"I will pitch again'

Published Feb. 15, 1992|Updated Oct. 10, 2005

They laid him out on the clubhouse floor. The ambulance was on the way. His Boston Red Sox teammates circled.

Jeff Gray was trying to tell them what was happening, but his words would not come out right.

The right side of his body _ his leg, his pitching arm _ did not work.

"What?" they asked. "What? What?"

What Jeff Gray was trying to tell them that morning of July 30 was he was having a stroke.

A 28-year-old major-league baseball player, in the prime of his career, in the midst of a season, in the clubhouse at Fenway Park, was having a stroke.

Gray suffered a very minor stroke with "some brain damage," he said, the result of a congenital problem where a piece of tissue restricted the flow of blood to his brain.

That was 6 1/2 months ago.

Today, after intensive physical rehabilitation, the traces of the stroke appear all but gone.

Gray can talk. He can walk. He can sign his name. And eat, and drive and play golf. All things he could not do or had difficulty doing in the past six months.

Jeff Gray also can throw a baseball 60 feet, 6 inches, but not yet with the skill and velocity that made him one of the major leagues' top middle relievers.

For now, his pitching is limited to the parking lot at his Plant City rehabilitation center and a high school near his Hillsborough County home.

But in the next few weeks, or next month, or sometime shortly after that, Gray said, he will return to the big leagues.

"I will pitch again," Gray said. "I will pitch again this year. I can't give you an exact date, but I have a good idea."

To think that Gray will go from the floor of the Fenway Park clubhouse to the pitching mound in less than a year seems incredible.

Gray, in the words of Red Sox general manager Lou Gorman, has made "remarkable progress."

But, Gorman said, "If he is able to come back and pitch this year, it will be a small miracle."

The stroke

Gray didn't notice anything different that day. He was pitching well as Boston's top set-up man, having held opponents to a .181 batting average through 50 games, more than any other pitcher in the American League. The Red Sox were struggling with a 46-52 record heading into the 1:05 p.m. game with Texas.

Gray was in the stadium weight room talking with a teammate about 9:30 that morning when the base of his nose suddenly felt like it was on fire. "It was almost like someone had lit a match and I couldn't get it away, I couldn't blow it out," Gray said.

He went to splash water on his face. Standing at a sink, his legs gave out. "I didn't know what was happening. I felt like I was just going to lose it," Gray said.

He staggered ("like I was drunk or something") back to the clubhouse, looking for the chair at his locker. He sat down, realized he was in trouble, and sent a clubhouse boy for the trainer.

"And that's when it happened," Gray said. "It was just like a muscle spasm right here," pointing to the back of his head.

"I never lost consciousness. I never collapsed. None of that. I just almost lost all strength. I could move and stuff, but it was very, very limited. It was just like I didn't want to move. I was afraid to move.

"I didn't know what was going on. I had an inkling of a feeling I was having a stroke, but I didn't know what a stroke is. Now I do."

Temporary paralysis

Immediately, there were discrepancies over exactly what happened. Statements from doctors and team officials were unclear and inconclusive. And, Gray said, an overzealous Boston media contributed to the confusion.

The fourth or fifth day after the stroke, Gray and a Red Sox official worked up a press release for the writers, explaining as best Gray could what occurred and that he was never in a life-threatening condition.

"The next day in the paper they had me on my death bed. I was very, very upset," Gray said.

For the first few hours at the hospital, Gray said, he had "total right-side paralysis."

He won't say how long that condition lasted. He spent 10 days in a Boston-area hospital and one night in a rehabilitation center before beginning outpatient care.

What happened, according to Gray and Harvard neuroendocrinologist Dr. Andrew Herzog, was a small piece of tissue (3 millimeters) inside a blood vessel in Gray's brain blocked the flow of blood.

In an August statement, Herzog said Gray's condition was congenital and unrelated to physical activity, including pitching.

A similar incident happened in 1981, when Gray was pitching for Florida State. No one was quite sure what happened then, FSU coach Mike Martin said, but Gray returned to pitch very well. He was selected to the 1983 All-Metro Conference tournament team, and he graduated in 1984 with degrees in business management and finance.

