Ray Of Light: Corey Ray Shines Spotlight On South Side

Michael Lananna

The chance to define yourself—that is the ultimate gift of the social media era. Whoever you think you are, whoever you want to be, your brand, your persona, your identity, it is yours to shape, to build and display. It’s your personal exhibition to the world.

When Corey Ray joined Twitter in June of 2011, as a teenager, he didn’t overthink it. There was no grand marketing scheme. His username, his new identity, sprouted from the first three words that popped into his head: @FutureIs_Bright. “(I was) just optimistic,” Ray explains, “and I work hard, and the way that I work it’ll pay off eventually, and eventually I’ll do some great things.”

Ray couldn’t have picked a name more apt, more prescient. @FutureIs_Bright is the perfect representation of his modest confidence—the humility to know that he isn’t yet the best, and the conviction to know that he one day will be.

Corey Ray has become a shining beacon to the kids in Chicago

But the symbolism stretches even beyond that. Corey Ray has always seemed to stand for something bigger than himself. Ray was always the kid, growing up in the South Side of Chicago, whom people would point to and think, “He’s the future.” He was the kid whom other kids would gravitate toward when they saw him taking extra swings in the cage or extra reps in the weight room or running up and down the 40-foot hill behind his house at 6 a.m. every morning. When Ray was in eighth grade, his future Simeon Career Academy coach, Leroy Franklin, took one look at him shagging fly balls and knew he was the best player on the diamond. Franklin batted him leadoff and started him in center field as soon as he got to high school, telling him, “We’re going to live and die with you, son.” Ray hit a 400-foot home run in his very first game.

Even now, more so than ever, Ray has become a shining beacon to the kids in Chicago, the kids playing for Jackie Robinson West little league or in the Chicago White Sox Amateur City Elite (ACE) program. Ray at one time played for both. He was on the very first 13-under ACE team, a program designed to assist Chicago youth in reaching their baseball dreams and getting to college. Those Chicago children can now watch Ray play on TV, in a Louisville uniform, a junior outfielder on a team that is built to contend for a national championship. They can watch a young, black, talented athlete who came from the same area as them, who faced many of the same hurdles.

“The things I like to tell (those kids) most is, ‘He used to be one of you guys,’” said Kevin Coe, director of youth baseball initiatives for the White Sox. “‘He used to make the same mistakes as you guys. He used to have the same successes as you guys, but there’s a reason why he’s Corey and you know who he is.’

“It’s because of his work ethic, and a lot of the kids believe in it.”

Ray could be the first top-10 pick out of Chicago since 1989. (University of Louisville Sports Information)

Due in large part to that work ethic, Ray is now considered one of the best, most well-rounded players in college baseball. Through 219 at-bats this season, he was batting .320/.392/.580 with 13 home runs and 35 stolen bases in 42 attempts—a dynamic combination of power and speed in left or center field. He’s projected as one of the first 10 picks in the upcoming draft, which would make him the top drafted player in Louisville history. The South Side hasn’t produced that type of talent in nearly three decades. The last Chicago-based player to be taken in the first 10 picks of the draft was outfielder Jeff Jackson, a fourth overall pick by the Phillies in 1989—five years before Ray was born.

Like in many inner cities across the country, baseball has had a more difficult time reaching and taking hold of Chicago’s younger generation, whether it be for financial reasons or due to a lack of exposure or simply a lack of interest. But players like Ray have the chance to change that.

“I look at it as an opportunity to give back,” Ray said, “because baseball isn’t popular on the South Side of Chicago, and there’s some really good players. They just don’t have the people or the programs to let them be seen. So I look at this as an opportunity to give back to those people, as people have done for me.”

In a sense, Ray is already a professional—just in the way that he carries himself. He chooses his words carefully, but also thoughtfully. His handshake is firm; his smile is wide and frequent. He talks to kids in Chicago about the values of hard work. He comes back and takes them through Louisville Cardinal-style workouts. He knows what his mission is. He knows Chicago is counting on him.

