Brewers' top Draft pick puts in hard work to realize dream
By Curt Hogg
CHICAGO -- Corey Ray sits behind the wheel of his car, cruising past Robichaux Park and Maxwell Street JJ Sausage. A slight grin emerges on his face as he approaches the Chicago Public Library and recalls the countless afternoons he spent there after school.
The car then motors past the Smokey Bear Tobacco Shop, with which he is far less acquainted. As Ray dips and dives in an attempt to outmaneuver traffic, he perches his left arm on the door rest with his right hand gripping the wheel as he does exactly what he has done for his 21 years: navigate the streets of Chicago's South Side.
Born and raised here, Ray ascended on the diamond to become the first Top 10 pick in the MLB Draft in 27 years to hail from the inner city of Chicago. Selected by the Brewers fifth overall out of the University of Louisville, he heads out Friday for the beginning of his professional career at Class A Advanced Brevard County.
Ray will be putting his life in the South Side's Ashburn neighborhood in his rearview mirror for good.
That, in itself, is a dream realized.
"The fact that I wanted to get out of Chicago kept me grounded, kept me motivated," said Ray, a power-and-speed outfield threat. "I knew that the world was bigger than the South Side of Chicago. I didn't want to be like everybody else."
Baseball was Ray's ticket out, and he jumped on it like a hanging 3-1 changeup.
"There's nothing wrong with living here, but I wanted to do big things," Ray said. "I knew it would take focus and hard work to do it."
From the inner city to one of the top prospects in all of baseball, Ray's story of overcoming the odds seems improbable -- until you meet him, that is.
The story begins with his father, Corey Ray Sr., and his stepmother, Kathy Ray. Ray Sr. used the steep hill at Robichaux Park, just behind the family's former home, to teach discipline and to strengthen his son. Day after day, Ray Sr. sent his son out to run that hill.
"He would just tell me, 'If you want something, you've got to work hard at it,'" Ray Jr. said. "He would make me run the hill, and he would never come. He said, 'If you really want it, you'll work at it, and I'll see it on the field.'"
Ray gravitated toward baseball because he couldn't play daily without a team. He liked the camaraderie. The game kept him busy -- and out of trouble.
"He was definitely a good kid," Kathy Ray said. "Not saying he didn't do things sometimes, but he wasn't the type to challenge his parents."
Ray's career started with the Jackie Robinson Little League team, but players had to pay out of pocket for equipment and travel. It represented a significant expenditure for Ray Sr., a sanitation worker for the City of Chicago, and Kathy, a teacher.
When he was 13, however, the White Sox Amateur City Elite program added Ray's team and paid for all expenses. Through ACE, the White Sox provide resources to more than 100 inner city baseball players, with their aim to support youth in Chicago who lack financial means to receive quality baseball instruction.
"[Baseball] costs so much," Ray said. "It's a barrier that inner city kids have to go through. Cleats: $100. Bats: $300. And then you're talking about going into these tournaments. You don't really see Florida or Georgia schools coming to Chicago to play in the summer. You have to go there."
Major League Baseball has worked to increase participation and interest in baseball and softball among underserved youth through its Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program and Urban Youth Academies, now located in Compton (Los Angeles), Houston, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Cincinnati. RBI alumni on current MLB rosters include Coco Crisp (Athletics), James Loney (Blue Jays), Manny Machado (Orioles), CC Sabathia (Yankees), Yovani Gallardo (Orioles) and Justin Upton (Tigers). Under Commissioner Rob Manfred, MLB -- in conjunction with USA Baseball -- has enhanced its efforts through a Play Ball program, a committed effort to spark widespread participation in all forms of baseball activities among all age groups, especially youth, with participation and support from many Major League players.
In 2014, the median household income in the South Side was $40,812, with the per capita income in Ashburn $23,482, according to data from the city. For comparison, the top pick in the Draft, Mickey Moniak, attended high school in Carlsbad, Calif., where the median household income is $82,681.
Ray's advice to South Side youth with baseball aspirations: "Surround yourself with people that have the same goals." All six of Ray's closest lifelong friends, the self-described "Take No Days Off" team, played the game alongside one another growing up, and Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson is one of his current mentors.
Following that advice, Ray says, will play a role in keeping youth away from violence in Chicago, which has seen nearly 2,000 shooting victims in 2016. From 2006-15, 28 of the 38 homicide victims in the Ashburn neighborhood -- and 70 out of 156 in the neighboring Auburn Gresham area -- were 25 years old or younger, according to data from RedEye Chicago.
After three years in college at Louisville, Ray travels nearly anywhere in the city with a peculiar anonymity -- until he arrives at his high school. At Simeon Career Academy, he becomes a celebrity upon arrival despite showing up unannounced on a sweltering, unassuming Monday.
"A lot of memories there," Ray said. "It brings back a lot of memories."
Most of those memories at Simeon involve athletics -- although, with a 3.90 GPA, he also was on top of his game academically. Inside the school, he strolls through the dimly lit gym with its lone batting cage, the shared workout room that is "more of a room with weights than a weight room" and the narrow hallways that doubled as a running track during the cold winters.
To the world, this gym is known for producing basketball stars Jabari Parker and Derrick Rose, but in reality, Simeon athletes from a half-dozen sports shared the same facilities all at the same time.
As Ray pulls up to Simeon's baseball field, nervous anticipation builds. He stands on the edge of the bench in the home dugout and surveys the grounds as he has many times before.
"It's a city park district field," Ray said. "My freshman year, there wasn't infield grass. There wasn't an outfield fence. The dugouts were just two little wood benches. Just one set of rusty bleachers. This was our field."
He gazes upon the infield, where dandelions don't just sprinkle the grass, but permeate it, and the pitching mound that has seen better days. Broken glass, which Ray and his teammates would pick up before games, remains from parties at the park. Ray's old stomping grounds now look more like a bivouac of a baseball field.
"We worked on it and made it look as good as we could," Ray said as his voice fades. "I can't believe they let it get like this."
Before his time at Simeon, Ray grew up near Princeton Park, about five miles southeast of his family's current house, where everything is centered around basketball. The two courts on cracked pavement served as the gathering place.
"There's no baseball there," Ray said.
His car wheels through an alley and squeezes between a pair of garbage bins and onto a gravel path behind the Rays' former home. Ray speaks with nostalgia about the competitions that took place on this straightaway.
"A lot of races on this pavement. Back then, man, I was fast," he says of his former self, as if he didn't just steal 44 bases with Louisville this season.
Ray puts the car in park and points to the train resting on the railroad tracks just beyond the gravel path. Just beyond those tracks, he says, is a cut in the fence. And just beyond that cut in the fence? The Robichaux Park hill. And just beyond that?
A pair of baseball diamonds that, later in the day, will be filled with a group of young kids from Chicago's South Side, all hoping to be the next Corey Ray.
Curt Hogg is a reporter for MLB.com based in Milwaukee. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.