The stroke robbed Jeff Gray of his ability to walk, his ability to speak, even his ability to grip a baseball, but it left his mental faculties untouched. Even as he was being carried out of the Boston Red Sox locker room on a stretcher, Gray never once lost his power of reasoning or imagination. "I remember peeking at the clock and thinking maybe I can make it back by the seventh inning," says Gray. "I really thought that. I wanted to tell everybody that I was fine. I just couldn't speak."
On July 30, 1991—11 years to the day that a massive stroke cut short the career of Houston Astro ace J.R. Richard—Gray, at the time the Red Sox's top middle reliever, completed a pregame workout at Fenway Park and then suffered a seizure while sitting in front of his locker. Later, doctors discovered that a small irregularity in the flow of blood to his brain had led to the stroke. The righthanded Gray lost all power in the right side of his body. One doctor told him he would never walk again. Others were more optimistic but seriously doubted that he would return to the mound.
At the time Gray had been enjoying the finest of his three major league seasons, with batters hitting only .181 against him. Although he was armed with a deceptive sinker and pinpoint control, Gray's most important pitching skill had always been an intensely analytical approach to the game. So it was only fitting that his long road to recovery would begin inside his head.
He started with visualization exercises—imagining himself walking and even pitching again, thinking about movements that previously had been instinctive. In his mind's eye he saw himself taking the mound one more time, and his body gradually responded. His muscles slowly began to remember familiar movements. He trained in a pool, learning how to maintain his balance and how to move his feet. Eventually he started to walk.
"I had to learn just about everything over," says Gray, now 30. "How to feed myself, how to dress myself, how to write." He regained the dexterity in his hand with the help of a typewriter. Every morning he would get the newspaper and painstakingly retype one of the articles. "When I started," says Gray, "it would take me hours of hunting and pecking. After a few months, I could make that dude sing."
Five months after his collapse Gray suited up in his Red Sox uniform, walked onto a field near his home in Riverview, Fla., and gingerly began tossing a baseball. "I could throw the ball maybe 10 feet," recalls Gray. "It was sad. But it was wonderful, too."
Gray's friend Greg Parris, a local baseball coach, caught for him that day. "To see somebody who had done nothing but stay the picture of health," says Parris, "to see him like a newborn baby—it was tough. The man's got a lot of courage."
Gray soon incorporated his throwing into his daily regimen of strength training, stretching and deep-tissue massage. Within a year he was performing everyday activities with ease and was pitching to high school batters. In May, looking to gain flexibility in an unresponsive right foot, Gray started working with Radonna Patterson, a renowned rehabilitation therapist and former professional ballet dancer. Gray's pitching motion immediately showed improvement. "Jeff had been working on big muscle groups, so he was stronger, but he wasn't very flexible," says Patterson. "I wanted to refine his muscles, and in dance we focus on subtle movements."
In mid-July, Gray threw some 70 pitches with power and poise in front of Red Sox team officials at Fenway Park. "He's come so far it's incredible," says Boston general manager Lou Gorman. "It's a miracle, really. He's still got some hills to climb, but he's climbed a lot of hills to get here."
Gray expects to climb the hill for the Red Sox next spring, and he hopes to pitch in the minors within the next few months. But even if he never pitches in the major leagues again, he is content with the knowledge that he is only a small step from reaching the goal he could only visualize two years ago. "Quite honestly," says Gray, "I feel like the luckiest guy in the world."
The former Red Sox reliever is in the final stretch of his return from a 1991 stroke.