MILWAUKEE -- While his friends played basketball on Chicago's South Side, Corey Ray was drawn to baseball by the cat-and-mouse game between hitter and pitcher. His fascination grew with opportunities afforded by Major League Baseball's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program and a similar program run by the White Sox,
MILWAUKEE -- While his friends played basketball on Chicago's South Side, Corey Ray was drawn to baseball by the cat-and-mouse game between hitter and pitcher. His fascination grew with opportunities afforded by Major League Baseball's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program and a similar program run by the White Sox, who play five minutes from Ray's home. At the University of Louisville, Ray began keeping meticulous notes of his at-bats in a little black book.
On Thursday, those experiences led Ray to the cusp of playing baseball for a living. The Brewers drafted the junior outfielder fifth overall in the MLB Draft, opening the possibility that Ray will someday play in the big leagues just up Interstate 94 from his family home.
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"Hard work," Ray said when asked how he'd beaten the odds. "I surrounded myself with the right people."
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A 5-foot-11, left-handed hitter, Ray's father drives snowplows and street sweepers for the city of Chicago, and his mother is a teacher. He attended Simeon Career Academy, the same athletic powerhouse that produced Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker (the two had a psychology class together, Ray said). The Mariners drafted Ray in the 33rd round in 2013 but he went to Louisville instead, rising to the top of Draft boards this season by hitting .319 with 15 home runs and 44 stolen bases in 62 games in the tough Atlantic Coast Conference.
He said he models his play after the Yankees' Jacoby Ellsbury, but Ray's mentor and offseason workout partner is the Mets' Curtis Granderson, who happened to hit a leadoff home run against the Brewers on Thursday at Miller Park.
"This Christmas break is when we really got close," Ray said. "I think he gravitated toward me because if the situation I was going to be in this year. He knew he had been in the same situation [in 2003, when Granderson was a third-round pick of the Tigers].
"He's definitely helped me from a mental standpoint -- how to deal with all the noise that the Draft brings."
Granderson, who grew up just outside Chicago and played college ball at the University of Illinois-Chicago was able to send Ray a congratulatory text before the first pitch at Miller Park.
"It is really cool to see him show that the work can definitely pay off," Granderson said. "Hopefully guys that are coming up can look at him and see that it is all possible if they continue to stay focus at the task at hand. He's definitely living proof of it."
Ray was the first of the Brewers' three selections on Day 1 of the draft. They also took collegiate third baseman Lucas Erceg in the second round at No. 46 overall, and prep catcher Mario Feliciano in Lottery Round B, at No. 75 overall.
• 46th overall: Lucas Erceg, 3B
• 75th overall: Mario Feliciano, C
Louisville is still alive in the NCAA postseason, so negotiations with Ray's CAA Sports advisors won't formally begin until his collegiate career is over.
"He brings a unique speed-power combination to the profile," said Brewers scouting director Ray Montgomery. "With his ability to get on base and sort of agitate, irritate the other team, I think we're going to be in good shape."
The pick is another example of the Brewers prioritizing up-the-middle talent. That's reflected both in Draft picks (the Brewers' first-round pick in 2015 was Texas prep center fielder Trent Clark) and recent trade acquisitions under both Doug Melvin and David Stearns (center fielders Brett Phillips and Keon Broxton, shortstops Isan Diaz and Jonathan Villar).
Ray said he wants to stay in center field, and Brewers officials indicated he'd get that wish.
"The beauty of it is, he has the ability to move to either side," Montgomery said. "But we'll send him out as a center fielder and let him run around in center field."
Metaphorically, Ray will be a long way from the South Side of Chicago.
"It speaks to his determination and what he can ultimately do and become as a Major League player," Stearns said. "He is a guy who has persevered through a lot. It's exciting to add that type of 'complete package' person to the Brewers organization."
Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy, like him on Facebook and listen to his podcast.