By John Bohnenkamp
The final out of Jack Gray’s pitching career was a fly ball that settled into the glove of Burlington Bees left fielder Sam Monroe, just a couple of feet from the left-field wall.
With that, Bees manager Gary McClure popped out of the dugout to take Gray out of the game. The two hugged, then Gray hugged each of the Bees’ four infielders before leaving to a loud ovation.
The Bees’ 11-5 win over the Quincy Gems in Wednesday’s Prospect League game at Community Field was a goodbye to the season that brought a new kind of baseball to Burlington.
No longer a Class A minor-league affiliate, the Bees settled into their new summer league of college players. Some of those players were building for the future but for Gray, a local player whose grandfather had played such a big role in the history of the Bees, it was a chance to get in the final innings of his career, which included stops at nearby Carl Sandburg College and Western Illinois University.
The goodbye, Gray said, was “magical.”
“That was my very last time out as a pitcher,” said Gray, a graduate of Burlington’s Notre Dame High School. “To end it here, to end my career in Burlington, I almost started to cry. I started to tear up on that final out.”
Gray had pitched three scoreless innings, pumping his fist as shortstop Zane Zielinski secured Ryan Hutchinson’s grounder and threw him out at first base to end the eighth inning.
Gray wanted to get one more out.
Tyler Clark-Chiapparelli, who was leading off the ninth inning, hit a home run off Gray in the Bees’ 2-1 win at Quincy last Friday. Gray remembered that.
“I wasn’t supposed to go out in the ninth inning,” Gray said. “I told (McClure) I wanted one more at-bat. I said I wanted him, and then after that you could put in who you want.”
For a second, it looked like Clark-Chiapparelli’s drive was going to get out of the ballpark. But it died near the fence.
“I just left a fastball high and inside,” Gray said. “It was just magical to get him out right then and there.”
Gray’s grandfather, Ed Larson, was a long-time Midwest League executive who also served as the Burlington Baseball Association’s president during his career. Larson died in 2019 during the Bees’ last season in the Midwest League.
Getting a chance to play at the ballpark where he had seen so many games with his grandfather meant a lot to Gray.
“It’s been, really, a dream come true,” said Gray, who was 2-2 this season with a 4.64 earned run average. “Right after that (last out), the emotions started hitting me fast. I started thinking about my grandpa. It’s meant so much to me to be here.”
“He’s from here. I think he’s a fan favorite,” McClure said of the decision to keep Gray in the game. “He’s got a lot of heart. I love the kid. Just give him a chance to get that hitter out, and get an ovation.”
The Bees (28-32 overall, 13-18 second half) and Gems (27-32, 14-18) weren’t going to make the playoffs, so this was the finish line.
Quincy’s Andrew Fay played every position, starting the game at catcher before working his way around the infield and outfield. He ended the tour as the Gems’ final reliever, getting a strikeout and a ground out to end the eighth.
The Bees scored five runs in the first, adding two runs in the second and fourth innings before scoring single runs in the fifth and the eighth. Zielinski, the Bees’ leading hitter this season at .317, had three hits and scored four runs. Dylan Hale had three hits and drove in two runs. Rome Wallace and Justin Baehler each drove in two runs.
“It’s been kind of a long season,” McClure said. “We were just so up and down for so long. We just couldn’t really find our consistency, find our rhythm.
“You know, it was a good season. We had some kids hang in there and stay with us. I’m really appreciative of them. Proud of them.”
Gray held his No. 14 jersey in his hand as he talked about his season. He will start his new career as an assistant coach at Carl Sandburg in a week.
“I get to stay in baseball,” he said, smiling.
Photo: Burlington Bees pitcher Jack Gray threw 3 1/3 scoreless innings in Wednesday’s 11-5 win over Quincy. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)