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In youth academy role, Josiah Gray hopes to draw more Black kids to baseball

Josiah Gray will be the fourth player ambassador for the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy as he looks to make an impact in the community. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

When Josiah Gray was named the latest ambassador for the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy in late September, the role represented a full-circle moment for Gray. It was an opportunity to take his youth baseball experience and pay it forward for young, Black baseball players.

Gray and his brothers grew up playing travel baseball, an often expensive avenue for kids that can sometimes serve as a barrier. Gray had travel ball coaches who helped cover tournament fees and season expenses for him. But he understood not every kid was as fortunate.

There weren’t nearly as many programs funded by Major League Baseball as there are now to get Black kids more involved in the game. Gray didn’t have access to a version of the Nationals’ academy, though his love for the game grew over time.

After finishing his first full season with the Nationals, who traded for the starting pitcher in August 2020 and are placing him in the middle of their plans, Gray is using his time off the field to establish roots in the community.

“It’s always something I’ve wanted to do in terms of baseball, just because I know my love of the game and I think it can be passed on to the next generation,” the right-hander said. “It’s always been important for me to be able to express that love for the game and hopefully impact some kids in the game of baseball, getting more African Americans in the game.”

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Despite efforts from Major League Baseball to improve diversity among younger generations, it still has a ways to go. In this year’s World Series, there were no U.S.-born Black players on either team. Gray said the right steps are being taken to improve the numbers across baseball. And the more Black players who make the majors, the better chance of exposing Black kids to the game.

That’s why Gray hopes to be an inspiration for Black kids in the community and says following Josh Bell, the previous ambassador, will give kids a glimpse at two Black players who forged different paths to the major leagues. They were both second-round picks, but Bell went straight to the majors out of high school and Gray played Division II baseball at Le Moyne (N.Y.).

His values align directly with those of the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy, which aims to grow the game in the community by eliminating barriers to participation. The academy, a nine-acre education and recreation facility in Ward 7’s Fort Dupont Park neighborhood, will enter its 10th year in 2023. It provides a range of programming to aid with academic performance as well as physical and mental health.

The player ambassador serves as a liaison between the academy and the locker room, encouraging teammates to get involved in addition to interacting with the kids and helping program events.

Gray is the fourth player ambassador, after Ian Desmond, Anthony Rendon and Bell. Bell was dealt to the San Diego Padres along with Juan Soto at the trade deadline, leaving the role open. And when the academy contacted Gray about being the next ambassador, it felt like a natural fit.

Gray had previously donated to the academy a portion of proceeds from a clothing line he created with the lifestyle brand Leovici. Beyond that, Tal Alter, the CEO of Washington Nationals Philanthropies, said Gray had an energy and authenticity that stood out when he went to the academy and worked out with the younger kids. He was able to relate with older kids by discussing his career, his perseverance and his failure.

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“He is himself 100 percent of the time, and so I think immediately kids felt comfortable with him,” Alter said. “And I think Josiah felt right at home working with young kids. Just getting out there and playing and interacting and just being a guy. Not Major League Baseball player Josiah Gray but just a guy.”

Each past ambassador has added his own personal touch to the academy that still exists today.

Desmond ensured that kids met with members of the front office whenever they went to Nationals Park so they could learn about all the roles in a baseball organization. Rendon connected with a vision clinic and established an annual eye clinic at the academy, providing kids in need with prescription glasses. Bell was the keynote speaker at the academy’s graduation the past two years. Now, Gray will have the chance to add his own flair.

While Gray hasn’t yet established his full plans, he hopes the kids leave the daily programming having had fun and wanting to come back. If they continue with baseball afterward, that’s up to them.

“I always want to sort of put my name in the ground and sort of make an impact, and I think this is a good way, unrelated to on-the-field stuff, that I can give back and sort of plant some roots,” Gray said. “Obviously the work on the field has to be taken care of as well, but I think this is going to be something off the field that I can really enjoy.

“Sort of take a step back from the game and appreciate it just that much more because these kids, they’re not looking up your stats every two seconds. They’re just saying, ‘Hey, he’s here to play baseball with us and here to enjoy the game.’ ”