean’s brief (2.2 inning) performance is not when he lights up the radar gun, throws a nasty curve, or crushes the ball at the plate; it’s the way he controls the pace of the game. Sometimes he’ll pause on the mound, staring down the batter, with no intention to throw the ball. Time will be taken and he’ll restart. He finishes with seven strikeouts and one run allowed.

“I don’t know necessarily that it’s something that I did,” Bray says of Sean’s improved composure. “But it’s something I stress. I try to frame it in terms of the other team. When the other team sees you all worked up, they kind of feed off it.”

Each top of the inning feels like three for Bruton: Jamestown piles on, accumulating 15 by the end of the fifth. About half of the runs, though, are unearned. In the middle of a very long top of the 2nd, in which Jamestown scores six runs, there is a miscommunication on a pop-up to first. The ball drops between Bruton’s first baseman and second baseman. Their coach implodes. “Are you kidding me?” he yells at the responsible players in a high-pitched southern tone, Git-R-Done! with more malice. He concludes his inane tirade by turning to the bench and insinuating that if they don’t play better they’ll never be successful, I think. “That’s how life is,” he says. “You have to compete in everything you do!”

Everyone at the park is embarrassed — more for the coach than for the players. Bray can’t help but smirk.

Winning makes it easier to show grace. But the Jamestown staff is of a different breed than the angry Bruton coach. “It’s a very positive coaching collective,” says Sandy Powers, wife of the Eagles’ other assistant coach. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen [Head] Coach Kuebler raise his voice.”

Bray, too, stays even-keeled and positive with his players. He likes to pull players aside and give them tactical advice. But he doesn’t expect his players to always be Zen-like. “Sportsmanship is good, but sometimes you need to get thrown out of the game,” he says to a few players during a Saturday morning practice prior to the Bruton game. “After trying to kill ‘em on the field, I don’t want to shake hands after the game.”

A player asks if he’d ever been in a brawl.

“A couple.[6] Never threw a punch though. I was more the type to want to punch ‘em out and then tell ‘em to sit down.”

Bray’s message is simple: be smart; give yourself every advantage; be competitive but in control.

“As a former pro, Bill gives credibility,” Coach Powers says during practice. “If he’s telling them to do something, he’s been there. He’s not going to tell them something that’s going to make them worse.”

Bray’s value and insights aren’t lost on the players. After the game Sean told me, “He’s a great asset to have, and I’m blessed for the opportunity to work with him.” The game would end early due to mercy rule: Jamestown, 15; Bruton, 1.

Bill Bray was never the face of baseball — he was never even the face of the Reds’ bullpen — but in an era tainted by rampant doping, he was the type of player that a lot of fans probably wish had been good enough to be a face of baseball. Fans of the nation’s pastime tend to be a nostalgic bunch, and Bray is an old-fashioned player’s player[7]. He’s competitive but pure — fairly Jeterian.

Over the past four years, a recurring motif of my liberal arts education[8] has been the ‘ideal American man.’ At the dawn of the advertising age, there was a fairly singular image of success for men. We were supposed to be tall, white and handsome, married[9] with kids, the wealthy breadwinner, and Christian.

Bill Bray is all of the above. He’s the ideal American man; he’s Chip Hilton. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s supposed to be a veneer. You know, beneath the dapper suit, Don Draper is a deeply emotionally troubled alcoholic who can’t be faithful. Bray, though, is deeply sincere. He has genuine regrets about past actions, but those actions are incredibly minor in the ranks of human transgressions — as a high school prospect he decommitted from Bucknell and instead went to William & Mary; and another time he’d been dating a girl off and on and then, upon meeting his eventual wife, never talked to her again. Each indiscretion is hardly that, and ultimately led him on what he deems to have been the right path.

