07/13/2004 8:28 PM ET
Fan wins $1 million from Taco Bell
Astros supporter throws five balls through target
By Adam McCalvy / MLB.com
|Tom Gray, 41, fired five balls through a 24-inch cutout in less than 30 seconds. (Ben Platt/MLB.com)
Taco Bell's $1 million winner: 56K | 350K
HOUSTON -- Five strikes for $1 million? Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan would have loved a payday like that.
With Ryan looking on as a "coach," Tom Gray, a longtime Astros season-ticket holder, earned the first huge ovation of All-Star Tuesday at Minute Maid Park when he won Taco Bell's $1 million All-Star Game "Ring The Bell" promotion just before foul line introductions.
Gray, a 41-year-old co-owner of a car lot in south Houston, was shagging fly balls at his seats in the Crawford Boxes above the left-field fence about two hours before the game. A Major League Baseball representative approached with an offer.
"He said, 'Would you like a chance to win a million dollars?'" an elated Gray said. "This is way, way, way more than I expected."
Who could say no to that?
Ryan's advice was to aim high. Gray took that to the extreme.
"All I remember is that the first one sailed over the target and hit the backstop," he said. "I don't remember much else."
But Gray kept firing. He had 30 seconds to fire baseballs toward a 24-inch cutout at home plate. He would have won a year of free value menu items at the quick-serve chain for throwing one strike, and would have won $10,000 for strike three.
Instead, Gray won the grand prize by throwing five baseballs through the target in a flurry of attempts. Strike 5 came with only a few ticks left on the clock, and coach Ryan thrust his arms in the air while the crowd roared.
"The funny thing is that I bought an autographed Nolan Ryan plaque at FanFest today," Gray said. "It's in my truck right now. How amazing is that?"
Now he has a signed baseball, too. Ryan personalized a baseball to Gray's sons, Trey, 11, and Matthew, 8.
The real kicker is that Gray traded down to get those Crawford Box seats. He has owned two seats near the Astros dugout since the early 1990s, but because both sons wanted to attend the game, Gray traded for a group of four seats in the outfield on an Internet message board.
Whoever was sitting in Section 126, row 21, seats nine and 10 on Tuesday: Sorry.
"I don't know who the other people were," Gray said. "Maybe it was a broker or someone like that."
Gray's wife, Gina, along with Trey and Matthew, were on the field for Dad's big payday. Daughter Morgan, 6, was at home with her grandmother.
Jeff Fox, Taco Bell's vice president of marketing, presented Gray with a check for $1 million on the field. Plans for the cash?
"College is coming up. I'd like to get the house paid off as soon as I can," Gray said. "And my youngest son wants to go to Hawaii."
Matthew earned that trip. Tom said he has played catch three or four days a week over the past year to get Matthew's arm in shape for youth baseball. Turns out Dad benefited, too.
"I don't even know how I did it," Gray said. "I remember somebody shouted 'five!' and I think I started dancing on the mound.
"It's amazing. At 5:30 I was shagging balls in the outfield. Time is just in a blur right now."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.