For Dr. Jeff Gray, baseball and dentistry always have been connected.
He first began his baseball career when he was about 5 years old, and, as a dentist with 36 years of experience under his belt, he still makes time for the sport. He’s played in the National Adult Baseball Association (NABA) for 20 some years, and even has been part of teams that have made it to—and won—the league’s World Series.
His dad, who played on a semi-professional level, was a big influence in getting him hooked on baseball when he was a kid, while one of his early coaches, an orthodontist named Dr. Dan Sullivan, got him hooked on dentistry.
He saw how much his coach enjoyed his career and decided that was the path he wanted to take as well. By the time he was in high school, Dr. Gray had no doubts: he was going to be a dentist. He set his sights on getting into dental school, and that first step was the start of a rewarding career filled with unforgettable experiences, from creating a foundation that has raised millions of dollars for children’s charities and not just meeting, but befriending, his favorite country music artist, Garth Brooks, through that foundation.
Garth Brooks and Dr. Jeff Gray
“No one knows how their life is going to take shape once they become a dentist,” Dr. Gray said, “but for me, it’s been the most amazing ride I could ever ask for. And now that I’m more mature and have my skill level up pretty high, I have the chance to profoundly affect someone’s life every day. I don’t think there’s a better profession than that.”
Through it all, baseball has stayed a constant, and, much liked dentistry, Dr. Gray can’t imagine his life without it. He sees a lot of parallels in the two, including the supportive teams he’s created through both and the relationships he’s maintained over the years.
For The Love Of The Game
As a member of the San Diego Black Sox, Dr. Gray plays baseball about once a week, and because he lives in San Diego, he can play almost year round. One of the best parts, he said, is attending the San Diego Padres fantasy baseball camp with his teammates.
“You get to pretend like you’re a major league player for a week,” said Dr. Gray, who usually plays right or left field. “When you go to your locker, there’s a jersey hanging there with your name on it. The big league coaches are there, too. They make you feel like a big leaguer until you get on the field and realize it’s not happening. It’s just a blast.”
But of course, probably the coolest experience is getting to play in the league’s World Series, which Dr. Gray has experienced a few times. Teams from all over the country, Mexico and Canada compete for the title during the season, and only about 10 or 12 make it to the playoffs, he said. His team has been to the championship game several times, winning it a few years back.
The “magic” of the series is they get to play in Arizona, in the stadiums where teams like the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds hold spring training games.
“It’s just so fun to be there,” Dr. Gray said. “By the end of the week we’ve used so much ice and Motrin we’re not sure which way is up, but it’s just a great experience to be there with your friends.”
And those friendships are part of what keeps Dr. Gray playing ball. He shares a strong bond with his teammates, who support each other as they go through the ups and downs of baseball and life in general. For a few hours every weekend they get to feel like kids again and just have fun together, forgetting about work and any worries they have.
“It’s a great escape mentally,” Dr. Gray said. “And it’s emotionally and physically challenging. It’s just part of my inner being.”
Dr. Gray’s Heroes
Over the years, Dr. Gray has been inspired by many baseball greats. One of them is San Diego Padres Hall of Fame Slugger Tony Gwynn, who he even became friends with.
Dr. Gray knew of Gwynn during his time at San Diego State University; he was a big basketball and baseball star on campus. Dr. Gray admired his talent, but the two didn’t meet until later. Like Dr. Gray and his wife, Gwynn and his spouse participated in local charity endeavors, and attending the same functions is how they met and formed a friendship. That was back in the early 90s.
Gwynn was an “amazing human being” who taught him a lot. He was not only dedicated to his craft, he was a master of it, yet he still worked on the fundamentals every day. Dr. Gray also admired how he always had time for his fans, signing autographs whenever they asked.
Dr. Gray has a list of other baseball heros, such as Cal Ripkin Jr., Jeff Bagwell, Larry Walker and Trevor Hoffman. He likes the way these players went about their work, always giving maximum effort and striving to improve, even though they were considered to be among the very best.
There are also plenty of dentists who have inspired him over the years. One of the greatest mentors he’s had is Dr. John Kois of the Seattle based Kois Center. Dr. Gray took a class there in the mid-90s to advance his skills, and it had a far bigger impact than he ever imagined.
“He has the ability to solve complex issues that many other dentists are unable to solve,” Dr. Gray said. “He’s just an incredible teacher and an incredible human being. You know you can always count on him to tell you what is right, not what a company is paying him to say. That’s extremely valuable.”
Other mentors who helped shape Dr. Gray’s career include Dr. Cliff Ruddle in endo and Drs. Bill Dickerson and David Hornbrook in cosmetics.
A Famous Friendship
Dr. Gray has worked with other charities over the years as well, including Garth Brooks’ Teammates for Kids Foundation, an organization that raises money for children by partnering with professional athletes.
Dr. Gray had been a fan of the country singer since his first album was released, and knew there would be a point in his life when they would become friends, though of course he didn’t know how. It happened shortly after he created the Smiles for Life Foundation. In 1999, Brooks played for the Padres in spring training, and also had just started his foundation. Dr. Gray saw an article about the charity and knew he had to reach out.
He called the foundation to offer a sizeable donation, and was invited to travel to Denver, where the foundation is located. While there, he had the opportunity to meet some of the people behind the organization and to talk more about their work helping children.
When Dr. Gray met Garth a short time later, it was the start of what remains a beautiful friendship. They connected right away and developed a bond that has lasted for years, with Garth even playing at his office’s grand opening and sending an autographed guitar to his practice when he found out he missed out on one at an auction.
Dr. Gray is still involved with Garth’s charity and describes the singer as a wonderful human being and friend who “just takes care of people and humanity more than anyone else” he’s ever known.
“There were so many coincidences that just lined everything up for us to meet,” Dr. Gray said. “When I look back on it I still can’t believe this stuff is actually true in my life. It’s pretty amazing.”
The Greatest Profession
Dr. Gray finds so much joy in helping people. He’s been focused on that throughout his career, whether via work he’s done chairside, supporting community organizations or raising money through the charity he created. His connection to baseball also has played a role, leading him to meet Garth Brooks and form a partnership with his foundation. It’s been a great journey, and Dr. Gray doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.
“It just seems like to do good you can never go wrong. The more good you do, the more great things you get in return. And helping people just because you can is like paying your rent for having the privilege of being alive in this great country,” he said. “People ask me when I want to retire and I say why on earth would I want to retire? I have a blast every day and I get to work with an amazing team. And every day we get to change people’s lives.”