Louisville fans of all ages have been privileged enough to witness individual greatness over the years.
For the old timers there was of course Darrell Griffith, who made good on his promise to bring a national championship to his hometown and became known as one of the greatest college basketball players of all-time in the process. The new schoolers got to experience their own consensus first team All-American with Russ Smith, and were able to fall in love with him and the rest of the 2012-13 national championship team.
On the gridiron, fans who were showing up to Louisville football games before the team was winning Sugar Bowls and competing for conference championships can tell you all about Johnny Unitas in the years prior to him becoming one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. For the next generation it's been all about Teddy Bridgewater. The Miami native took the Derby City by storm with his skill and grace both on the field and off the field, so much so that he's turned a healthy chunk of the city into tertiary Minnesota Vikings fans.
Louisville baseball might not demand the same 'round the clock attention as its football and basketball counterparts, but you can make the case that it's been more of a consistent national power over the past five years than the other programs. It also has a certified superstar that Cardinal fans are going to be able to follow for years after his amateur career ends.
When the 2016 Major League Baseball Draft takes place on June 9, Corey Ray is almost a stone cold lock to become the highest draft pick in the history of the UofL baseball program, a distinction currently held by teammate Kyle Funkhouser who was selected 35th overall last year. Ray is projected as a top 10 or top five pick by virtually every baseball expert who covers this sort of thing, and was recently named as the draft's No. 1 overall prospect by ESPN's Keith Law.
When Ray hears his name called on draft day, he won't just be making history for Louisville. The South Side of Chicago, where Ray is from, hasn't produced a top MLB Draft pick since 1989, when Jeff Jackson was selected fourth overall by the Philadelphia Phillies. As is the case with most inner cities across the country, baseball is never going to be the most popular sport for the youth in the South Side, but Ray's bourgeoning superstardom has already shed more of a light on the sport in that area than there's been in three decades.
"I look at it as an opportunity to give back," Ray told Baseball America last month, "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."
When Ray comes homes to Chicago now, he doesn't just meet up with old friends or enjoy the comfort of mom's cooking, he holds impromptu camps with the kids in the area who have grown to idolize him. He talks to them about the value of hard work, about how he came from where they are to where he is, and then he puts them through a handful of Louisville coach Dan McDonnell's drills.
Ray and the UofL baseball team will begin its NCAA Tournament run this weekend as the tournament's No. 2 overall seed, but the Cardinals know that doesn't guarantee them anything. College baseball's postseason has a tendency of being even more unpredictable than the tournament in March which has long been defined for its "madness." Just last year, ACC brethren Virginia -- which finished seventh in the conference -- snuck into the tournament, upset No. 1 overall seed UCLA in regional play, and went on to win the national title.
Corey Ray will be playing baseball at Jim Patterson Stadium this weekend at least twice. After that, you might not have another opportunity to see one of the biggest stars to ever roll through the Derby City do what he does. Unless you want to spend the next couple of decades lying about how you saw Ray with your own eyes way back when, this is an opportunity worth taking advantage of.
A version of this column appears in the current issue of The Voice-Tribune