I t’s late in the 2012 season and four players are enjoying a card game in the Potomac Nationals clubhouse. They’re playing Pluck, which is a trick-taking favourite among the guys at the table, including Steven Souza Jr.
Robbie Ray, who’ll turn 21 in a few weeks, is scrutinizing his teammates from a few feet away. The left-hander is in a mood, and those on the club know that when Ray is in one of his moods, they should avoid him. If things are going well, he’s fun to be around. But when he’s struggling on the mound, look out. During this season with the high-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals — which Ray will ultimately finish 4–12 with a 6.56 ERA over 105 2/3 innings — there’s been much more bad than good.
Ray ambles over and stops behind Souza as the 23-year-old outfielder puts down a card. “Why did you play that?” he asks.
“Why don’t you go over there and sit in your locker and let me play my own cards?” Souza responds. The line is delivered in a playful tone and Ray should probably let the exchange die there, but he doesn’t. The comment sets him off and he starts to yell at Souza. Teammates and coaches intervene before the situation escalates but as they’re separated, Souza lobs a piercing remark at Ray. “You’re always cutting corners,” he says.
The words stuck with Ray in the days that followed. If he was honest, he knew he was a bad teammate. He was distracted and squandering his immense talent. Ray was not only shortchanging his teammates and the organization; he was also failing himself. He arrived home that off-season and felt real desperation, wondering whether he even had a future in baseball. The Robbie Ray who exists today — the left-hander who has emerged as a frontrunner for the 2021 American League Cy Young Award — wouldn’t be here, were it not for the transformation he underwent during that period. This is the story of how Ray navigated the rock bottom of his baseball life.
A t 19, things were going smoothly for Ray. The Brentwood, Tenn., native had been selected out of high school by the Nationals in the 12th round of the 2010 draft and proceeded to dominate his first full season in pro ball, with single-A Hagerstown. He looked poised to quickly climb the organizational ladder, but the 2012 campaign changed all that. It was the first time Ray faced substantial struggles in the sport and he began to unravel as the season unfolded.
“He was uninspiring,” Souza recalls. “I hate to say that but that was kind of how he was. I just think he was a guy that was distracted. Meaning, he thought that he could get by with just doing nothing.”
Marlon Anderson, who played in parts of 12 big-league seasons, was the Potomac hitting coach in 2012. He describes Ray as someone who was “thirsty for knowledge.” The fresh-faced pitcher respected Anderson’s resume and would often sit on the bench and pick his brain about how to approach hitters. But along with zest, Ray brandished an attitude that rubbed some the wrong way. “In my opinion, it was not knowing how to be a teammate yet,” Anderson says. “When people come into pro ball, they come into pro ball selfish. You have to learn to be a good teammate. You want to get better yourself, but how you really become a big leaguer is to take into consideration all of the people around you. Respect the people around you. Work hard for the people around you. So, when you get in situations, they have your back.”
Ray certainly wasn’t taking anyone else into consideration. “I was not a good teammate,” he admits. “I was not a good person. I was just out for my own glory.” Ray says at the time he was caught up with the “baseball lifestyle” of going out, partying and having fun. The outcome was a player who was filled with tension. He could bring a dark cloud into a room with him, and teammates, like Souza, didn’t know when the lightning would strike. That was the context leading up to their clubhouse confrontation.
Nearly a decade later, Ray still remembers every detail, from the specific card game to his quick-strike response, because of the impact it left on him. “[Souza] called me out,” he says. “And it was really what I needed.”
Ray went home that winter and endured what he says was the lowest point of his career. Quitting didn’t cross his mind, but he wondered whether he would get the opportunity to come back next season. He feared his chance to do something special in the sport might have already slipped away because of his behaviour and poor results. “I sat down that off-season and I was just thinking back on the year,” says Ray. “Thinking about my actions on and off the field. I took a deep look into my life and realized that I wasn’t living my life the way I wanted to.”
Ray searched within himself, trying to bring the same honesty Souza had, and decided he wanted to be born again, becoming what he calls a “professing Christian.” Baseball would occupy just a short period in his life, he concluded — “I mean, if you’re lucky you get to play 10 years,” he says — so he needed to look after himself as a person.
“I wasn’t pleased with the way I was acting,” says Ray, who was not religious prior to that off-season. “So, I can’t imagine God was very pleased with me. It was kind of a reset to be able to sit down and be like, ‘If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this all for Your glory. And it’s not going to be for me.’”
