By Gary Fauber
Assistant Sports Editor
It’s going on three years since Gray Stafford first walked onto the all-turf field at Linda K. Epling Stadium. Actually, it’s been that long since anybody got their first experience of the venue that opened in 2010 and, in that short time, has developed a reputation as one of the finest baseball facilities in West Virginia.
But when you think Epling Stadium, Stafford’s name might just come to mind as much as the owners themselves.
Combining his time with the West Virginia Miners and Marshall University, Stafford has played nearly 100 games at the stadium. Tonight, he will play on the turf for the final time when Marshall and West Virginia meet at 6 p.m.
Stafford is the only three-time West Virginia Miner, and he is part of a Thundering Herd team that has played 29 games at Epling Stadium. Marshall lost two of three games to East Carolina in Beckley over the weekend, leaving its record here at 15-14.
Finally, it all comes to an end tonight for Stafford.
“I really do have a lot of memories here,” said Stafford, the man dubbed “Groovy Gray” by well-known Miners fan Big Paul. “I remember my first summer, and really I have memories of all three summers. Most of them are good memories. I definitely can draw from some of the better swings I took last summer.
“I have confidence here. On Tuesday, I will definitely go back to that and try to have a good game.”
Some of Stafford’s top performances have come in Beckley. Two of his three home runs this season were hit at Epling Stadium, as were two of his three triples.
He also had plenty of success in his three seasons with the Miners, especially last summer when he hit 11 home runs — plus another in the postseason — and was chosen to play in the Prospect League All-Star game.
His last homer in a Miners uniform was a two-run shot in the eighth inning of a 6-3 win over Dubois County in the league championship game last August.
Familiarity with the stadium certainly has helped Stafford whenever he has played there.
“Especially on defense,” said Stafford, the Herd’s starting right fielder. “Like playing the outfield. The wall is different; the wall is cement. So I’m kind of better playing balls off the wall. Knowing how to slide early on the turf because it’s faster. Just little tips like that definitely make me more comfortable playing here.”
Stafford admits, though, that he hasn’t given any thought of stepping onto the field — and off it — one last time. His focus is on Marshall, which, after tonight’s game against the Mountaineers, will travel to Rice to close out the regular season.
“I’ve pretty much just been thinking about (ECU) and kind of reflecting on what I could have done better,” Stafford said after Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the Pirates. “But I’m looking forward to Tuesday. West Virginia’s been playing good and I know we feel good about ourselves.”
The last three years have been as much about the personal relationships Stafford has developed as the on-field success he has enjoyed. Stafford has made plenty of friends in the community and always has one of the biggest cheering sections, be it with Marshall or the Miners. He even got the opportunity to play with his brother, Rhett, for both teams before Rhett was drafted by the Oakland Athletics in 2011.
Fron an unknown out of Spartanburg Methodist in 2010, to a seasoned Epling Stadium veteran, Stafford didn’t see it coming.
And he wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“I never saw this in my future as far as coming back to Epling Stadium so often,” Stafford said. “It’s definitely a blessing to get to come here and play on this nice field, and to be around Tim and Doug and that whole family. The Eplings are amazing.
“Just to get to come back to Beckley and be part of this family and this community has really been a blessing.”
— E-mail: email@example.com
By Gary Fauber
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