Troy's Tyler Ray Yearns For Another Ring
Tyler Ray knows the gaze of a champion, the eye of an athlete with a killer instinct. He looks at it every day. The famous Michael Jordan poster, with the legend leaning on a left hand that boasts six NBA championship rings, hangs in Ray's bedroom. It's a constant reminder of the athlete Ray wants to be, and the goal he wants to accomplish.
If 2012 goes according to plan, Ray will strike a pose similar to Jordan's, only with four rings instead of six. He already has three in his jewelry box, one for a 2005 Hoover (Ala.) High football state championship, a 2008 Hoover baseball state championship and Troy baseball's 2011 Sun Belt Conference championship. Next up? A 2012 Sun Belt crown.
"I've got one ring for every program I've been a part of, but now I want two for each school that I've been at," the senior righthander said. "That would make for a good poster in my future room."
Much like Jordan, Ray has never shied away from the big moment, or from the spotlight. A quarterback at Hoover, the state's third-largest but highest-profile high school, Ray was Ross Wilson's backup signal caller for two years during the days of MTV's reality show, "Two-A-Days." Under center as a senior—and under the scrutiny of upwards of 10,000 fans at home football games—Ray passed for more than 2,000 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Major college football programs didn't pursue Ray because of his 5-foot-11, 165-pound stature. Good thing for Troy coach Bobby Pierce, Ray didn't grow two inches until after joining the Trojans as a freshman—when he immediately became the Friday starter.
"Being the quarterback at Hoover required such a commitment that Tyler flew below the baseball recruiting radar," Pierce said. "And that probably worked into our advantage."
When many top high schoolers were playing in summer showcases, Ray was saving his arm for 7-on-7 drills and summer workouts. If not for a one-day camp at Troy, Ray might not have ended up a Trojan.
"It was me and a couple buddies, and we really had nothing to do that weekend," Ray said. "My life changed from there, you could say. They probably never would've known about me."
Since then, Ray has developed into one of the nation's most effective pitchers. Named the Sun Belt pitcher of the year after a 12-0, 2.39 junior campaign, he earned the win in Troy's 9-2 victory over Oklahoma State in regionals and led Troy to its first ever Top 25 ranking. At 27-7 for his career, he'll set the school and conference record for wins with eight more. So what does Ray do for an encore?
"You can always do better," Ray said. "You can always strive for an ERA in the ones, you can always strive for 13 or 14 wins. In my meeting at the end of the fall, coach Pierce sat me down and the first thing he told me was, 'You had a great year last year. But you're probably going to lose a game this year.' We started laughing, but deep down inside, I was sitting there thinking, 'No way.' "
Playing in the limelight since high school prepared Ray for Division I baseball in a way most don't get to experience.
"His poise, his maturity received high grades early on, and it's still that way today," Pierce said. "Some guys don't handle that well, and that's something Tyler had no issue with."
That is, with the exception of one game—Ray's first conference road start as a freshman, at Florida International.
"I'll always remember that game," Ray said. "FIU is more of a 'rah-rah' team, and a great hitting team. They jumped around on the bases all day, and kind of took advantage of me being a freshman. At one point, I was supposed to intentionally walk (Orioles 2009 third-round pick) Tyler Townsend with a runner on second. Townsend fouled off the second pitch. Right then I'm thinking, 'Holy crap, I've never seen that happen before.' On the fourth pitch, he hit a double off the wall. I was definitely shocked."
Ray allowed five earned runs in the first three innings, but he settled down and fired four scoreless frames. That 5-0 loss proved to be an invaluable lesson for Ray.
"For him to withstand that pressure and give us a chance to win after seeing the look in his eye when he came off the mound in the second inning . . . ," Pierce said, "to me describes who he is, what he's about, why he's been so successful and certainly what makes me have the respect I do for him as his coach."
One More Ring
Ray said he wants his legacy at Troy to be "known as the guy that—no matter what my record is or what the team's record is—always gave Troy baseball a chance to win every time I stepped out on that mound."
That sentiment is certainly what Pierce will remember. So he's particularly happy to welcome Ray back for one more season.
Despite his stellar season and track record, Ray went undrafted as a junior but should be a solid senior sign in 2012. He lives off commanding an 87-91 mph fastball, as he has 56 walks in 297 career innings. He also mixes in a solid changeup and two fringy breaking balls.
"Getting to come back for my senior season is the biggest blessing. I'm very excited. The hardest thing in sports, anybody would tell you, is to repeat," Ray said, channeling his inner Jordan. "But I couldn't be looking more forward to it, especially since the draft didn't work out for me. It would be hard for anybody not to tell you that it didn't serve as motivation, but I wanted to come back to Troy, so it all worked out. I wasn't really disappointed at all, because I wanted to come back here and break some records and get another ring."
Then maybe he could pose for that poster.