Corey Ray is the future. And the future is bright.

TNDO

Ro Coleman, Darius Day, Blake Hickman, Marshawn Taylor, Robert Fletcher Jr. and Corey Ray were hanging out one day, just joking around, listening to rapper Wale’s song “No Days Off.”

Ray and his high school friends formed a workout group called “Take No Days Off.” (University of Louisville Sports Information)

That’s when the inspiration struck. Those kids, then juniors and seniors at Simeon Career Academy, had always worked out together. They clung together in the hopes that they would someday do something special. As Ray puts it now, “We thought we were greater than the South Side of Chicago.” They just didn’t have a name for their group—a mantra to unite them.

Enter Wale.

“We just put the “Take” in front of ‘No Days Off,’” recalled Coleman, laughing. He’s now a junior outfielder with Vanderbilt. “We always worked out together and thought it was going to be something cool to start up, and I guess it kind of trended a little bit.”

Take No Days Off, or TNDO for short, has taken on a life of its own. All of the members of the original Take No Days Off workout group have “TNDO” displayed somewhere on their Twitter profiles, most of them in their usernames. They’ve earned it. They’ve lived by it.

All of them were used to hard work. Ray’s father, also named Corey Ray, had always pushed his son. A worker for Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation, the elder Ray was the one who got Corey up at 6 a.m. every morning, who made him run the hill behind their house as he got ready to drive the street sweeper. If Corey ever misbehaved, his father would often discipline him with some sort of physical activity. Corey was frustrated by it all at first—he wanted to sleep in—but he soon understood the value.

He carried that blue-collar mindset into TNDO, as he and his high school teammates literally did not take a single day off throughout their Simeon days, working out daily whether school was in session or not. All part of the ACE program, Coleman, Day, Hickman, Taylor, Fletcher Jr. and Ray would practice at Simeon until 6 p.m., then drive over to the indoor practice facility the White Sox ACE program provides and work out for another three or four hours—until someone kicked them out.

“We’d have to cut the lights off on those kids,” joked Robert Fletcher, father of Fletcher Jr. and ACE’s coordinator of college placement. “The bottom line, with the ACE program, it provided these kids an opportunity to work out all year round.”

Team TNDO was the glowing, living, breathing representation of what everyone involved with ACE had hoped the program could be. The brainchild of White Sox national crosschecker Nathan Durst, ACE launched in 2007 with the hopes of providing inner-city youth with the resources and the opportunities to learn and play baseball, to travel and receive exposure from scouts and college recruiters. Thanks to ACE, in conjunction with the Chicago Scouts Association, nearly 150 kids each year get that opportunity—kids who might otherwise never be seen.

The TNDO kids were with the program from the 13U level up to 17U. All of them have gone on to college or pro ball or both—Ray to Louisville, Coleman to Vanderbilt, Fletcher Jr. to Alcorn State, Taylor to Grambling State, Hickman to Iowa then the White Sox, Day to the Rangers. They’ve become heroes. Kids who go through the ACE program now tell Coe, who’s directed ACE for the last five years, that they’re part of team Take No Days Off, too. Coe constantly reminds them that, “the kids who started that, they lived by it.”

Ray was on the very first 13U team in the White Sox ACE program. (University of Louisville Sports Information)

Coe coached them all when they were on the 14U team. He taught Ray the swing mechanics that he still uses to this day. Fletcher has known Ray since he was 10 years old; he coached his Jackie Robinson West little league team. The national narrative is that youth baseball is dwindling in cities like Chicago, that Chicago is yielding more and more to basketball, and certainly, to an extent that is true. But to both Fletcher and Coe, the success stories of the TNDO kids and Ray’s rise to the top of the draft board shows tremendous growth in the sport—growth that doesn’t always get attention.

“Baseball is at an all-time high in Chicago,” Fletcher said. “They say black kids are not playing baseball, but there are so many black kids playing baseball in Chicago.”

