Profile: To the big leagues and back

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    Standing on the pitcher’s mound in Milwaukee, Wisc., staring down his first-ever Major League batter, former College of William and Mary left-handed relief pitcher Bill Bray ’15, J.D. ’18 threw his first big league pitch. He was wearing a Washington Nationals uniform. The pitch was called a ball, although it appeared to be a strike, and ended up giving Bray the win when his catcher threw a man out at second base. It was Bray’s first taste of Major League Baseball, a position he would keep for much of 2006 until 2012.

    Bray hails from Virginia Beach, Va., and pitched for the Tribe from 2002 to 2004, when he was drafted as a junior 13th overall in the 2004 MLB Draft by the Montreal Expos, the highest selection ever for a student-athlete at the College. After playing in the minors for a few seasons, he reached the MLB and played for both the Nationals and the Cincinnati Reds during his six-year career in the majors. After his professional baseball career, he returned to the College to finish his undergraduate degree in 2015 and also joined the William and Mary Athletics Hall of Fame in 2015.

    During his time with the Tribe, Bray set the program record for career saves and was selected to All-Colonial Athletic Association teams twice. Bray expressed his love for the sport, especially during his time at the College.

    “It was a fantastic experience; some of my best friends have come off of those teams. You get to hang out and work with 30 of your best friends every day,” he said. “It was definitely the right choice for me. I hadn’t experienced any kind of camaraderie like I did in college.”

    His success on the mound attracted scouts from the professional leagues during the 2004 season. Bray spoke about the experience of going through the draft process while attending the College.

    “[It was] kind of nerve-wracking, to be honest,” he said. “It was pressure unlike anything I’d ever faced before, going out on the field and knowing somebody was watching every minute of every game … You’re dealing with scouts, and I … took some really difficult classes that semester, so I was dealing with the demand of the academic rigor … It’s very interesting to stand on the mound in college at 20 years old and see radar guns flash up on the screen behind home plate.”

    “[It was] kind of nerve-wracking, to be honest,” he said. “It was pressure unlike anything I’d ever faced before, going out on the field and knowing somebody was watching every minute of every game … You’re dealing with scouts, and I … took some really difficult classes that semester, so I was dealing with the demand of the academic rigor … It’s very interesting to stand on the mound in college at 20 years old and see radar guns flash up on the screen behind home plate.”

    But all the scouting worked out, as Bray was able to not only get drafted, but also to make it through training after signing his initial contract. Bray said he knew he could not go back to the College after being such a high pick, but that he would eventually finish his degree at a later time.

    “College education was highly valued in my family, and that was one of the aspects besides playing baseball that factored into my decision to attend William and Mary was the education,” Bray said. “When I got drafted in 2004, we negotiated a scholarship into my contract that would pay for the rest of my undergraduate schooling.”

    The stipulation in his contract differed from the contracts of other professional athletes, who would usually end up without a degree if they left early for pro teams. The planning worked out for Bray, who, despite having a successful MLB career, wanted to pursue a career as a player representative for athletes. This career choice came after being in the MLB Players’ Association while on the Reds, where he got a taste of the business side of baseball.

    “I was elected as a player representative and was involved in the Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations in 2011 and various committees,” he said. “I was kind of learning the business side of baseball, I majored in finance and it was something I’ve always been passionate about. The opportunity to become involved and steer decisions that affect the game was very attracting.”

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    Bill Bray ’15 during his time on the Tribe baseball team in the early 2000s, before his MLB career. COURTESY PHOTO / TRIBE ATHLETICS

    Of course the behind-the-scenes Players’ Association position wasn’t all he did, as Bray often held the spotlight as a tough relief pitcher who faced many All-Star players. At the start of his career, he earned a win after only throwing one pitch against the Milwaukee Brewers. Bray described his first experience on the mound.

    “It was exhilarating running onto the field for the first time in the major leagues,” he said. “I was in Milwaukee, and just standing there on the mound looking at the stadium it just felt massive, and the field felt really small. I had to focus on keeping my leg from shaking from the nerves and excitement at the same time. All I wanted to do was throw that first strike.”

    His teammates joked with him about retiring after that one game, saying that it wouldn’t get better than that. However, Bray continued on in his career, getting traded to the Reds later in 2006 in the same season as his MLB debut and ending his career with a 13-12 record, a 3.74 earned run average and 188 strikeouts. When asked about his favorite memories of the big show, Bray included pitching for the losing side of the 2010 postseason game in which former Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay threw a no-hitter and participating in the MLB Taiwan All-Star game in 2011.

    “Looking back, I threw an inning and a third, and as I was walking off the field everybody was standing and clapping … and you start hearing ‘Roy! Roy! Roy!’ because he was going out for the ninth inning to finish his no-hitter,” Bray said. “To have the opportunity to pitch in that game, only one of two no-hitters in playoff history, was an incredibly awesome experience.”

