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Gray’s Anatomy

Jacksonville infielder Tristan Gray celebrates home runs with current Jumbo Shrimp teammates and former Durham Bulls teammates where he played parts of the last three seasons. (Wyatt Lucovsky/Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp) (Durham Bulls/X)
May 8, 2024

The crowd at a baseball game can ignite or extinguish what happens on the field. Some ballparks are more notorious for raucous and passionate crowds. From the Philly Phanatics in Citizens Bank Park to the confines of the Indiana limestone cathedral known as Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, it’s no

The crowd at a baseball game can ignite or extinguish what happens on the field. Some ballparks are more notorious for raucous and passionate crowds. From the Philly Phanatics in Citizens Bank Park to the confines of the Indiana limestone cathedral known as Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, it’s no secret that baseball fans can have a big impact on the game. That statement rings true in the minor leagues too.

Players and fans can have a love-hate type of relationship with one another. There’s a famous quote that states, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.” Jumbo Shrimp infielder Tristan Gray knows exactly how it feels to be both for a fanbase.

On April 6, 2024 at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, Gray rounds third base and heads for home plate after mashing his fifth home run of the series. It’s a sight all too familiar for him in this ballpark. However, instead of hearing the crowd come to their feet and cheer for him, he experienced the opposite. A small crescendo of boos and jeers were hurled his way from the hometown fans as he quietly stepped on home plate and headed back to the visitor’s dugout. Just five days earlier, he had received a standing ovation from the same crowd as he made his return to the Bull City.

“It was a pretty special moment to hear that interaction and know that I had that kind of influence in the city that I loved with all my heart,” Gray said.

Now that warm feeling the Durham crowd had for him had turned sour.

Before his five-home run barrage against the Bulls that powered the Jumbo Shrimp to their first series win of the 2024 season, Gray had spent the past three years as an anchor in the daunting Durham batting order. The Houston, Texas. native posted a .230 batting average, cranking 71 home runs over his stint with the team. Gray built a special attachment to the city that is widely known for its blockbuster movie about the team “Bull Durham,” starring Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon in 1988. While being a member of the team, Gray felt like he was living the movie in his own reality.

“The only way I can describe playing for the Bulls is kind of like a movie, and I know it’s cliché because there actually is a movie, but playing here and the way the city is… this is what everybody comes for,” said Gray. “You can tell from the very first inning when a double play is turned or big moments in the game (that) don’t happen at the end, it’s all the time and the fans are in it.”

Gray at bat in Durham Athletic Park with the famous Hit Bull, Win Steak, looming in the distance. Photo Credit: Durham Bulls

It has been a long journey through the minor league system for Gray, serving stints with three different franchises. The former Rice Owl’s Road to The Show started on June 20, 2017, when he was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 13th round (388th overall) of the 2017 MLB Draft.

Gray spent the 2017 season with the Pirates organization. In February 2018, he was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays organization as part of the package for big league outfielder Corey Dickerson. Gray worked his way up through Single-A and Double-A in 2018 and parts of the 2019 season. He was finally called up to Triple-A Durham on September 10, 2019, and little did he know, it would be the start of a love affair with the famous Bull City.

For several seasons in the hot North Carolina sun, Gray had to grind; nothing was ever handed to him. That hard work proved to pay dividends. As a key member of the team, Gray helped the Bulls win the Triple-A National Championship in both 2021 and 2022.

Grinding. Gray was never handed anything, never had a big-money contract. And in one offseason during his tenure in Durham, he felt he needed some extra cash. He took a side job working as a package delivery driver for UPS. When working his assigned route, he would don an orange UPS vest. That next season, back on the field while hanging around the visitor’s clubhouse in Buffalo during a rainout, one of his teammates, Cal Stevenson, noticed something sticking out of his bag and asked Gray what it was. After Gray explained it to him, Stevenson took the vest out and wore it around the clubhouse to mess around with his Bulls counterparts. Suddenly, Stevenson suggested that the vest should be their home run celebration for the season.

“I worked there in one of the offseason’s just to make some money and I always keep it (the vest) with me to remind me,” said Gray during an interview with Durham Bulls broadcaster Patrick Kinas. “In the season, whenever you’re struggling, just know this is an alternative that you were doing.”

The Bulls offense underwent a power surge and caught fire in the second half of the season. Gray himself started to draw the attention of the big-league club. On September 15, 2023 he got the call from the Rays to pack his bags and to catch the next flight to Baltimore in order to join the team. The next day (September 16), Gray found himself facing Orioles right-hander Grayson Rodriguez in the top of the eighth inning for his first MLB at-bat. After skying a pop up to second baseman Adam Frazier, the Rays lost 8-0 but Gray could say that he’d been to The Show.

The next day, he found himself in the lineup again and this time he left a big impact. In a 2-for-4 day, Gray launched his first MLB home run off Baltimore right-handed pitcher Jorge López. If you ask Gray, how he made it to the big leagues, he’d say he didn’t but that the man upstairs put him in that position.

Gray celebrates mashing his first MLB home run off of Orioles RHP Jorge López in Camden Yards on September 17, 2023. Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated

“I can just see God’s work in my entire journey in baseball,” said Gray. “Not everybody gets to do this in their career, and I just trusted him that even though things I may have felt I didn’t deserve after that. In reality I did, you just continue to work hard and whatever he decides, you just have to be obedient. I just let things happen and he came through.”

Even though the 28-year-old has only appeared in two MLB games thus far, he still feels like he can and will contribute to a big-league squad soon enough.

Gray isn’t the only one with that belief as well. This past offseason, the Miami Marlins hired former Tampa Bay Rays general manager Peter Bendix to become the President of Baseball Operations for the Marlins. His very first move with the Marlins? Signing Tristan Gray, but it did take a bit of convincing.

“Whenever my agent called me and told me that Peter (Bendix) had called specifically and I told him, I said, ‘Hey man, I was just with you for six years and only got a couple of days up there, I’m a little hesitant,’” said Gray. “He said to me that he understood but also that look you’re a great player and I think that you are ready, and he’s just shown me through all that he did to get me to come here and it’s been an amazing decision for sure.”

Another major plus for Gray when he signed with the Marlins was the chance to reunite with his college roommate and now current teammate Dane Myers. The duo was inseparable back in their college days at Rice University.

Gray poses with his college roommate, now Marlins teammate Dane Myers in spring training. Photo Credit: Marlins Beat.

“I talked to Dane while going through that process and I asked him how it was and he said dude, ‘You’re gonna fit in great, the coaching staff, everything about it,’” Gray said. “There’s nothing to worry about so in your decision-making, just know the Marlins is a great place to play.”

After the advice from Myers, Gray was hooked and on November 16, 2023, Bendix had his first catch in free agency.

Fast forward to April 2024…Gray had just launched his fifth home run of the series against the Bulls. No triumphant music, no smoke spewing from the bull sign in left field made of wood and sheet metal, no UPS vest celebration in the home team dugout, all of those things that made playing in Durham special now just a distant memory. It is time for new memories, in a new jersey, on a new team.

Gray steps on home plate and smiles as he looks up towards the Durham crowd jeering him. Peter Bendix, the Miami Marlins, the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp, and Tristan Gray couldn’t have been any happier. He had died a hero and lived long enough to see himself become the villain.