There weren’t nearly as many programs funded by Major League Baseball as there are now to get Black kids more involved in the game. Gray didn’t have access to a version of the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy to pique his interest, though his love for the game grew over time.
As the starting pitcher finishes up his first year with the Nationals, the team that traded for him in August 2020 and is placing him the middle of their plans, Gray is using his time off the field to establish roots in the community.
“It’s always something I’ve wanted to do in terms of baseball just because I know my love of the game and I think it can be passed on to the next generation,” the right-hander said. “It’s always been important for me to be able to express that love for the game and hopefully impact some kids in the game of baseball, getting more African Americans in the game.”
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Despite efforts from Major League Baseball to improve diversity among younger generations, the league still has a ways to go. In this year’s World Series, there were no U.S. born Black players on either team. Gray believes the right steps are being taken to improve the numbers across the league. And the more Black players that make the majors, the better chance of exposing Black kids to the game.
That’s why Gray hopes to be an inspiration for Black kids in the community and believes that following Josh Bell, the previous ambassador, will give kids a glimpse at two Black players who forged different paths to reach the major leagues. They were both second-round picks, but Bell went straight to the majors out of high school while Gray played Division II baseball at Le Moyne (N.Y.).
His values align directly with the Nationals Youth Academy, which aims to grow the game of baseball in the community by eliminating barriers. The Youth Academy, a nine-acre education and recreation facility located in Ward 7’s Fort Dupont Park Neighborhood, will enter its 10th year in 2023. It provides a range of programming to aid with academic performance as well as physical and mental health.
The player ambassador of the Youth Baseball Academy serves as a liaison between the academy and the locker room, encouraging teammates to get involved in addition to interacting with the kids at the academy and getting involved with programming events.
Gray is the fourth player ambassador, after Ian Desmond, Anthony Rendon and Bell — who first introduced Gray to the academy on a player visit. Bell was traded to the San Diego Padres along with Juan Soto at the trade deadline, leaving the role open. And when the Youth Academy reached out to Gray about being the next ambassador, it felt like a natural fit.
Gray already had donated a portion of proceeds from a clothing line he created with the lifestyle brand Leovici to the Academy in the past. But beyond that, Tal Alter, the CEO of Washington Nationals Philanthrophies, said Gray had an energy and authenticity that stood out when he went to the academy and worked out with the younger kids. And when it came to the older kids, he was able to relate by opening up about his career, his perseverance and his failure.
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“He is himself 100 percent of the time and so I think immediately kids felt comfortable with him,” Alter said. “And I think Josiah felt right at home working with young kids. Just getting out there and playing and interacting and just being a guy. Not Major League Baseball player Josiah Gray, but just a guy.”
Each past ambassador has added his own personal touch to the academy that still exists today.
Desmond ensured that kids met with members of the front office whenever they went to Nationals Park so they could learn about all the roles in a baseball organization. Rendon connected with a vision clinic and established an annual eye clinic at the academy, providing kids in need with prescription glasses. Bell was the keynote speaker at the academy’s graduation the past two years. Now, Gray will have the chance to add his own flair.
While Gray hasn’t yet established his full plans for the academy, he — and those at the Academy — hope most importantly that the kids leave the daily programming having had fun and wanting to come back. If they continue with baseball afterward, that’s up to them.
“I always want to sort of put my name in the ground and sort of make an impact and I think this is a good way unrelated to on the field stuff that I can give back and sort of plant some roots,” Gray said. “Obviously the work on the field has to be taken care of as well, but I think this is going to be something off the field that I can really enjoy.”
“Sort of take a step back from the game and appreciate it just that much more because these kids, they’re not looking up your stats every two seconds. They’re just saying ‘Hey, he’s here to play baseball with us and here to enjoy the game.’ ”
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