    Bray had a rather interesting career, being drafted by the Expos in 2004, a year before they transitioned to become the Nationals. He also went through being traded and several injuries during his six years in the majors. When he learned of the Expos transition, he said he was excited at first because of a proposal to move to Norfolk, Va., just a few miles away from his home in Virginia Beach. However, the franchise ultimately moved to Washington, D.C., where he played part of his time, as well as in Puerto Rico in 2005.

    With his experience with trades, Bray commented on the unusual nature of being sent to a new team, an experience unfamiliar to college players.

    “In a way it was disappointing, because I had just gotten called up to the major leagues with the Nationals and was starting to feel confident and like I belonged, and then all of a sudden you get traded to a completely new team, a completely new organization, where you don’t know anybody,” he said. “It almost feels like the team you’re on didn’t want you anymore, but at the same time the team you’re going to really wants you.”

    Injuries had a huge impact on my career,” Bray said. “Tommy John was a difficult surgery, but … I came back stronger and became a better pitcher for it … The death blow for my career was I tore my labrum and rotator cuff in 2013, and then re-tore it in 2014.”

    After being traded, Bray remained in the MLB for a while, though he faced occasional injuries that placed him on the disabled list, especially in spring training in the preseason. In 2009, he had Tommy John surgery, although he returned to play for two more years. When he tore his labrum and rotator cuff in 2013 after signing a minor league contract with the Nationals, his baseball career was nearing its end.

    “Injuries had a huge impact on my career,” Bray said. “Tommy John was a difficult surgery, but … I came back stronger and became a better pitcher for it … The death blow for my career was I tore my labrum and rotator cuff in 2013, and then re-tore it in 2014.”

    When he went into rehab after the 2013 surgery, he decided he would go back to college to finish his degree. In 2014, while in rehab, he tore his labrum again, effectively ending his career, as he announced his retirement later that year.

    “[I] decided that three surgeries was enough,” he said.

    With his career over, and now returning as a student to the College, albeit now with a wife and two children, Bray reflected on his favorite moments from his time at Plumeri Park in the early 2000s.

    “Some of your favorite moments are kind of funny ones,” he said. “I gave up a home run — I wouldn’t say this is a favorite moment — in the conference tournament after my freshman year, and then in my sophomore year during spring practice one of the guys slammed a ball down and said ‘Oh my God, that ball that got hit off Bill last May just landed,’ and everybody was laughing and it’s one of those things that sticks with you.”

    “I don’t think I would’ve been anywhere near prepared to have gone to professional baseball out of high school,” he said. “The college experience, living on my own and taking care of myself, cooking for myself, making sure that I went to class, you know having that responsibility and starting to learn time management. Learning all of those things at William and Mary — how to deal with people [and] professors — really helped me in my career.”

    Building on the sense of camaraderie from the team, Bray still recalls other interactions with his team that have lasted through the years.

    “In intersquad games, I could never get Will Rhymes [‘05] or Kyle Padgett [‘05] out, no matter what I did they always seemed to get a base hit off of me and it drove me crazy, and Will and Kyle still remind me of it to this day,” Bray said.

    Bray cites the College as one of the main reasons for his success in baseball and in his current endeavors.

    “I don’t think I would’ve been anywhere near prepared to have gone to professional baseball out of high school,” he said. “The college experience, living on my own and taking care of myself, cooking for myself, making sure that I went to class, you know having that responsibility and starting to learn time management. Learning all of those things at William and Mary — how to deal with people [and] professors — really helped me in my career.”

    “I’m looking forward to representing players and protecting their careers and helping them achieve their dreams like people did for me. I couldn’t be more thankful to everyone at William and Mary for what they’ve given me and allowing me [to be] able to come back and finish my degree and pursue an advanced degree.”

    After calling Athletics Director Terry Driscoll in 2014, Bray found his way back to Williamsburg to finish his undergraduate studies. Now that he has finished, he is working on a law degree at the Marshall-Wythe School of Law, expecting to graduate in 2018 and go work with professional athletes. With the transition to being a non-traditional student, he says he looked at his education more closely and took classes towards a more well-defined goal than in his early 20s.

    “It’s kind of an odd thing but I don’t really plan to pursue a career in law per se, other than that I see tremendous value in learning and having the knowledge that law school provides to pursue a career in professional sports,” he said. “I’d like to be a player representative after graduating law school and I think the ability to understand and negotiate the contracts that are involved in professional baseball and other professional sports is invaluable.”

    With that, Bray comes full circle.

    “When I made the phone call … and expressed my desire to come back and go back to school, the athletic department was a huge help, and the business school was a huge help,” Bray said. “I’m looking forward to representing players and protecting their careers and helping them achieve their dreams like people did for me. I couldn’t be more thankful to everyone at William and Mary for what they’ve given me and allowing me [to be] able to come back and finish my degree and pursue an advanced degree.”