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You need to get hip to Corey Ray

The Chicago native is poised to be a black star in a sport that desperately needs more

ESPN’s Keith Law has him ranked No. 1 on his big board and calls him the best all-around player in Thursday night’s Major League Baseball draft. Jim Duquette, a former New York Mets general manager, says he is athletic enough to play any outfield position and a good enough hitter to spray it all over the field. Everywhere you look, it seems, Corey Ray is bound to be an early selection Thursday night.

It shouldn’t surprise. Despite being listed at 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, Ray crushed the baseball this year at the University of Louisville. The 21-year-old outfielder tagged 15 home runs (good for 60 runs batted in and a .396 on-base percentage) in just 62 games. He also stole 44 bases, just for good measure.

Ray is described as short and stocky, but he packs enough punch that he clubbed 27 homers over his last 127 collegiate games. And if the thump and speed weren’t enough, Ray is also the daring sort. In the bottom of the ninth inning during one game his sophomore year in 2015, the dude actually stole home to snatch the victory.

But he’s not quite like the rest of the potential picks in the draft.

University of Louisville outfielder Corey Ray (2) plays against the University of Miami at Alex Rodriguez Park at Mark Light Field, Coral Gables, Florida, in Louisville's 4-3 victory.

University of Louisville outfielder Corey Ray plays in a 4-3 victory over the University of Miami at Alex Rodriguez Park in Coral Gables, Florida.

Richard C. Lewis/Icon Sportswire

Ray grew up on the South Side of Chicago, a city that hasn’t produced a top-10 pick since the Philadelphia Phillies selected Jeff Jackson fourth overall in 1989, and started playing baseball at the ripe age of 4. His dad has driven snowplows and street sweepers for the city of Chicago for nearly two decades and his mother is a school teacher. His dad pushed him to run up a 40-foot high hill in a nearby park, stay outside and be as active as possible. This is in an age where more and more kids live sedentary lives, but also in an area of the city known for its prolonged spike in violence in recent years.

“He wouldn’t let me be one of the kids who stayed in and played video games,” Ray said.

He grew up just five minutes from the Chicago White Sox stadium, U.S. Cellular Field, and attended Simeon Career Academy, the longtime Chicago athletic powerhouse best known for producing top-flight basketball prospects such as Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls and Jabari Parker of the Milwaukee Bucks.

Ray recently said in the Chicago Tribune: “I got tired of going places and people asking what school I went to, and I’d say Simeon and they would go, ‘Oh, they have a good basketball program. … Isn’t that where Jabari Parker and Derrick Rose went?’ We wanted it to be, ‘Oh, wow, what a great baseball program.’ ”

“It’ll be exciting to see Corey get drafted,” Mets outfielder and fellow Chicago native Curtis Granderson told the New York Times. “Hopefully, the recognition will be put out there that, hey, this is an avenue that you can accomplish.”

Although 25 percent of the first-round picks in the 2015 MLB draft were African-American (the highest percentage since 1992), baseball has long struggled to secure more players like Ray. Just 8 percent of the players on MLB Opening Day rosters this year were African-American. And only 5.1 percent of those playing NCAA Division I men’s baseball (as of 2014-15) are African-American, according to numbers on the NCAA’s website.

That is why, at least in part, the Chicago White Sox created the Amateur City Elite (ACE) program in 2007. ACE’s mission is to “support players in Chicago who lack the financial means or family support to receive quality baseball instruction.” The program has had players in the past who were homeless and others who played with bullets from a shooting still lodged inside of them.

Players in the program must submit academic transcripts each quarter and maintain above-average grades. They can’t play with failing grades — either games or practices — but according to data provided by ACE, the program has seen 99 percent of its players graduate from high school and it has sent 122 players to college with 16 more drafted by MLB teams.

When he was 12, Ray joined the ACE program and saw his baseball future blossom. His dad saw an even bigger goal: education and baseball.

“Growing up, being African-American, my dad just pounded education,” Ray said. “He always said that they can take your athletic ability away, but they can’t take away your mind. We always used to say, growing up, that [when] you’re black, you already have two strikes against you. So you have to do everything the right way. Growing up, it wasn’t about baseball, it was about education. When I got to a certain age, I realized that I could use baseball to pay for education.”

Ray said the program allowed him to play against high-end talent, alongside high-level instruction (many of the coaches played in college, some even professionally) and more importantly: They put money where their hopes were. “They paid for us to fly or bus to anywhere we had tournaments,” Ray said. “They paid for the team to get into the tournament. They gave us uniforms, they paid for that, they gave us equipment — all of that.”

By the time he was 18, Ray was a coveted enough high school player (he played in the Under Armour All-American Game at Wrigley Field in Chicago and was an all-state selection) that the Seattle Mariners selected him in the 33rd round of the 2013 draft. Ray was stoked. “I had never seen any money,” he said. “And them calling and telling me, they’ll pay to play the game of baseball — it doesn’t get any better than this. This is everyone’s dream.”

His dad had other plans.

Still intent on making education a priority, his father insisted Ray attend Louisville instead of signing the contract. Ray obliged, but not because he wanted to.

“It was definitely his decision,” he said. “I was only 18 and he was still giving me money, giving me a place to stay, so it was either his way or the highway.”

At what point at Louisville did he believe that his dad was right?

“My freshman year. Yeah, I struggled. Big time,” he said. “At the beginning of my freshman year I was like, you know, I shouldn’t be here, I should be playing professionally with my friends and I’m struggling. I might not get a shot to play here. But I continued to work hard and I could see myself getting better. I ended up playing at the end of my freshman year and I realized this is where I belong and that this will pay off.”

After hitting just one home run in 43 games his freshman year, Ray socked 11 the next year in 65 games. He stole home to steal a game in the bottom of the ninth inning of Louisville’s 6-5 victory over Wake Forest in April 2015. After the season, he was starring for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team.

“If you give me enough time,” Ray said. “I’ll get better at anything.”

Hard to argue.

When Ray’s name is called in Thursday evening’s draft, a dream will be realized. Most mock drafts have Ray going high — No. 1 to the Philadelphia Phillies? No. 5 to the star-craved Milwaukee Brewers? — but guess who has the 10th pick? The Chicago White Sox. Even more reason that Chicago will be on his mind.

Speaking to Baseball America recently, he put this in perspective: “I look at it as an opportunity to give back,” he 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.”

Ryan Cortes is a staff writer for The Undefeated. Lemon pepper his wings.