Coe agreed, and he said he’s frustrated when he looks in the local papers—when he sees local basketball scores and stories but very few high school baseball headlines. He hopes that will soon change.

“It’s hard to get the media to promote these kids,” he said. “These kids are doing great things. These kids are growing up in the projects. They’re growing up in a community where people their age are dying every single day because they don’t have a positive outlet. Whereas baseball, it’s a small community here in a big city, but the people who do play, we play with a lot of pride and we take care of one another, and we make sure that everybody is doing what they’re supposed to do.

“I’m not going to say it started with Corey and Ro and Blake and those guys, but those guys helped re-energize what we do in this community in terms of baseball, and the fact that they’re playing on ESPN and the fact that Corey has a chance to go extremely high in the draft—it’s a dream come true.”

A Grand Kid

When the Mets opened this season in Kansas City, 13-year veteran outfielder Curtis Granderson happened to look up at the clubhouse TV. The channel was set to ESPNU—Louisville’s Corey Ray was at the plate. That’s the only time Granderson has seen Ray in a batter’s box.

But Granderson doesn’t need to see Ray play to know he has the chance to become something special. He’s worked out with him. This past winter, when Ray was home in Chicago for the holiday break, he and Granderson connected, working out with their mutual friend Anthony Ray (no relation), a minor leaguer in the Cardinals system. Like anyone else who’s ever seen Ray’s work ethic in action, Granderson saw immense potential.

Ray and Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson worked out together in the offseason and still keep in touch.

The two have remained connected. Ray will text Granderson every once in a while to pick his brain, to ask him about his approach at the plate and on the field. There’s a natural comparison to be made between the two players—perhaps too easy of a comparison. They’re both black, lefthanded-hitting outfielders from Chicago. They’re similarly built—Ray a bit smaller at 6-foot, 190 pounds—and both equipped with plus speed and power, although most scouts don’t throw Granderson-esque 40-plus home run power on Ray quite yet.

“We’re pretty close to the same type of player,” Ray said. “And that helps a lot just because he’s gone through what I’ve gone through and we have a lot similarities, so I can get his take on a lot of things.”

And they both, of course, share Chicago roots. The Tigers drafted Granderson out of Illinois-Chicago in the third round in 2002, and since then, Granderson has made a career out of giving back to his community. Through his Grand Kids Foundation, he’s helped support kids in inner cities from Chicago and beyond. He’s written a children’s book, served as an international ambassador for Major League Baseball. In 2013, he donated $5 million to build a new stadium at his alma mater, a park that helps serve as an anchor for amateur baseball in the Windy City.

Skill similarities aside, where Ray might be most poised to follow in Granderson’s footsteps is in terms of philanthropy, in being a positive role model, in inspiring children from similar backgrounds.

“He’s around a lot of inner-city kids,” Granderson said, “whether it be in the offseason, the high school he went to, the friends that he’s met, the kids that he’s played against. And hopefully kids are looking at him and saying, ‘Wow, this is someone from where I grew up that’s doing some good things.’

“And the path that he’s on—and has been on—is very similar to mine, and hopefully that can do some things to spark some interest in the sport and also just wanting to go to college, which is what he’s done.”

Ray could’ve gone pro out of high school. But encouraged by his father, he decided to honor his commitment to Louisville, falling to the 33rd round of the 2013 draft (Mariners). In his three years at Louisville, and buoyed by a loud summer with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team last year, Ray has blossomed into one of the biggest names and biggest talents in the college game. He’s the Cardinals’ catalyst, the guy who makes them go at the top of the order. In tight situations, he’s the man they want at the plate. “He’s at his best when we need him to be,” Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said. “And we don’t get credit for teaching him that. That is star quality right there. That is star power.”

