Subscribe for 33¢ / day
Corey Ray with Louisville, AP photo

The Milwaukee Brewers drafted Louisville outfielder Corey Ray with the fifth overall pick during the first day of the 2016 MLB Draft.

Associated Press Archives

Stillness surrounds the bungalow at the end of Bloomfield Drive, where the rattling wind chimes break the silence to announce a gentle breeze keeping temperatures unseasonably cool.

The gold Mercedes parked by the curb belongs to prized Brewers outfield prospect Corey Ray, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago in a world very different than the tranquility he now embraces. A house with a swing hanging from a tree branch sits next door to the quaint home Ray lives in with his girlfriend, Lena, and infant daughter, Cori. A short walk away, a park offers every family on the street a daily outlet. Ray's offseason routine revolves around the eating and sleeping habits of Cori, whose birth Nov. 28 provided perspective the new father needed after a frustrating first full professional season.

"You look in your daughter's face and you want to give her the world and you realize you're still in the minor leagues," Ray said as he cradled Cori in his living room. "You want to work hard so she never has to ask you for anything."

Almost on cue, Cori started crying. Ray handed his daughter to Lena  a successful relay. Then the fifth pick of the 2016 amateur draft continued to explain how personal fulfillment helps him cope with professional disappointment as he prepares for the most pivotal year of his development.

"You're up here for a little bit and you think you're on top of the world and nothing can happen to you, and you get injured, then you struggle, then you have a baby," said Ray, 23. "Life comes at you fast. But it's all a part of it. Surprisingly, as happy as I was then in getting drafted and breaking all the records and having all the fun I had at Louisville, I have never been happier than I am now."

Imagine how thrilled Ray will be when his production closes the gap on his potential. Last year, it fell well short with the Class A Carolina Mudcats, for whom he hit .238 with seven home runs, 48 RBIs and 24 stolen bases while striking out 156 times in 503 at-bats. A torn meniscus suffered in the Arizona Fall League in 2016 contributed to a slow start Ray never overcame. When the Brewers sent him back to the AFL last fall to regain confidence, he hardly removed doubts with a .231 average in 23 games. The pressure of being the Brewers' most ballyhooed draft pick since Ryan Braun mounted as Ray tried too hard to prove he was worth the $4.125 million signing bonus.

"I squeezed the bat a little tight," he admitted. "I pressed."

Recalling history relaxes Ray. A late bloomer at Simeon, he also struggled at Louisville before his career soared.

"This reminds me of the same thing," Ray said. "You get on campus, you think you're ready and you know everything about the game of baseball, and the game of baseball slaps you in the face. You've got to be humbled and learn. I'm thankful for last year. Now I know what I need to work on. I failed. But now I know how to deal with that failure."

The Brewers are counting on it. Not starting Ray at the major-league spring-training camp, as he did a year ago, could be perceived as sending a message. But general manager David Stearns denied losing any faith in the talented outfielder, who will report March 9 about five pounds lighter after an offseason regimen that included yoga to improve flexibility. If Ray bounces back, he could affect the pennant race as a possible trade piece if the Brewers stay in contention again and seek an impact player near the deadline.

"We're looking for Corey to improve and get back to the dynamic player we saw in Louisville," Stearns said. "Corey has to take last year as a learning experience. But there are a lot of young players who go through struggles and still become very good major-league players. We still have that expectation for Corey and believe in him."

So do the people back home whom Ray credits for nurturing the kid who trained on the steep hill at Robichaux Park in the Washington Heights neighborhood into Chicago's highest-drafted baseball player since 1989. Ray talks to his father, Corey Sr., every day. Former major-leaguer Lou Collier, a Chicago Vocational graduate who runs a youth baseball program in the city, stays connected enough to offer candid advice. Fellow members of the 2013 ACE (Amateur City Elite) class remain close, which is why Chicagoan Darius Day's car sits outside Ray's Arizona home while Day spends the winter playing in Australia. Regular advice comes courtesy of mentor Curtis Granderson, the pride of Illinois-Chicago, who reached out to Ray last fall while Granderson's Dodgers were on the verge of playing in the World Series.

"With all he had going on, he called because I was going through a rough spot and he just said, 'Relax, it's still baseball,' " Ray said. "I needed to hear that. I finished strong. I was like, if he can be like that, why can't I?"

Ray mimics Granderson's commitment to the community too, which brought the native South Sider to UIC last month for a clinic for about 75 athletes from the Jackie Robinson West Little League. Todd Prince, the JRWLL president who coached Ray when he was 5, ran drills and Ray handed out gear from the Jordan Brand he endorses.

"I'm always going to be proud to rep Chicago, Simeon and the ACE program," Ray said.

Even if Ray becomes a star in Milwaukee, he vowed to keep returning to his hometown to inspire kids hoping to use sports as an avenue to opportunity the way he did. Along that road, in a quiet neighborhood by Surprise, Ray found happiness. And that can be harder than hitting a fastball.