There weren’t as many programs funded by Major League Baseball as there are now to get black kids more involved in the game. Gray did not have access to a copy of the Nationals baseball academy to pique his interest, though his love of the game grew over time.
With the starting pitcher finishing his first year with the Nationals, the team he traded for in August 2020 and putting him in the middle of their plans, Gray is using his time off the field to put down roots in the community.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do in terms of baseball just because I know my love for the game and I think it can be passed on to the next generation,” said the right-hander. “It’s always been important to me to be able to express that love for the game that I hope will influence some kids in baseball, and get more African Americans in the game.”
Despite Major League Baseball’s efforts to improve diversity among the younger generations, the league still has a long way to go. In this year’s World Series, there were no black players born in the United States on either team. Gray believes the right steps are being taken to improve the numbers across the league. And the more black players make the majors, the better chance there is of exposing black kids to the game.
That’s why Gray hopes to be an inspiration to black kids in the community and believes that following former ambassador Josh Bell, will give kids a glimpse into two black players who forged different paths to the big leagues. Both were second round picks, but Bell went straight to the majors out of high school while Gray played in Major League Baseball in Le Moyne (NY).
His values are directly aligned with the Nationals Youth Academy, which aims to grow baseball in the community by removing barriers. Youth Academy, a nine-acre educational and recreational facility located in the Fort Dupont Park neighborhood of Ward 7, will enter its tenth year in 2023. It provides a range of programs to aid academic performance as well as physical and mental health.
The Youth Baseball Academy Player Ambassador acts as a liaison between the Academy and the locker room, encouraging teammates to participate as well as interacting with the kids at the Academy and participating in 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 Gray was approached by the youth academy about being the next ambassador, she felt like a natural fit.
Gray has already donated a portion of the proceeds from the clothing line he created with lifestyle brand Leoci to the Academy in the past. But beyond that, Tal Alter, CEO of the Washington Nationals Philanthropies, said Gray had the energy and originality that came through when he went to the academy and worked with younger kids. And when it came to the older kids, he was able to relate by being open about his career, his perseverance, and his failures.
“He’s himself 100 percent of the time and so I think right away the kids got comfortable with him,” Alter said. “And I think Josiah felt comfortable working with young kids. Just going out and playing and interacting and just being a guy. Not Major League Baseball player Josiah Gray, but just a guy.”
Each former ambassador added his personal touch to the academy that still exists today.
Desmond ensured that the children met with the front office members whenever they went to Nationals Park so that they could learn about all the roles in the baseball organization. Rendon reached out to the Vision Clinic and established an annual eye clinic at the academy, providing eyeglasses for children in need. Bell has been the keynote speaker at the Academy’s graduation ceremony for the past two years. Now, Gray will have the opportunity to add his own flair.
While Gray hasn’t laid out his full plans for the Academy yet, he – and those at the Academy – most importantly hope kids leave the daily programming amused with a wish to come back. If they continue with baseball after that, it’s up to them.
“I always want to put my name on the ground and kind of make an impact, and I think that’s a good way that has nothing to do with field things that I can give back and plant some roots,” said Gray. “Obviously the work on the field has to be taken care of as well, but I think that would be something off the field that I could really enjoy.”
“Kind of stepping back and appreciating the game so much more because these kids, they’re not looking up your stats every couple of seconds. They’re just saying ‘Hey, he’s here to play baseball with us and here to enjoy the game.’”