It didn’t take very long for Joe Gray to settle into desert life in his first visit to Arizona. Playing for the EvoShield Canes National 2018 team in the inaugural Wilson Premier Championship West tournament, the Hattiesburg (Miss.) High junior outfielder smacked a long home run in just his third at-bat against Wildfire Baseball 2018.
This trip to Arizona certainly won’t be the last for Gray, as he’s expected to return next month for the Perfect Game World Series. And if the athletic righthanded hitter chooses to turn pro after the 2018 draft instead of heading to Mississippi, there’s a 50-50 chance he’ll wind up playing for one of the 15 big league organizations with facilities based in Arizona. He’s already figuring how to adjust to the oppressive-but-dry Arizona summer heat.
"I’m glad I got the opportunity to come here this weekend and experience Arizona," Gray said. "If the opportunity arises and I get drafted and I have to come here, this is something I have to get used to because this heat is different . . . it’s a different type of heat. I drink water and 30 seconds later my throat is dry."
Already projected to be one of the top players in the 2018 class, Gray believes he defies the customary stereotype of Mississippi prep products with impressive raw athleticism but lacking in baseball skills.
"Not for me," Gray said. "I get around these coaches and they pretty much polish me . . . The fact that I play against so much good competition polishes me as an all-around player."
EvoShield Canes head coach Jeff Petty agrees that Gray doesn’t fit that mold.
"He’s a very advanced player for his age," Petty said. "I feel he could settle in and play in professional baseball right now. With his athleticism I feel he’s a five-tool player. He’s got everything going for him."
Petty added that Gray is also an outstanding kid who makes the other players around him better, but believes that being part of the EvoShield Canes program leading into his senior year of high school can only help his development.
Gray has focused strictly on baseball since the ninth grade and also gets plenty of experience using wood bats. He’s very focused on what he needs to accomplish to be able to get to the next level.
"Staying healthy and making all of my skills better," he said about the keys to improving his game. "Not being worried about one part of my game, but making all aspects of my game better. Really, just becoming more of a baseball player . . . a more complete baseball player coming into next year."
With the Evoshield Canes having a full slate of showcase events, Gray will be pretty busy this summer—and that suits him just fine.
"My family feels like it’s better for me to get this opportunity because I’ve got to learn how to take care of myself, going with these coaches and my teammates, getting a lot of camaraderie," he said. "As long as I’m with them and I’m enjoying it, I’d rather be on the road than sitting around at home."
INAUGURAL WILSON PREMIER
The Wilson Premier Championship West, in its first season, is grouped into three age groups—2018, 2019 and 2020 grads. The event is part of the equipment manufacturer’s foray into the showcase circuit for high school-age baseball players.
"The reason why Wilson got involved in this is it started as a celebration of our partners," said Matthew Bliven, director of Wilson Premier Baseball, "with some of the larger organizations that we partner with because they are influencers around the country . . . We want to get our product in as many hands as we can. In order to do that we felt there was a niche we could create that got a little bit further away from the recruiting aspect and more the event experience."
As for the difference with other showcases, Bliven added, "We’re letting the players speak for themselves on the field and we’re not trying to evaluate . . . that’s the reason we developed Wilson Premier Baseball—basically to get back to the roots of baseball and put some enjoyment back into it."
The tournament will continue through the championship games on Monday.