By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Perhaps George McGonagle can finally retire for good.
Jeff Gray, who is in his first month as the general manager of the Bluefield Blue Jays, plans to be around for a while.
That must be good news to McGonagle, the long-time Bluefield Baseball Club president who has been trying to leave the general manager position to someone else since 2007, but the last three appointees have all departed.
The 22-year-old Gray makes the fourth, having taken over the position on Oct. 1. He doesn’t plan to leave anytime soon.
“I think it is a place where I could see myself here for several years. You never know what can bring us other places, but I look forward to the future,” Gray said. “I don’t think this is a one-hit wonder or one-year thing where you can totally change everything or do everything you want to do or put in place promotions and different ideas that you want to use.
“I think it is a process. I think stability is definitely the key, especially from George’s point of view so he doesn’t have to come back.”
Gray is young, but experienced. He has been involved in minor league baseball exactly half of his life. When most kids age 11 were playing Little League baseball, Gray was a batboy with his hometown Auburn (N.Y.) Doubledays, which was then an affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays in the New-York Penn League.
“I was just drawn to the park and all the people and the big community atmosphere and it is baseball, America’s pastime,” Gray said. “You just kind of get drawn to it, especially in a small town where you don’t have bigger draws like Syracuse football or basketball, but that was 40 minutes away.”
Bluefield is much the same. Getting fans to spend their entertain dollars watching Appalachian League baseball at Bowen Field will be one of his top priorities.
“As anyone will tell you it is a developmental league, you are going to see good baseball, but from my perspective, I want the team to win, but I have to plan that the team, win or lose, you are still going to have a good product out there for the fans and the community,” Gray said.
During his tenure at Auburn, Gray did a little bit of everything, from batboy to clubhouse manager, scoreboard operator, merchandise sales and was even special assistant to the general manager, while also attending Cayuga Community College for two years.
The manager of the Doubledays during his tenure in Auburn was Dennis Holmberg, who has been the manager of the Bluefield Blue Jays for the last two seasons. Gray made his first trip to Bluefield last summer to see Holmberg, and made a second visit for an interview in September.
Gray’s family, which also includes an older sister, served as host parents in Auburn, where one of their tenants was Adam Lind, who is now an outfielder in Toronto.
Gray later spent two years majoring in Sports Business and working in the sports information office at St. Leo University near Tampa, Fla., and also helped in similar roles at Toronto’s minor league complex in Dunedin.
That was followed with a stint as the associate general manager of the U.S. Military All-Star “Red, White and Blue Tour” baseball team of troops, who traveled more than 7,000 miles to 20 different states competing against various independent and college wooden-bat leagues and semi-pro teams.
Up next came an opportunity too good to turn down. Gray, who graduated from St. Leo’s in May, said the possibility of an opening in Bluefield was ‘brought to me’ and he wasted no time accepting the offer when it came.
“It was definitely an opportunity that you can’t shy away from,” Gray said. “I have a love and a passion for baseball, I jumped at the opportunity and it is somewhere I want to be because I think there is a lot that can be done here to make the same environment and improve and increase attendance.”
That will be one of Gray’s biggest challenges. Attendance has lagged at Bowen Field in recent years, although it did improve when the Blue Jays advanced to the Appalachian League playoffs in 2011.
“Winning cures all ills in any sports operation, but I think here, I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, but I want to try new things,” Gray said. “Just get out in the community and make people aware of game night and different things and using different promotions to get fans in the seats.
“When they come to the stadium making it a fan-first environment where they want to come and they have a good time even if the team wins or loses.”
Gray has been busy since arriving in Bluefield, building relationships through meeting fans and sponsors, getting used to the area and beginning preparations for the 2013 season.
“I think this community has a lot to offer, it is a small town community which I am used to working for a board of directors since that was the way it was operated in Auburn,” Gray said. “I think with the colleges here and the different things going on I think there is a lot of opportunity and potential to bring fans out to the games.”
Gray understands the fact that the Blue Jays are still a fairly new entity in Bluefield, having replaced the Orioles after a 53-year relationship. He went through a similar transition when Toronto pulled out of Auburn in 2010.
“I dealt with it in Auburn when the Blue Jays left Auburn and I was only there nine years, but I can’t imagine what it must have been like for 53 years with the Orioles,” Gray said. “I think Toronto is a great organization and I think they picked up right where the Orioles left off from what I can tell, I just think they are a real good organization.”
His office is Bowen Field, which isn’t a bad place to be, especially right now where the colorful backdrop behind the left and center field fences are worth the trip in the fall.
He wants it to have the same drawing power during the baseball season.
“In talking before I took the position, it was like ‘Wow’, it has everything you that you want,” Gray said. “It has the clubhouse attached to the dugout, it has the batting tunnel, it is enclosed where fans aren’t walking too far, granted they have to go up a ramp,
“It is quaint, it is older, but it a lot of character.”
Continuing the tradition of professional baseball in Bluefield, which began with the Blue-Grays in 1937 and has continued with the exception for four years since then, is what Gray ultimately wants to do.
“I just look forward to meeting the people in the community and getting out and joining the different organizations,” he said. “Definitely as we approach the season, community support is going to be crucial to what I am trying to do to continue the tradition of the Bluefield Orioles/Blue Jays here and just build on that.”
—Contact Brian Woodson