Inside the underbelly of SafeCo Field in Seattle, Jon and Sam Bray blended into the stadium tour like any other father-son combination seeing the ballpark for the first time.
They marveled at the Ken Griffey Jr. bats and the backdrop of the Puget Sound. They gawked at the complexity of the underground tunnels weaving in and out of the weight rooms, batting cages and kitchens.
And truth be told, none of it was an act. The Brays are a normal family. A very normal family. Just one with unusual dedication to their hobby.
And as the tour wound its way to the visiting clubhouse, Angels star pitcher Matt Shoemaker bounded around the corner and shouted, “Hey, what are you guys doing here?” He was referring to the Brays — a duo at the time of an 11-year-old child and a middle-aged dad in jeans and a plaid T-Shirt.
The rest of the tour looked moderately surprised that one of baseball’s brightest stars knew this seemingly ordinary pair. The Brays are an unassuming duo — a kid and a former pizza store worker — but they are also baseball whisperers of sorts.
They have slowly, and steadily, forged relationships with some of the game’s biggest names. Shoemaker, Tim Lincecum, David Fletcher. Through attending thousands of Triple-A, spring training and rookie league games, they have somehow done what most fans can only dream of: maneuver their way into the exclusive society of MLB.
After nearly eight years of going to every Salt Lake Bees game — and anything else they could find — they have successfully turned into a unique baseball story. Sam, once the young son, has turned his underground stardom into a job on the grounds crew for the Salt Lake Bees, the Triple-A affiliate for the Angels. And Jon, once the doting father, now goes to the ballpark every day to watch batting practice for players who could soon become baseball’s next stars.
“These guys went to so many Bees games, the players just started to know who they were,” said Fender Jacobs, the Bees director of ground operations. “I mean they went to Seattle and former Bees players knew them. MLB players know them. They just became part of the fabric.”
And that might be underselling it.
A YouTube Start
The Brays didn’t originally set out to infiltrate one of sport’s most elite fraternities. All they wanted, like most fans, was a small part of the baseball experience. They never thought they would become mini-celebrities.
It all started in Sam’s room in 2013, when the then 10-year-old was tooling around on YouTube. He happened upon a few early Zack Hample videos, a man who would later become famous for collecting over 10,000 major league baseballs.
Hample basically turned snagging a foul ball into a science, catching both Mike Trout’s first home run and Alex Rodriguez’s 3,000th hit.
A young Sam wanted to experiment with it. So he and his dad headed to an Orem Owlz game, the since-defunct rookie league affiliate of the Angels. Sam hauled in a few balls, happy his hours of watching YouTube paid off.
A couple of days later, the Brays wanted to see if it could work at the Triple-A level. So, at the Bees game, Sam found the right corners of the park and smiled at the right players to get a couple more.
By the next year, the Brays bought season tickets to the Bees so they could go to batting practice everyday. Players would recognize him and give him the ball after innings. He could even lower his glove down on a string so he could scoop up stray balls from the stands.
Jon is still embarrassed by the number of balls they have, stored in plastic crates from Kroger. He doesn’t have an exact number, but a typical conversation goes like this:
“More,” a small grin.
“Oh, more,” grin fading.
“I don’t know. We have been giving them away now for years and we still haven’t made a dent in it,” Jon said almost sheepishly.
Everyone else estimates it is well into the thousands. One member of the grounds crew, who has known Sam for years, said the kid was so committed to catching foul balls that one time he was tracking a ball during batting practice and ran right into a light post.
“That was funny,” he said. “After that we all really liked Sam.”
Forming a bond
Eventually the foul ball shtick gets tiring, even Sam will admit that.
“Once you have too much of something, it becomes less special,” he said.
But being in the stadium every day, often being the only one for batting practice, the Brays started to form an unspoken bond with many of the players.
It is the unique part about Triple-A. You see players blossom and you see them at their worst. It’s the extremes of the human experience at this level in baseball, and the Brays had a front row seat to it all. And in turn, the Brays were the one constant for players through the exhilarating and the gut-wrenching.
The Brays were careful never to hound any of the players for their time, but eventually it just sort of happened. The respect was there.
The foul balls soon morphed into autographs. And the autographs then morphed into conversations.
Angels star infielder David Fletcher was one of the first to form a bond with them. Ironically, Fletcher was a rookie with the Orem Owlz when the Brays still went to those games. When he got to Triple-A, he already knew them. For a season-ticket holder event, Fletcher sat down with the Brays and ate dinner like they were old friends. A couple weeks later, Fletcher was called up.
Other players followed suit. Ty Buttrey, the quirky Angels’ relief pitcher, jokes with the Brays about Instagram accounts. Kole Calhoun, a Gold Glove-winning outfielder, can tell stories about their joint time in Orem. And many other players flash a grin whenever the Brays go to the Angels spring training. It is something the Brays started doing when they knew all the players — might as well follow them around the country.
“You begin to really see them,” Jon said.
There was one downside to that, you also know the pain when tragedy strikes. The Brays had met Tyler Skaggs a couple of times, an Angels pitcher who died of a drug overdose on a road trip to Texas.
“He signed a hat for us,” Jon said. “Some things just have sentimental value now.”
A baseball life
After years of seeing thousands of Bees games, the Brays didn’t know if they could turn this into a lifestyle.
Jon was an off-and-on worker at the local Free Wheeler pizza joint, cutting vegetables in the morning. Sam was just graduating high school. The two had traveled to Angels spring training every year, went to rookie league games until it disbanded and saw the Angels play a couple of times in Seattle and Arizona.
But it wasn’t a sustainable lifestyle if the two were going to head into the real world. Sam would head off to college soon and maybe Jon would get back into sound design, the job he had for almost 10 years before being laid off.
But when COVID hit, Sam thought maybe he could try one more thing. He walked into Brian Soukup’s office, the Bees’ head groundskeeper, and asked for a job. Without an interview, Soukup obliged, saying he would start in 2021.
And since, their story has come full circle. Sam now attends online turf management classes at Penn State while working full time on the grounds crew. He hopes to work for the Mariners in Seattle. He is on pace; many of the Bees crew members go on major league fields.
And Jon has reached underground celebrity status. He threw out the first pitch at the Owlz game before the team ceased to exist. He got a custom championship ring with his name on it when the Owlz won the Pioneer League in 2019. And now he get signatures from many of the game’s top stars when they are in town.
There was a moment during Kid’s Day at the Bees game this week that embodies their entire journey. Sam was hanging out by the dugout, watching former World Series champion Kris Bryant warm up for his rehab assignment.
And as he was watching, a hoard of kids came up to him asking for his autograph. Sam happily signed anything they threw at him: bats, yo-yos, a tube of toothpaste.
Just eight years ago, Sam was that kid. And now he is on the other side of the fence, watching guys like Bryant play from the dugout, a part of the baseball society.
All he could do was look over at his dad and smile.