Kids the world over dream of playing professional baseball. They step into backyard batter’s boxes and act out ninth inning home runs to the echoes of their own play-by-play. They throw fastballs into fences, striking out their favorite players and throwing perfect games. The dream of professional baseball comes early, and for a lucky few it becomes reality.
That dream became a reality for Sooners Jon Gray and Jake Fisher as well as five of their teammates following the 2013 collegiate season.
Gray was selected third overall in the MLB First-Year Player Draft by the Colorado Rockies. Fisher was selected in the 22nd round with the 664th overall pick by the Los Angeles Dodgers. For both, it was the realization of the lifelong dream.
“It’s something I’ve worked for my whole life and when I finally got my name called it was an unreal feeling,” Fisher said. “It was pretty exciting. I was happy.”
The weekend of the Draft, the Sooners were locked in a Super Regional battle with LSU in Baton Rouge. Gray, who was drafted in the first round on Thursday night, was surrounded by family and teammates when his name was called.
“The whole team went to this sports restaurant to go eat,” Gray said. “We were all watching it on TV and they had the SoonerVision crew there trying to film me and my reaction and everything like that so it was pretty cool. Luckily my family had come down for that series so they got to be there with me when I got drafted. They were right there next to me when my name got called. It was pretty much perfect for me. I wouldn’t want anyone else there. It’s all about family.”
Fisher’s turn came while waiting to leave the team hotel for the second game with LSU on Saturday night.
“We were at the hotel waiting around to go to the game that night,” Fisher said. “My name got called right before we left to go to the game and I was pumped.”
Family was the first thing on Fisher’s mind as well.
“I talked to my grandpa and my Dad and then my brother,” Fisher said. “I had a lot of friends texting me and congratulating me and all my teammates that were in the hotel came over and congratulated me.”
Both players fielded calls from the organizations that drafted them and within a few days of the Sooners’ last game, they were on their way to rookie league.
Gray went to the Grand Junction Rockies, in the Pioneer League, and after about a month with the club, moved to high-A Modesto. Fisher spent the season with the Odgen Raptors, also in the Pioneer League. For Fisher the transition to professional baseball was eased by the preparation he received while at Oklahoma.
“It was different,” Fisher said. “It was all new to us, it was all new players that were on that short season team for the most part and a lot of the guys played college baseball. They were pretty good, obviously they got drafted for a reason, but the Big 12 is very competitive. Playing Big 12 ball made it a little easier to play pro ball.”
For Gray, making the adjustment also came with some benefits.
“There was a little bit of help because I was throwing to wood bats; so you aren’t going to give up any dinkers over the infield or anything like that,” Gray said. “If you actually get it in on somebody’s hands it will usually break their bat or they’ll hit a ground ball. So that was a little bit easier, but the talent was a little bit better in pro ball.”
Life on the road is a major adjustment for most minor leaguers. Long bus rides are just part of the deal; particularly in the Pioneer League where trips to Montana meant 10 hours for Fisher and 15 for Gray.
“We get treated pretty well at OU with the stuff you get and the luxury of being here and being D-1. You get kind of spoiled with that,” Fisher said. “You get to rookie ball and it’s long bus trips and the buses aren’t as nice as the ones you get chartered on here and you’re not flying anywhere. It’s always going to be long bus rides. It’s a grind, but I like it.”
“That was a lot different,” Gray said. “Traveling especially. We took 15 hour bus rides to Montana so we never would have done that at Oklahoma so that was a lot different.”
Gray credits his time at Oklahoma as a major reason he ascended so high in the draft. Gray was picked in the 13th round out of high school by the Kansas City Royals, but decided to go to junior college and try to improve his draft stock. After a season at Eastern Oklahoma State College, Gray was selected in the 10th round by the New York Yankees. He also had the opportunity to play for former OU coach Sunny Golloway and the Sooners. Gray was faced with a difficult choice.
“That was a hard decision for me.” Gray said. “I could either go to Oklahoma or I could go and play pro ball. I thought it would be better if I went and knocked out my school and in those two years in a great program with great coaches I thought there would be a better chance of going higher so I decided that would be better for me to do that. It ended up working for me pretty well.”
The time spent at OU helped Gray improve in all areas of his game. By the time the 2013 season was nearing its end, Gray was touted as perhaps the best prospect in the country.
“The most important things were probably being a more consistent player and developing my skills. I always had a good fastball and a decent slider but they had some really good coaches there to work with me. [The coaches] told me the first time they saw me throw that I had a good shot at going in the first round. Everything from my mechanics to my confidence [improved], it was mental and physical, both sides.”
While Gray improved both his mental and physical skills, it was the physical skills that launched him up draft boards.
“I’d say the physical shape I got into helped me put on three or four
miles per hour on the fast ball so I was around, started to hit triple digits so I was like wow, I really have a good shot at going pretty high,” Gray said. “I knew I had a chance, but I didn’t want to mess it up so I just wanted to make myself better and better. I didn’t really see myself getting all the way to the third pick, but I got there.”
Fisher also found the OU coaching staff to be a tremendous asset on his journey to the Draft.
“I was under some great coaches,” Fisher said. “I feel like I learned a lot and received a lot of great advice throughout my career here that has helped me throughout pro ball.”
Being a high pick like Gray, comes with a great deal of added attention and pressure to perform and to do it quickly.
When the Rockies brought Gray to Denver to sign his contract, the Chandler, Okla. native was able to tour the facilities at Coors Field, meet the coaches and front office staff and even got to meet current Rockies stars Troy Tulowitzski and Dexter Fowler.
The levelheaded ace quickly learned not to let the expectations or the attention affect his performance or his attitude.
“They expected me to do well so when I had a couple bad outings I would feel kind of like a joke, but I finally found my groove and I started to do well from there on out,” Gray said. “They kind of understand what type of guy I am. I’m a pretty down to earth guy. I’m not going to walk around like a big league player or anything like that. So I was just out there trying to get better like everyone else.”
Both of these Oklahoma hurlers are back in Norman for the offseason, working out, taking classes to finish their degrees and waiting for the spring when pitchers and catchers report to spring training. The move from college to the minors means that practice will need to include some batting practice. Most minor league leagues do not use the DH.
“Ya, I’m pretty pumped about that,” Fisher said. “I’m actually going to go hit this offseason with my roommate Matt Oberste here in a little bit and start swinging it.”
Their time in Norman has allowed the former Sooners to get to know new Sooner coach Pete Hughes.
“Coach Hughes said I could use any of the facilities and said ‘this is your home’,” Gray said. “He was pretty cool about it. He said you’re welcome to come back and use anything.”
“Talking to some of the players here it seems like everything is going pretty well and they like the new coach and it seems like everything he’s done is pretty effective and he’s a super nice guy and they have a really good staff. I’d expect a pretty good year out of them.”
While unsure of his exact destination, Fisher thinks he may start the 2014 season with the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes of the California League while Gray is looking forward to the possibility of playing for the double-A Tulsa Drillers of the Texas League.
The chance to play in Oklahoma is something Gray would relish.
““That would be really cool,” Gray said. “Nothing is better than having your family there to support you.”
Regardless of the destination, the dream of playing professional baseball and the chance to get to the majors is fulfillment of countless childhood day dreams. From sandlot to Coors Field, from backyard to Dodger stadium, two more Sooners are living the dream.