Joey Ray leads a triple life in baseball. No, not the slugging kind, but one at the high school, national and professional level.
The unique role didn’t find the Flowery Branch High baseball coach within the small city’s confines.
Ray outstretched his reach to the rest of the southeastern region, and never turned down an opportunity to widen his skillset.
His ambition has led to run-ins with Hall of Famers and former Major Leaguers in Chipper Jones, Andy Pettitte, Alan Embry, and John Schuerholz. The list goes on and on.
Ray’s built self-success and supplied resources few coaches can offer to their high school players. Conversations with former Atlanta Braves Fred McGriff and Gary Sheffield have indirectly benefited the Falcons’ program.
“Hopefully the level of professionalism I impart on (our coaching staff) on how things are done in the upper levels will help (the team) grow as players,” Ray said.
How’d he make such connections?
It all started with hard work.
While coaching at Milton High from 2008-2016, his Eagles won a state championship (reaching the state finals twice) and five region championships. Ray’s attraction escalated to a point that Team USA could no longer ignore.
In the summer of 2013, Team USA asked if he could help with the 18U National Team trial — a group comprised of the nation’s top 16-18 year olds. The same week of the trial unfortunately fell on the due date of his daughter.
His refusal came out of necessity, but since, the national team has continued to invite Ray annually to help mold the next generation of baseball players.
Last month, Ray became one of two high school coaches to instruct at Major League Baseball’s first PDP (Prospect Development Pipeline) League, an MLB-funded initiative run by USA Baseball aimed at showcasing the nation’s top-80 baseball prospects — those that have a “very good chance to be first and second round draft picks.”
“It provides scouts and major league organizations really good access on data, seeing these kids on the field,” Ray said.
“They also want to put these kids in an environment to be taught, not just showcased. Put them in front of people to learn. Yes, you’re super talented and you can do great things physically, but let’s see you do proper base-running, great infield fundamentals, proper outfield mechanics and how to read (and react) to balls.”
The 80 prospects are then trimmed to 40, and those 40 are invited to the 18U National Team trials. Twenty are then selected to the national team.
The three-week instructional at the IMG Academy in Orlando resembled a spring training-like atmosphere with Monday-Wednesday being practice exclusive days and Thursday-Saturday being game days.
Each of the 80 prospects were divided into four teams named after former major leaguers Chipper Jones, Derek Jeter, Ryan Howard and Barry Larkin. All four legends worked with each player, shagging flyballs, pinning groundballs, etc.
“Chipper, when he came in, he said, ‘Look, I don’t want to come in and watch a game. I want to come in on practice days,’” Ray relayed. “He was there first thing in the morning like everybody else. He got dressed in the locker room with the rest of us. He grabbed his glove and his fungo and spent the entire time by the cages talking to kids.
“It was pretty neat to not only be asked to go to this and be trusted to coach these kids up and teach the same thing the big leaguers are teaching, but also to be next to (major leaguers) and them trusting in me to do what I do.”
The trust spans into the professional realm with Ray’s childhood-favorite team — the Atlanta Braves.
Since 2014, the now-associate scout for the Braves has helped with open tryouts in Rome and Orlando and pre-draft camps in 2016 and 2017 at Turner Field and SunTrust Park, respectively.
“I’m kind of the official/unofficial amateur fungo guy of the Braves,” Ray laughingly said. “So anytime they need someone to hit groundballs to prospects or throw BP, I’m usually the first name called for that kind of stuff. Occasionally, I’ll cover a game scouting, go watch a guy throw, but most of the stuff I do is on field stuff.”