"It was almost exactly the same," Gray said, "except there I had no brain damage."

Gray said "chances are" he will not be stricken again. Occasionally, thoughts of a recurrence will pop into his head, but he dismisses them. "The best way to deal with it is not to think about it," he said.

Gray is taking aspirin to thin his blood, and the medical reports are encouraging. "It's nice to have the doctors say they don't think it will happen again," said Jeff's wife, Clare.

Gray said tests conducted a few weeks ago in Boston showed his brain had regenerated to replace the damaged area and a new blood vessel had grown and was serving the new brain matter. "That's almost unheard of. It's absolutely incredible," Gray said.

Equally good were reports that the abnormality had shrunk. "(The doctors) thought at best it would stay the same, and it got smaller and that fooled them," Gray said. "They don't understand how that happened, but they were very, very happy. It means good things for me."

Changed view of life

When Gray first went home in late September, he hardly resembled a professional athlete known for his physical conditioning. His right arm, strong enough to pitch 96 games in the majors, was curled against his body, the back of his hand pressed against his chest.

Clare, his wife of two years, had to help him walk. She had to bathe him. She helped him through the entire day in their small south Hillsborough home.

The two, who met when he pitched for Triple-A Nashville and she worked in the front office, alternately leaned on each other through this hell. Prayers and support rolled in from their relatives, from the baseball world, from fans, from people they never met and never will.

The stroke, and the resulting recovery, has drastically changed Gray's view of life. During his six-year climb through the Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Boston organizations, which included a 1985 season at Clearwater, Gray's life focus was the major leagues.

Now, he knows there is more.

"I take a longer look at things at times," Gray said. "Being a major-league pitcher is now not the only thing in life. It's important, but it's not that important. I still want to do it, but being able to be a functional human being is pretty important, too.

"I feel like I've been given a second chance and for that, Clare and I are very, very, very happy."

Becoming functional

Now, Gray's days start at 6:55 a.m. He grabs the newspaper and a cup of coffee and heads to the typewriter. He will copy four or five paragraphs out of the paper just to exercise his fingers.

He does this again later in the day, measuring not the speed but his ability to manipulate his fingers over the keyboard.

Then it's off to the Plant City office of the Orthopedic Physical Therapy Center, where therapist Kerry D'Ambrogio has designed a special, intensive rehabilitation program. Gray's insurance is paying for the treatment.

When Gray first went to the center in mid-September, he struggled to walk with a cane and had little movement of his arm and leg, D'Ambrogio said.

Now, Gray's morning begins with an hour of exercises designed to help his dexterity. Here, Gray's victories are measured in smaller but more significant ways.

First, the checkers. Gray flips them over, from the yellow side to orange. "I'm getting really good at that," he said.

Then come nuts and bolts, some stationary, some on an assembly line device. One by one, Gray unscrews the nuts, puts them down, picks them up and twists them back on.

Next, the needles. Gray uses tweezers to pull each one from a box and replace it.

Then Gray moves over to a large slotted box on the wall. He sorts the mail. "I just pick where I want to go," Gray said. "Nowhere special. I just try to pick a hole and go for it. I'm trying to pick up the speed and accuracy and everything. I'm getting fair at it."

Gray then visits with D'Ambrogio for an hour of integrated, hands-on physical therapy on his hand and foot. Then an hour lifting weights. Next are stints on an exercise bike and stair climber.

Then it's out to the parking lot for 20-30 minutes of throwing.

By the time Gray gets home, it's often around 2 p.m. He has been able to give up the naps he once needed. In late afternoon, he'll work out with some more light weights, maybe type some more, and work on improving the movement in his right foot.

"Our first goal was to make him a functional human being. He reached that several months ago," D'Ambrogio said. "Now we've got the impossible task of getting him to a professional level. We're determined to get him back."

Slowly coming back

The rehabilitation process is not only physical.

Simply, Gray said, he must retrain his brain.