Ray remembered that Souza had undergone a similar rebirth the previous off-season. Souza had considered leaving baseball at the end of 2011 until, he says, his friend, former big-leaguer Brent Lillibridge, “shared Jesus with me, and it changed my whole life.” Souza arrived at spring training as a transformed person and player, going from a middling hitter to a serious power threat who posted 23 home runs and a .938 OPS across two levels of A-ball in 2012. Ray was mired in his own woes that season, but was on the periphery of Souza’s sudden success. It registered in his mind and after he had undergone his own journey of self-discovery, the picture became clearer and he had a blueprint he could follow.
The left-hander showed up to Nationals camp in early 2013 and set out determined to work. By July, he had spent three months dominating at high-A Potomac, to the tune of a 3.11 ERA over 16 starts, and was promoted to double-A Harrisburg, where he was reunited with Souza. “I just knew something was different about him,” says the outfielder. “Boy, this man was focused. He was an unbelievable teammate. He was selfless. He was fun to be around.”
Souza describes the difference in Ray as “night and day.” He was still a jokester at his core, but didn’t seem as self-involved. Ray would actively try to help teammates whenever he could. The heightened ego he’d displayed before was replaced with a deep desire to do right by those around him.
The two had long since put their confrontation behind them, and they grew close that season. They read the Bible together, encouraged each other and even lived in the same house for a period. Ray says those experiences forged a true friendship with Souza and were instrumental in his own personal development.
What was different in Ray’s eyes? “Having a servant mentality of, ‘How I can best serve my team every single day?’” he says. “That kind of mindset for me was huge. It was putting myself to the side and saying, ‘What can I do to help the team today?’”
Anderson, the Potomac hitting coach, was out of the Nationals organization by 2013, so he didn’t get a chance to witness the reformed Ray firsthand. He eventually caught wind of the changes, though, and he wasn’t surprised that the gifted pitcher finally put things together.
“The distraction is just a normal part of trying to figure it out,” says Anderson. “A selfish man makes it nowhere in life. [Ray] realized that when you make it all about yourself, it’s about me on the mound, instead of [being] about me trying to help my teammates win a game tonight. I think that’s truly what he got better at — understanding that when you make it about everybody else, it takes the pressure off yourself. And then you can relax and just let your natural talents come out.”
A t one point in Ray’s life, he thought he’d be fortunate if he carved out a decade in professional baseball. That was in the off-season of 2012 — precisely nine years ago. Given the way his career is lining up at this exact moment, Ray should soon blow past that 10-year mark in lucrative fashion. The 30-year-old free agent is fresh off the best season of his career, having led the AL in ERA (2.84), games started (32), innings (193.1), strikeouts (248), WHIP (1.045) and bWAR (6.7). His was one of the best campaigns by a hurler in Toronto Blue Jays history and will likely result in a Cy Young nod over New York Yankees right-hander Gerrit Cole — the winner is announced November 17.
Amidst the whirlwind ride of the past season, Ray frequently made time to call Souza. The two remained extremely close friends over the years and never go more than a week without speaking on the phone. At one point in September, Souza — who spent the campaign in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization — was laughing with Ray during a conversation when something dawned on him. “I’m just sitting there thinking, This guy’s going to win the Cy Young and he hasn’t changed,” says Souza. “And that’s what makes me really proud.”
Ray struggled mightily during the abbreviated 2020 season, surrendering the most walks in the majors. One year later, he’s a bona fide star. That type of reversal can stir something unpleasant inside a player, says Souza. “I’ve been in this game for 14 years and in the big leagues for eight years. When guys have success like Robbie’s having this year, [I’ve seen them] change,” he says. “They think that they’re bigger than the game. They get arrogant. When you get the notoriety, the attention, all the people in the world telling you that you’re the best at what you do, some athletes love that and they gravitate toward that and they feed off that.
“But Robbie doesn’t,” he continues. “Robbie’s different, man. Last year and the year before were really hard on him, but he was the same guy. And then this year, it’s been really easy for him, and he’s the same guy.”
Ray acknowledges that he and Souza will joke every now and then about their clubhouse spat. He’s also quick to point out the role his friend played in helping him become the person he is today. The two men share a mantra that goes something like this: You find out who you are in times of failure. Words that they have each lived during their time in baseball.
“When things aren’t going your way, then your true self shows,” says Ray. “It shows where your values are. Where you’re putting your hope. In that failure, you find out where your true focus is.”