WHEELING - Scott Gray thinks of the Ohio Valley as his second home.
Gray, a baseball lifer who has brought his Cleveland-based Andy's 9ers to the last 15 Edgar Martin Classic Beast of the East Tournaments, has spent more Fourth of Julys in the Ohio Valley than any rising sophomore in the OVAC.
''I've gotten to know this area pretty well,'' said Gray, whose teams have stayed at the same St. Clairsville Days Inn for each of those years.
He's been coming here so long, some of his favorite places to eat no longer exist. He can't even remember how it was the 9ers even came to find out about the Beast of the East.
''It probably wasn't the internet at that point,'' Gray said. ''I guess we knew somebody that was here. I don't know how we stumbled up on it.''
Gray and his brother run the Andy's 9ers organization, which is named after Andy Cheyfitz, an exemplary baseball player and person whose life was tragically cut short in a car accident in 1994 - less than a year after his high school graduation. The 9ers (Andy's uniform number) have four teams in this year's Beast - one in each age division -with Gray, as usual, coaching the 19U team.
His current guys are off to a fast start, having won a pair of games Thursday at Patterson Field.
''We're in a good position,'' Gray said, ''but you just never know.''
Success is nothing new to the 9ers, who have won one Beast of the East 19U title and finished as runner-ups on a pair of occasions.
''We've made some runs at it,'' Gray said. ''We've had better teams. But the best team doesn't always win. We've had some teams with five or six guys that have gone on to play in the (Mid American Conference). We've only got one or two Division I players (this year).''
He says as long as the 9ers organization and the Beast of the East exist, they'll do so together.
''You've got to be a man to come down here to play this,'' Gray said. ''We love this. You get a big bang for your buck. You get at least seven games - you could play nine. The price ($550) is reasonable. You don't have to bring baseballs like a lot of other places.
''(Tournament co-directors) B.A. (Crawford) and Bo (McConnaughy) are the easiest guys to get along with. It's just a tradition. We'll be doing it as long as we have a team.''
Prior to running the 9ers organization, Gray, who is in his fifth decade in baseball, played on a state championship team as a senior at Shaw High school alongside former major league relief pitcher Buddy Schultz, though a snapped Achilles tendon earlier that season left Gray a cheerleader for the title game. (Not that everyone else wasn't, too. Shultz, who went on to become the NCAA individual game record-holder with 26 strikeouts in nine innings, yielded just five hits and whiffed 27 while pitching the state semifinal and final on the same day for Shaw).
From there, Gray played a lot of amateur ball and coached baseball at St. Ignatius High School before the Cheyfitz family started the 9ers as a way to keep their son's name alive. Gray was quick to help.
It wasn't long after that, the 9ers started competing at a high level in the Beast of the East. It might well be even longer before they quit.