Of the 197.1 innings Bill Bray pitched in the major leagues over six different seasons from 2006-12, 174.1 of themÃ‚Â came in a Reds uniform. The left-handed Bray primarily operated with a fastball-slider combination, which produced a career FIP of 3.85 and 188 strikeouts. Bray was particularly effective against left-handed batters, limiting leftiesÃ‚Â to a slash of .218/.312/.331.
A William & Mary product, Bray was drafted 13th overall by the Montreal Expos in the 2004 draft. After reaching the majors with the Washington Nationals on June 3, 2006, Bray recordedÃ‚Â 23 innings with the Nationals before he,Ã‚Â fellow reliever Gary Majewski, shortstop Royce Clayton, infielder Brendan Harris, and minor league pitcher Daryl Thompson were traded to the Reds for Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez, and Ryan Wagner on July 13, 2006.
Though he was effective when healthy, Bray had a difficult time staying away from the training table. BrayÃ‚Â underwent Tommy John surgery early in the 2009 season; battled shoulder soreness, groin strains, and lingering back issues throughoutÃ‚Â his career; and a labrum injury to his throwing shoulder made BrayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s decision to retire in March 2014 an easy one.
The 32-year-old Bray has stayed busy in retirement, having recently finished up his undergraduate degree in finance from William & Mary, and he is on track to begin law school at W&M in the fall. Bray is also the pitching coach for the Orleans Firebirds of the Cape Cod Baseball League. I spoke with Bray late last week, and we covered so much ground that IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve decided to split this interview into two parts. Part II will run at this time Wednesday.
Among the subjects Bray and I cover in Part I are his desire to get involved on the business side of baseball; being drafted by the Expos; the distinctness that is minor league baseball; the unique experience of being traded; his pal Gary Majewski; the constant shadow of the Big Red Machine; and the incredible reverence he has for Scott Rolen.
RN: You were born in Virginia Beach, attended William & Mary, and your Twitter profile lists your location as Williamsburg, Virginia. What is it about Virginia that feels like home to you?
BB: Well, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s where I went to school. William and Mary is a couple of miles away. When I retired, we moved back so I could finish my undergraduate degree. Then, I was accepted into law school, which IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll start in the fall at William & Mary. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s been a good place for us.
RN: WhatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the ideal endgame for you by attending law school?
BB: To stay in baseball. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve spoken with several executives, agents, and people with the (Major League Baseball) Players Association. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve asked around to get advice as to whether I should get my MBA or law degree, and unanimously (the answer) was law if I wanted to pursue a career in baseball on the business side.
IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d really like to work for the Players Association or a team. Right now, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m really taking a good, hard look at becoming an agent.
RN: ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a cutthroat business, being an agent.
BB: Yeah, absolutely. But you know, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s all cutthroat. TheyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re all very tough. I had wonderful agents when I played. You take care of players, look after them. I think that would be a lot of fun and be a good way to stay in the game.
RN: You were drafted by the Montreal Expos in 2004, but that club became the Washington Nationals in time for the 2005 season. Technically, you pitched 7.1 innings for the Expos organization at High-A Brevard County after you were drafted. That had to be a weird experience. Was there an ‘Expos Way’ that was preached to you one year and then a ‘Nationals Way’ the next?
BB: No, you really didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t see much change in the minor league organization other than the logos. When it was the Expos, they were owned by Major League Baseball, and when they moved to D.C., they were owned by Major League Baseball. It really didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t change until 2006 when the Lerners took over. It was a great organization and they took great care of me. It was a great organization to get drafted by because there was so much opportunity to rise through the ranks.
RN: I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know if youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve read Jonah KeriÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Expos book, but the Expos were a player development machine during their heyday. They had some bad luck in the playoffs, but, yeah, there definitely couldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been worse organizations to get drafted by, even though the Expos were in financial straits when you were drafted by them.
BB: It was a good organization with a lot of great players. God, they produced a ton of All-Stars. You look at a guys like Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman — theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re still with them at this point.
RN: I think most baseball fans know that playing minor league ball is no picnic — not with long road trips, low pay, and massive amounts of time spent away from family and friends. What was your experience like? Playing in the minors had to be equal parts exciting and terrifying at times.
BB: To be honest, I would never say it was terrifying. There were some long road trips. Fortunately, being a first-rounder, I didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have the monetary struggles that a lot of minor league baseball players go through. I was able to have my own room, and I was able to eat. I was able to do some things I wanted to do.
So many of the other guys I played with worked all winter and they were with four or five guys to a two-bedroom apartment with one guy on the couch. That side of it, fortunately I didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t experience. Overall, I really enjoyed minor league baseball. I enjoy travel — that was probably my favorite part of major league baseball and just baseball in general. You play in so many great cities, and riding through the minor leagues you play in so many awesome small towns. You get to experience them and try different things. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m a big foodie, so why not try local restaurants?
RN: Did you have a favorite spot in minor or major league baseball that you looked forward to visiting?
BB: Yeah, I loved Louisville. I played there with the Reds. New Orleans was awesome. The Pacific Coast League I thought was really incredible league city-wise because there were a lot of major cities with teams on the West Coast. That was very cool. Oklahoma City was awesome. Omaha was awesome. Round Rock, (Texas) was so cool — great barbeque in Round Rock. I could go on and on. One of the best burgers I had was in Binghamton, New York. Each place had its own unique subtlety that really made it special.
RN: When you mentioned Louisville, my eyes lit up. Every time IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been to Louisville, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s been a great experience.
BB: ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s probably one of the nicest minor league parks, for sure. They do a great job there.
RN: In your major-league debut on June 3, 2006, you earned the win in relief of future Reds teammate Gary Majewski despite only throwing one pitch to Prince Fielder — and not being involved in the only out you recorded. Only in baseball, right?