Part of the reason Bray has been such a straight arrow surely has to do with his faith. Along with growing up in a loving family, his faith is clearly a source of strength and direction for him. But despite being raised Christian, it wasn’t until he became a professional pitcher that faith became a guiding force in his life. The pivotal moment came at the beginning of his career, when he was rehabbing his back in Florida. A preacher gave a sermon about fishing. “I don’t remember exactly what it was, but when you go fishing, you catch and sometimes release. Well, God’s like a catch and release. He catches you, he cleans all the bad things out of you, and then he releases you back into the wild. And for some reason that just struck me. I was like, ‘You know what, I get that.’ The illustration was good for me.”

From then on, believing in Christ was stabilizing for Bray. “I feel like we’re riding through waves and we’re all on a boat, and the waves are kind of pushing you here and there, and believing in Christ is like anchoring myself to a rock,” he tells me over the phone, his voice yogic. “So no matter which way the storm blows, I know that I’m going to be alright. I’m not going to be washed ashore. I’m not going to be washed onto a rock. I know I’m going to be fine.”

I’ve heard this type of thing a lot from Christians — that God guides their lives and will ensure that everything works out for the best. And it’s always struck me as a myopic way of looking at the world, one of privilege. It’s easy for someone like Bray, who will be the first to tell you how fortunate he has been, to think that God has his best interests in mind, and to think that with hard work, he’ll prosper. But what about a baby born with AIDS? Or the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre? Could not any ‘lesson’ that God wanted to give unto man have been yielded with, say, one less death? This is not to say that Bray’s successes have not been the product of hard work. He’s focused and dedicated, and his success is not incidental.

But I have to ask. “Have you ever been through a tragedy?”

“Yeah.” A pause. “I lost my 11 year old cousin to cancer. It’s a hard thing to stomach, a child with cancer. You know, he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma when he was five. And he beat it four times. He went into remission four times, and normally nobody goes past three. And then after the fifth time, his body just gave out on him. And yeah, that’s hard. I can’t fathom a reason why we have childhood cancer; it’s beyond my comprehension. But I feel like sometimes God explains things, like I get these moments of clarity, and I just realize that my cousin Trevor, he did his job on this planet, like what he was put here to do. He touched more people in his eleven years of life than I will in my entire life. He made a much bigger impact than I could ever make.”

Which is basically what I was thinking about on that first day of class, when I wasn’t noticing major league reliever Bill Bray sitting a few seats down from me — that my friend, Rex, in 22 years touched more people than I’d be able to in 100; that I and everyone else who loved him had an obligation to carry his spirit on with them. So, while my inclination is to butt heads with Bray over the fundamental nature of man’s existence, I don’t, mostly because I think that the Bruton coach is full of shit: You don’t have to compete in everything you do.

[1] The M.C.’s Hammers are the three-time Cea League champion fantasy baseball team, owned by yours truly — yes, I was also the commissioner, and an arrogant one at that.

[2] Trout, who is on pace to be one of the greatest baseball players of all time, who is a five-tool superstar, who has yet to be the subject of any sort of controversy, who plays for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, a good team that plays in a major metropolitan area, has largely been a marketing dud; As Ben McGrath wrote in The New Yorker, you probably wouldn’t recognize him in a bar.

[3] Bray’s brother, in fact, is in the Air Force.

[4] Looking back at the 2004 draft, there is actually a strong argument to be made that Bray’s career was the 13th best of the respective players chosen.

[5] I would point out here that every baseball stadium has different dimensions; games have the potential to be played infinitely; and that baseball’s most “perfect” accomplishment, the perfect game, has been achieved by middling starters like Philip Humber (2012) and Dallas Braden (2010), as well as a hungover David Wells (1998) — you may like these aspects of baseball, as I do, but baseball is by no means “perfect.”

[6] In 2010, when Bray was playing for the Cincinnati Reds, the team was involved in one of the biggest brawls of the aughts. They were facing the Cardinals. Here’s the clip.

[7] He even wore his socks high, the style popularized by the 1868 Cincinnati Red Stockings.

[8] I’m an American Studies major.

[9] Heterosexually!

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