Consider the ordinary task of picking up a glass. First Gray had to regain enough strength. Then he would do it over and over, maybe 15 straight times.

"It was something as simple as that, but I had to think about doing it," Gray said. "I had to get the message from up here (touching his head) to down here (pointing to his right hand). It was almost like I had to teach my brain again how to work."

At first, Gray said, it might take him half a minute to lift a glass. Slowly, he improved. Now, he can eat a full meal normally.

"Every little task I did, like if I was going to pick these keys up, I kept doing it over and over and over," Gray said. "Sometimes as early as five times, sometimes as late as 20, you could almost see it click in and get quicker."

Rough spots remain

As part of his official rehabilitation, Gray "throws" a baseball. But Saturdays, he said, are reserved for pitching.

He and Clare will head over to a nearby high school. He has been there six Saturdays now. At first, his pitches would bounce 10-12 feet short of the plate. Now, Gray said, he has no trouble with the distance. And his accuracy, he said, has been very good.

His speed has picked up to an average of about 60 miles per hour, still about 25 mph short of his standard.

How's his stuff? "I'll let Clare answer that. She's seen me pitch the most from behind home plate," Jeff said.

"He said he's doing just good enough to get hit pretty bad right now," Clare replied.

Gray recently started throwing breaking balls, comparing his status to someone working on his pitches in spring training.

On this day, his sinkerball was flat. But his slider, usually his worst pitch, was shockingly good.

"I feel good enough to pitch in spring training," Gray said this week, "but I can't keep up to speed with the other guys. I need more work on covering first base, on covering bunts. I'm still rough."

"Remarkable progress'

All along, Gray said his goal has been to rejoin the Red Sox during spring training, even "if it's on a somewhat limited basis." Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to Winter Haven Feb.

24, but, as of this week, Gray had not decided if he will show up.

"If spring training started tomorrow, I wouldn't be ready," he said.

Gray is a proud man, and he said he will determine when he feels good enough to return. He did not want photographs taken for this story, preferring to wait until he rejoins the team.

"There's going to be a lot of people watching. I don't mind that, but I don't want them to see me stumble," Gray said. "That means a whole lot to me. When I walk on that field, I'll be ready."

His right hand, he said, is not quick enough. There is still a little tightness in his arm. More importantly, he said, is a slight shake in his right foot that results in a slight limp.

"If you were to look at me walk, you might not even see; but I know it's there, and it's more important to me to be able to walk right than throw a baseball," Gray said.

When Gray went to Boston a few weeks ago, he took along a tape of him pitching at the high school. Gorman, who last saw Gray when he visited the Sox clubhouse in mid-August, said he liked what he saw.

"It was very impressive. He's made remarkable progress," Gorman said. "He's a tremendously dedicated young man."

Gorman said he "wouldn't discount" seeing Gray on Feb.

24. "I didn't think he'd be as far along as he is now."

Teammate and close friend Jody Reed worked out with Gray earlier this week, shagging fly balls, working on other drills.

"To see the progress he's made," Reed said, "it's miraculous."

Said Martin, the FSU coach: "I think Jeff Gray is probably the only one who could say something like that (that he'll be back), and have everyone believe it. He's a self-made man. I never thought he'd pitch in the big leagues when he was here. He has tremendous confidence in himself. He's done it all on his own."

Learning daily

The Grays say they have learned from the tragedy. Gray said he now takes life more in stride, laughs more, and both he and Clare say they are more thankful for what they have.

To show his thanks, Gray said he may write a book to benefit Boston's Beth Israel Hospital. That will have to wait, though. For now, Gray's focus is on completing his rehabilitation.

Today, Gray can do almost anything a healthy 28-year-old man can.

Except pitch in the big leagues.

"I can still become a better functional human being," he said. "But I'm very thankful for what I can do right now, at this moment. If this were all I were to get, I would feel very lucky.

"But I've been improving from the very beginning. Ever since that initial period, by the time I got out of the hospital, I was getting two or three four things back a day. And it hasn't stopped."