FORT MYERS, Fla. – As late morning predictably turned into early afternoon Thursday in Southwest Florida, 18-year-old Arkansas right-hander Gray Fenter appeared remarkably relaxed as he waited to make what was the most high-profile start of his still unfolding baseball career.
Fenter, a 6-foot, 200-pound senior-to-be at West Memphis (Ark.) High School directly across the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tenn., was found sitting in the stands at JetBlue Park about two hours before he would throw the first pitch at the 14th annual Perfect Game National Showcase.
If Fenter was nervous, it wasn’t apparent to a stranger who plopped down in the seat next to him and began peppering him with questions. There were multitudes of scouts in the stands behind home plate, in the shade along the first base line and in numerous suites inside the stadium, but they seemed to go unnoticed by the stocky right-hander.
“For me, I guess, my goal is to throw as good as I’ve thrown all year, and just have another good game,” Fenter said, adding that he’s never really been affected by nerves all that much. “That goes away after the first pitch. The first time you throw the ball you’ve still got it, but after you throw your first strike you’re back to normal again.
“I just want to show everybody that I can do it,” he added. “There’s no doubt in my mind that if I go out and throw like I know I can, I’m going to get the job done.”
While Gray Fenter spoke with PG, his father, Glen Fenter, sat in a seat one row behind, listening to the conversation. When it was Glen’s turn to speak with PG, he made it clear that the significance of the opportunity presented to young Gray wasn’t lost on either he or his son.
“Obviously, every parent wants to give their kid the best opportunity to succeed at whatever their interests are,” Glen Fenter said. “Gray’s is baseball and if you’re interested in baseball, then the Perfect Game group is one of the premier groups in the country and to have a chance to come to an event like this is a great honor and a great privilege. We’re very appreciative of the kind of operation that Perfect Game affords kids access to.”
Gray Fenter arrived at the PG National Showcase as the nation’s No. 20-ranked national prospect in the high school class of 2015, and the country’s No. 5-ranked right-handed pitcher. Three of the four righties ranked ahead of him nationally are also here: No. 6 (overall) Kyle Molnar (Aliso Viejo, Calif.), No. 14 Nolan Kingham (Las Vegas) and No. 15 Beau Burrows (Weatherford, Texas).
Fenter said he’s been pleased with the way his game has progressed to this point in his still young career, while acknowledging his fastball, changeup and overall command of his pitches.
He showed four pitches – fastball, curveball, slider and changeup – at last year’s PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., while pitching for the Dulin Dodgers/Rockies Scout Team but threw only fastballs and sliders during his two-innings of work Thursday.
Once he began pitching Thursday afternoon, it became evident to all why Fenter wasn’t sweating the assignment. He was impressive over his two innings – he didn’t allow a run and struck out four – showing a fastball that sat consistently at 92-93 miles-per-hour and topped out at 94. A PG scout noted his fastball showed “heavy life” and the same scout called his late-breaking 85 mph slider “sharp”.
“Being excited to be here is about as simple as you could put it,” Fenter said. “I like to show people what I can do and I like meeting a lot of new people that like to do what I do. You get to meet a lot of people that you would never meet otherwise if you weren’t here. And you see a lot of names that eventually you’re probably going to see on TV one day.”
Fenter threw 93 mph at the PG WWBA World Championship in October, up nicely from the 89 he topped-out at three months earlier at the PG WWBA 16u National Championships in Marietta, Ga. That, in turn, was up from the 86-88 mph he sat at in three PG tournaments in 2012.
But as Fenter was quick to point out, he really didn’t start pitching on a full-time basis until the spring of 2013 after previously playing third base.
“I’ve always thrown hard but I really didn’t start pitching until last year so nobody really knew how hard I threw,” he said. “My (high school team) needed somebody to throw and I guess I was the guy that threw hard, and since then I’ve started throwing regularly.”
“Gray has always played football and baseball, but baseball last year became his focus and I think so far it’s paid off for him,” his father said. “These types of events are, again, great opportunities to get, not much the exposure – even that’s important to a lot of kids – but just to get a sense of who the best players in the country are, and that’s good to know. It helps you figure out what you’ve got to keep working on.”
Early in his summer ball career, Fenter played in a couple of PG tournaments with the Memphis Tigers and then got connected with the Dulin Dodgers in 2012. He’s played in six tournaments with the Dodgers and was named to the all-tournament team at the 2012 PG WWBA 15u National Championship and at the 2013 PG WWBA World Championship.
“(The Dulin Dodgers) have gotten me everywhere that I’ve been and they’ve done just about everything they can do for me,” Fenter said. “I made a lot of friends and I’ll probably end up keeping (in touch) with everyone I’ve played with.”
Fenter has committed to the University of Mississippi in Oxford, which isn’t all that far from West Memphis.
“I’ve always kind of wanted to go to Ole Miss because my sister played softball there,” Fenter said, speaking of his sister Shelby Jo, a pitcher who just completed her senior season in Oxford. “It’s close to home and my family can come see me whenever they want, and it’s SEC baseball.”
There is additional excitement engulfing Oxford these days, and it revolves around the baseball program. The Rebels have advanced to this weekend’s College World Series in Omaha for the first time since 1972.
Glen Fenter spent the last four years watching his Shelby Jo pitch a softball at the collegiate level and starting sometime in the summer or fall of 2015 he will be watching Gray pitching at either the professional or collegiate level. Just watching Gray pitch the rest of the summer and fall at PG events and then next spring for his high school seems to wearing on the elder Fenter. But he’s philosophical about it.
“Obviously it’s enjoyable, but having played sports a lot growing up, I would much rather be playing rather than watching it. It’s a lot harder to watch,” Glen said with a laugh. “It’s one of those things that as a parent you have to learn that baseball is a game of failure – it’s a very, very difficult game – and there are going to be days when the game wins and there are going to be days when the players shine.”
At the end of the first day of play at this year’s PG National Showcase, the Fenters could look back on a very successful and stress-free PG National Showcase adventure. Glen Fenter, displaying eloquence in his speech often lacking around ballparks, summed up the whole experience before it even began.
“There are a lot of kids that work very hard; then there are a lot of kids that are blessed with natural ability,” Glen Fenter said, “and then you also have a lot of kids that are fortunate and they’re blessed. There are a lot of great kids in the country that never get a chance to play in something like this, and I think Gray understands that and he appreciates the opportunity that he has.
“You’ve got to work hard but you’ve got have a little divine intervention along the way and Gray certainly has had that,” he continued. “For a youngster that wants to be able to play college baseball or maybe even pro baseball one day, this is great venue to let you understand where you are relative to other talent and the things you need to work on.”