Sonny Gray joked recently that he expects to be met at the Tokyo airport later this month by members of Japan’s government.
“They’ll probably have citizenship papers for me,” Gray said.
The Smyrna native and right-handed pitcher for Vanderbilt said Japan is not his first choice for places to go. It’s hot and humid, particularly in the summer. He has a hard time finding food to satisfy his taste buds, not to mention the fact that it takes so long to get there.
His third visit in little more than a year, though, is not a matter of personal preference. It’s one of national pride — for the United States, that is. Gray, a junior pitcher for Vanderbilt, traveled last week from Middle Tennessee to Durham, N.C., to begin his second stint with the USA Baseball Collegiate National team.
That team, which features many of the top college-age baseball players in the country (the final roster was announced Sunday), will conclude its 2010 schedule at the FISU World University Baseball Championships, July 30 to Aug. 7 in Tokyo.
Gray is one of four players (two pitchers, two infielders) on the team for the second straight year. More than anyone, though, he knows what to expect when the Americans venture out into the Pacific Ocean, given that he’s been there twice recently.
The 2009 USA Baseball Collegiate National Team went 19-5 overall, 2-3 against a team of Japanese college all-stars in a five-game set that took place in four different cities throughout Japan last July. Gray returned to that country in late November with the Commodores for a four-game exhibition tour.
Oddly, the thing he most looks forward to on his next visit is something that is decidedly American.
“They have the best Coke over there,” he said. “I’m not really sure what it is. It makes a big ‘pop’ when you open it, and it just tastes really good.”
In addition to the soft drinks, Gray also can look forward to performing well, if his personal history is any indication.
He appeared in three of the five games — including both U.S. victories — with the collegiate national team there last summer.
He pitched a scoreless eighth in the opener, which the Americans won 3-0. He then was the winning pitcher in Game 3, when he came out of the bullpen and allowed one hit and no runs (he struck out five) in 5.1 innings. He finally allowed a run when he pitched two innings late in the final contest. Japan won that one — and the series — 8-7.
When he went back with Vanderbilt during the Thanksgiving holiday, he was the starting pitcher in the opener. Limited to a strict pitch count because of time of year, he struck out the first four batters he faced and seven overall in four innings. That game ended in a tie.
Before it travels to Japan, this year’s Collegiate National Team will play a five-game series with Korea at several sites in North Carolina and one game against a Japanese collegiate all-star team at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb. It then will travel to Taipei, Taiwan, for a four-game series against Taipei.
As he prepared to leave for the tryout camp, Gray wasn’t sure what his role would be for the national team.
“It doesn’t matter at all to me,” he said. “I know I’ll get plenty of work this summer against good hitters. So if they want me to start, I’ll start. If they need me to be the closer, I’ll be the closer.”
A dual role might be appropriate — if he ends up with dual citizenship.