By John Bohnenkamp
Playing for the Burlington Bees in the Prospect League last season was the finale of Jack Gray’s playing career.
It turned out to be the beginning of his coaching career.
The Burlington native spent this college season as the pitching coach at Carl Sandburg College. And he’s back with the Bees this summer, this time as the team’s pitching coach.
“I love it,” Gray said. “No place I’d rather be right now.”
Gray has a deep family connection with the Bees, dating to when the Bees were a franchise in the Class A Midwest League. Ed Larson, Gray’s grandfather, was a long-time Midwest League executive and also was president of the Burlington Baseball Association. Larson died in 2019 during the final season for the Bees in the Midwest League.
Gray played in college, starting at Carl Sandburg College before concluding his career at Western Illinois University last season. And when he finished with the Bees last season, his playing days were over and his coaching career was set to begin.
Gray didn’t hesitate when new Bees manager Owen Oreskovich, who was an assistant with the team last season, called Gray and asked him if he wanted to be on his staff.
“It took me about five seconds to say yes,” Gray said. “It was just a perfect fit, with all of the history with my family with the Bees.
“It was nice to end my playing time here, just because with my grandpa and everything, there’s been such a tradition here. And with it being the first year in a new league, it just worked perfectly. It was a lot of fun here. Having my career end here, I wouldn’t want it to end anywhere else.”
Now Gray has shifted into a new role.
“He is very willing and wants to learn to be a coach,” Oreskovich said. “I wanted to give him that opportunity, teach him some of the things I’ve learned, especially after being an assistant coach here.”
Gray’s coaching career was launched in between games of a doubleheader between the Bees and the Normal CornBelters last season. Carl Sandburg head coach Josh Foreman, who was an assistant with CornBelters, asked Gray if he wanted to join his staff. Gray, whose college playing career included playing for Foreman at Carl Sandburg, thought it was a great opportunity.
“I learned a lot,” he said. “It’s a bit of a jump going from player to coach right away.
“One of the main things I learned is that basically not everyone is going to learn the exact same thing the exact same way. Some guys are going to interpret it a little differently.”
Gray took a hands-off approach working with the Sandburg pitchers, and he’s going to do the same thing with the Bees.
“I’m not a big ‘I’ve got to change all of your mechanics’ guy,” Gray said. “I threw weird, so if they’re comfortable throwing weird and they can throw strikes and be efficient, why not? If it works for them, I’ll fine-tune what I can, but let them be comfortable with what they’re doing.
“With the summer league, I’ll do a little bit of instruction. But basically, a lot of the guys are here to get innings — either they didn’t get to play a lot in the spring, or they want to work on something and this is a perfect time to work on it. I’ll let them work on their own, and if they need some help, I’ll be there to help them.”
Eight of Gray’s teammates from last season have returned. Being their coach will be an adjustment, Gray said.
“They know I’m a coach now, and they respect that,” Gray said. “Don’t get me wrong, they’re still friends of mine. It is a little weird coaching your friends. But from what I’ve seen, they’re going to listen to me exactly like a coach.”
“It will be good for Jack to be our pitching coach,” said Bees assistant coach Chris Monroe, who was Gray’s pitching coach at Western Illinois. “He’s going to learn his own style on how to do things, how he wants things done. And there’s no better place to do it than a few blocks down the street from his house. You can’t beat that.”
It is that connection, and the fact that he’s still wearing a Bees uniform, that made this a perfect place for Gray.
“Kind of keeping it in the family,” Gray said. “I know my grandpa would like it. I figure he’s somewhere watching all of this and smiling.”
Photo: Jack Gray (right) signs an autograph for a fan after a game last season at Community Field. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)