Dodgers top prospect Josiah Gray looked very good in his Triple-A debut on Thursday, striking out 10 in five innings for Oklahoma City. His trouble spot came in the second inning, when after two strikeouts to open the frame he gave up a 10-pitch walk, a two-run home run, then a single, the latter on an 0-2 pitch.
That brought a visit from the new pitching coach, longtime major league pitcher Jamey Wright. Gray recovered to strike out the next batter to escape the inning, and only allowed a single and walk for the remainder of his outing.
“He’s been awesome, man,” Gray said of Wright on Tuesday. “I think he’s a really integral part of the organization, and is going to be a really important guy for us Triple-A pitchers right now, just because of his experience, 10-plus years in the big leagues.”
10-plus years in the big leagues is an understatement, as Wright nearly doubled that. In many ways, the right-hander almost had two big league careers — 11 seasons as a starting pitcher, then as a reliever for his last eight years.
Two of those seasons in relief were with the Dodgers, separate stints in 2012 and 2014. The first go around in Los Angeles was year seven in an eight-year stretch in which Wright signed minor league contracts and made the team as a non-roster invitee in spring training, an annual challenge he relished.
“I was almost kind of pitching for my life the last 11-12 years, whatever it was. It’s also something that helped me to keep an edge, to keep a fire,” Wright said. “The work that’s required to get to that level and to stay at that level, even if that means reinventing yourself or inventing a new pitch, or always trying to get better. That’s kind of the message to these guys. We’ve got some really good arms and some really good guys. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun this year.”
Wright didn’t pitch in 2015, but tried to make a comeback in 2016 at 41 years old, this time back on a minor league deal with the Dodgers, in Dave Roberts’ first year as a manager.
“I remember he was hanging on,” Roberts said. “What’s funny is that he came into my office this past winter and said, ‘I was watching some video of me that spring and comparing my stuff to some of the stuff that other guys pitching the same game,’ and he was nowhere near the talent and he was done. But he applauded me and the organization for making him feel like he had some semblance of a chance to get hitters out.”
By the end of spring training, it became clear Wright was not going to make the team. Roberts broke the news to Wright, and offered to fly his family out to Southern California to see him pitch in one final game, in the Freeway Series against the Angels. After a day to ponder it, Wright declined the invitation, and instead announced his retirement at Camelback Ranch.
“I told him I didn’t need to do that,” Wright said Tuesday. “I didn’t think I could handle it. Walking off the field one last time was just too much.”
When he retired, Wright was prescient about the manager he only played for for six weeks.
“I’ll be sad that I don’t get to play for him this year, because he is a class act,” Wright said in 2016. “I’ve known since the first day he addressed this team they’ve got something to look forward to this summer in LA because he’s as good as they get.”
Three pennants, one championship, and an MLB-best .611 winning percentage later, Roberts lived up to the hype from a pitcher who is only 2½ years his junior.
“That means a lot. That’s as good a compliment as you can get from somebody I really respect,” Roberts said this week when reminded of Wright’s words from five years ago. “I felt a little slighted because I didn’t get a chance to spend more time with him. I wish we had a chance to play together. We competed against each other many times.
“I remember a front-door cutter that he threw, and it hit me right in the knee one time. I haven’t forgotten that one. I guess with the compliment, we’re even.”
Wright led the league twice in hit by pitches as a starter, and is tied for 17th all-time in hit batsmen, which is remarkable considering just over 40 percent of his career came as a reliever. Wright’s plunking of Roberts came on May 1, 2006, when Wright was with San Francisco and Roberts with the Padres. Earlier in the game Roberts already singled and had a two-run double, continuing a trend.
In seven games, Roberts was 7-for-19 with two doubles, a walk, and that hit by pitch, hitting .368/.409/.474 against Wright.
Post playing days
After his pitching days were through, Wright worked with his agent for a few years, but found that ultimately it wasn’t for him.
“At the end of the day, I just want to help guys out and continue to mentor,” Wright explained. “I thought I would be able to do a lot more of that, but in that job you have to go recruit, and I just don’t really like to bother people.”
In 2019 in Los Angeles to watch his daughter play volleyball, Wright was approached by Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman to join the organization in some capacity.
“I said, ‘What will you have me do?’,” Wright recalled. “He said, ‘We’ll create something for you. We just want you to be a part of this.’”
Wright’s role in 2020 was special assistant, a nebulous title that could mean just about anything. The Dodgers currently have five special assistants listed in their front office, with myriad duties. Last year, for Wright that meant working with the club’s pitching prospects.
COVID-19 ate into that, including the cancellation of the minor league season. But for Wright, it just meant more Zoom calls instead of in-person instruction in Arizona, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, or wherever. But with Wright, who is as easygoing as they come, his enthusiasm shines through, even remotely.
“He’s a great guy, very energetic, willing to teach,” Roberts said. “To see him back teaching the game, it’s a plus for baseball.”
This year Wright is back on the field, now as pitching coach, a much more immersive role. The decision was made easier because Oklahoma City is home away from home for Wright, who was born there and is the only major league player from Westmoore High School, which is just 10 miles from Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark.
Though Wright and his wife live in Dallas, most of his extended family remains in or near Oklahoma City.
In a little over a year back with the Dodgers, Wright has found a way to connect with players, whether on Zoom or in uniform.
“He has kind of transitioned into this role, without any issues whatsoever. He’s been amazing,” said Oklahoma City manager Travis Barbary. “His ability to build relationships with the pitchers, you can just kind of see it from afar that these guys are really fortunate to have him. Now I think it’s just a matter of him getting into a rhythm of the game and then doing it from the dugout instead of being out on the mound throwing the ball at home plate. So his experience is going to be invaluable for us.”
“It’s been really exciting to just pick his brain, and just kind of let him go on his shorter rants about competing, and what he’s seen and how they can relate to you,” said Gray,” who was born in 1997, after Wright’s second season in the majors.
The feeling is mutual.
“This is a special place, a special organization. The care factor is off the charts,” Wright said. “It’s one of the reasons why I loved it so much.”
Wright was a first-round pick of the Rockies in 1993 out of high school, so he didn’t go to college. But growing up in Oklahoma, the Sooners are his college team.
This was evident on most days during his playing career, when he could be seen wearing a gray “Oklahoma Sooners” shirt. The same shirt, for years and years. Over the years, the shirt took a beating, but it still hung on, just barely. This was the shirt back in 2016, in Wright’s comeback attempt with the Dodgers:
The Oklahoma shirt was in tatters even then, but it’s still around, five years later.
“I can’t wear it much anymore, because there’s not much of it left,” Wright said. “It’s kind of a proud thing. For so many years, I put it on right when I got to the ballpark every day. That was my workout shirt, and there was a lot of pregame workouts. It’s been washed thousands of times. It’s not too much to look at, but it’s got some serious sentimental value to me.”
Near the end of spring training this year, one of the Dodgers strength coaches convinced Wright to don the shirt again, much to the delight of the clubhouse.
Wright’s message to his pitchers before the season in many ways fits him, well, to a tee.
“They’ll be mentally and physically exhausted, and they’ll be able to look at themselves and say, ‘That’s what it’s supposed to feel like, that’s what the year was like, that’s me giving it everything I had, and bringing it every day, to go succeed at the highest level,’” Wright said. “That’s what you have to do every day.”