BB: That was pretty cool. I remember when one my teammates came up to me and said, ‘You should just retire. It canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t get better than that.’ Looking back, that was cool. I think I earned the win my Reds debut, too.
RN: If you think about it, being ‘traded’ is a transaction that is pretty much limited to professional sports, the financial world, or some sort of barter market. That has to be a strange feeling.
BB: It is a weird feeling. On one hand, you feel like the team youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re on — which was the only team IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d known and I had just gotten to the point where I was getting comfortable actually being the major leagues — is giving up on me. They see something they donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t like, so theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re getting rid of me. On the other hand, you have this team that says, ‘No, we really want you.’ ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a good feeling. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a weird feeling.
As time passes, you realize itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s just business. They (the Nationals) liked you, there was nothing they had against you — they just got the right deal and you were gone. And then, the Reds, of course, wanted me. That was a great feeling. It was very cool coming to Cincinnati, going from a team that was owned by Major League Baseball to Cincinnati was almost like getting called up to the major leagues again.
RN: When you were traded, the Reds werenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t quite in a pennant race, but they made the trade with the idea of contending that season. It was a big deal for the Reds because they reshaped their roster with the trade. Did you feel any added pressure to perform knowing the trade was made with the idea of giving the team a boost for a playoff run?
(Note: At the time of the trade, the Reds were 46-44 and four games out of first place in the NL Central. After the trade, Cincinnati won four in a row and eight of its next 11, but finished 80-82, 3.5 games back of the first-place Cardinals.)
BB: I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t remember feeling a ton of pressure from the trade itself other than I wanted to get off on the right foot with my new team. I wanted to perform well for my new teammates. I guess you could say there was a little pressure from the trade because everyone was trashing it. I think (former Mets general manager) Steve Phillips called it the worst trade of the decade. Make sure you note that I was last player from that trade to be with his original team from the trade. [Laughs]. I think it worked out on my end. I got to Cincinnati and loved it.
RN: Do you feel any sort of bond or connection with the players you were traded with or traded for? Do you randomly see a name from that trade on the internet and say to yourself, ‘Oh yeah, that guy was in the trade?’
BB: Not too much. Gary Majewski is one of my best friends. His wife and my wife are best friends. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a special bond there. He was big for me to lean on when I got traded because he had been around for a little awhile. It made me feel more comfortable.
Brendan Harris is a good friend, we actually went to the same college. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a William & Mary guy. I guess there is (a bond) — not so much the guys we got traded for — but guys that I got traded with.
RN: WhatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Gary Majewski up to these days?
BB: I talked to him a couple weeks ago and heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s looking to catch on with an independent ball team. He was in Mexico playing for awhile. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s been playing with the Skeeters in Sugar Land, (Texas) for the last couple of years.
RN: You pitched for the Reds during some lean years for the franchise. With baseball being such a grind, was it difficult at times coming to the park, or were you so new to the organization that it was too early to graspÃ‚Â the collective struggle the club had been through?
BB: You could sense the struggle with the fans. The fans expected to win, and they should. We got reminded a lot of the teams in the 70s. I canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t tell you how many people IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d run into would say, ‘Yeah, I watched the Reds in 70s.’
RN: ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a gift and a curse to the franchise.
BB: I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t think youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re ever going to see another team like the Big Red Machine. In todayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s world, I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t think itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s possible. You can definitely tell how passionate the fans in Cincinnati are. As player, we wanted to perform well for the fans.
RN: Eventually, the Reds’ commitment to player development began to pay off. You eventually played with homegrown up-and-comers like Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, etc. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m sure you heard about certain guys coming up.
BB: Yup. I was right there for when Jay and Joey got called up, and when they got (Aroldis) Chapman. You could kind of see us rising. You could see it coming if you paid close attention. It was fun.
RN: Another thing people make a big deal about beforeÃ‚Â ‘The Run’ (from 2010-13) started is the Scott Rolen trade. I know you were rehabbing from Tommy John surgery when Rolen was acquired, but once you were back with the Reds every day, did you notice a difference in the clubhouse? Rolen has become aÃ‚Â cult figure among segments of Reds fans.
BB: Scott RolenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a great guy. A superb role model. Great player. I would vote for him for the Hall of Fame. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s easily one of the best third baseman of all-time. The right veterans on a team make all the difference. You can have a lot of young players with a lot of talent, but you have to have the veteran leadership to say, ‘This is how weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re going to do it. Follow me. Watch how I work and do it this way.’ I think Scott was that guy, and we had Miguel Cairo, too, who was an excellent presence on those teams along with Orlando Cabrera. But Scott made a huge difference, just from the way he did things.
For me, personally, anytime I had a question, I went to Scott. You knew you were going to get an honest answer from him. Also, I had my first daughter in 2009, and watching how Scott handled himself as a father and a family man in baseball, it was a really…in 2012, when it my last year and his last year with the Reds, I just said to him, ‘Thanks for being such a great role model as a father in baseball. YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re somebody I can look up to as far asÃ‚Â howÃ‚Â to be a dad in a baseball family.’
RN: ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s interesting to hear because IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m as big of a stat guy as there is, but I also played the game through high school. I know what it means…when you first break into a team, naturally you look up to the older kids for advice or try to mimic them. I think itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s easy to lose track of the fact that itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s still a very human game, and you canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t forget about the brotherhood aspect of it. Guys like Rolen and Cairo do matter.
BB: And I was so lucky as a left-hander too — I had Mike Stanton, who was dominant for decade. Eddie Guardado. Kent Mercker. Rheal Cormier. David Weathers. I had so many great veteran leaders to look up to and play with. I was really fortunate.
This interview has been edited. Reminder: Part II runs Wednesday at noon.