The Mariners drafted Ray in the 33rd round in 2013, but he decided to honor his commitment to Louisville. (University of Louisville Sports Information)

As with every prospect, there are questions. Primarily a corner outfielder in his college career, some scouts wonder if Ray will be able to play center field at the next level—Ray insists that he can, though at this point he mostly outruns mistakes in his routes. Others point to his struggles with lefthanded pitching, but those splits have gradually improved each year.

Where there aren’t any questions are with Ray’s makeup, his character. He was a National Honor Society member in high school, a straight-A student and a diligent worker. Ask anyone from Chicago about Ray, the TNDO kids, the ACE coaches, and they all say the same thing about him: “He deserves this.”

“It’s just a blessing,” Coleman said. “I thank God every day for it. Corey’s a great guy. I’ve known him since I was 7 years old. We’ve been playing together since we were 7. He’s just a hard worker and all the success he’s having right now, he deserves it.

“It just shows that anybody can make it no matter where you come from.”

Future Is Bright

Twenty-seven years.

That’s how long it’s been since the Phillies took young, toolsy outfielder Jeff Jackson out of Simeon Career Academy with the fourth overall pick (three spots higher than Frank Thomas) of the 1989 draft—the last top-10 pick out of Chicago.

Twenty-seven years. But Leroy Franklin has been around even longer.

While Simeon has churned out famous basketball alumni like NBA regulars Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker over the years, Franklin, 73, has been steadily and quietly guiding the Wolverines baseball program. He started at the school in 1975, took over as head coach in 1981 and became the first black member of the Illinois High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2005.

Ray started in center field and batted leadoff all four years at Simeon Career Academy.

Franklin was the one who coached Jackson. He coached ACE director, Kevin Coe, too, helping him get drafted in the 14th round in 1994. Robert Fletcher? Also coached by Franklin. So was Fletcher Jr., along with every member of Take No Days Off. Coleman, Hickman, Taylor, Day and Ray—Franklin is the common thread between them all.

The longtime Chicago high school head coach has seen the culture of baseball in the city change drastically over his tenure; he’s seen basketball courts spring up on every corner and kids lose interest in the game. But when he looks at the players of Jackson’s era and of Ray’s era, he sees a lot of the same qualities.

“A lot of tools—could run, throw, hit,” Franklin said. “And the biggest thing is love the game of baseball, and (they) put forth the effort. When you go to practice, you’re going to put forth the maximum effort—that’s the main thing.”

Even still, when Franklin talks about Corey Ray in particular, he can’t hide his pride. He says he’d love to have two or three more of him—but maybe that’s too much to ask for. “If you go find me maybe one more, not even two or three more, just one more, I’ll be happy,” he said with a hearty laugh.

Franklin still reminisces about the 430-foot home run Ray hit in the final at-bat of his Simeon career, the last blow in the city championship game in 2013, which brought the packed crowd to its feet at Illinois-Chicago’s field—the field before Curtis Granderson Stadium was built. Franklin says that ball might still be flying through the air somewhere.

Ray said he thinks he can be an elite center fielder at the next level. (University of Louisville Sports Information)

More than anything, there’s a sense of hope when Franklin talks about Ray, knowing he’s waited 27 years for another moment like this one—for another Simeon baseball player to ascend to stardom, to bring attention back to youth baseball in Chicago, to show kids there is a future beyond the South Side.

Franklin says people still don’t realize how good the talent is in the city. But he knows there’s still work to do. Even in his 70s, even after four decades of coaching, he said he’s not ready to retire quite yet. And there’s a reason for it.

“We’ve got to get better,” Franklin said of Chicago, of supporting kids, of promoting baseball.

“Back in the day, we had a whole bunch of Division-I players. I mean tremendous kids, you know? They could run, they could run 6.5, 6.6 in the (60-yard dash). But then they kind of branched off and started playing basketball, basketball, basketball. And they say baseball is a boring game. They say that.”

Then Franklin said what everyone else in the city of Chicago—everyone who loves the game of baseball—seems to be saying:

“Corey Ray might bring it on back for us.”

Corey Ray, after all, is the future.