published Monday, May 5th, 2014

Blake Ray is heart of Lee baseball team

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Blake Ray is a former walk-on bullpen catcher who became a key member of the Lee University baseball offense this year, but that's not the amazing part of his story.

The Cleveland High School graduate wasn't even part of the Lee team during his first three years at the hometown university. He was just a fan.

That's not the amazing part of his story, either.

Ray is a 6-foot-4, 225-pound young man with a pacemaker, yet he bats fifth for the Flames team that is 30-17 and hosting a National Christian College Athletic Association regional tournament starting Tuesday. The fifth-year senior is hitting .270 with a home run and 11 doubles.

And one other thing: He found out about his heart condition after breaking his thumb while catching a bullpen session last season.

"Blake is one of the hardest workers on the team, and his story is unbelievable," senior relief pitcher Jeremy Bales said Saturday of his good friend. "What he's done says a lot about his character and his faith in the Lord. It's been really amazing to see."

Lee is in its first year as an NCAA Division II school and a member of the Gulf South Conference, which is particularly strong in baseball, and the Flames lost a lot of talent from its last high finisher in the NAIA World Series. But Mark Brew and his assistant coaches have done well in a rebuilding year in a tough transition.

Ray is one of the reasons.

A business and psychology double major, he admits that he came to Lee "to be a student," and when he watched the Flames play he thought they were "absolutely unreal." But he missed the game and wanted just to be part of the program, so he went through a one-day tryout that didn't go well.

Still, when the 2013-14 roster had a depth problem at catcher, Brew was open to a couple of players' suggestion that Ray -- a first baseman, primarily -- be added to the team to warm up relief pitchers if nothing else.

"There was something about Blake," Brew said. "He knew some guys on the team, and we knew he was a high-character kid, and he was willing to fill that role for us, so he came in and he did a good job in that role."

Ray's thumb fracture came when he "got crossed up on a pitch," he said. While sidelined for that, he asked his doctor why he had been feeling "lightheaded" quite a bit.

"He sent me to a cardiologist, and the cardiologist (Dr. Alexander Stratienko) found out I had congestive heart failure," Ray said.

Dr. Christian Allen did the actual implant.

"No question this was a God thing," Brew said, "just the way Blake came into our program and how he found out he had a low heart rate. But just think when you're 21 or 22 and you're bullet-proof, and then you're told you've got a heart problem that has to be fixed right away -- and he couldn't even do the pacemaker at first."

It was three months after the diagnosis before the device could be inserted. Ray wore a portable defibrillator during that time and was on heart-strengthening medication. That didn't help at first, but he got the pacemaker in August.

It well may have saved his life, and it didn't even cost him his revived baseball career. He was cleared to play, and Brew gave him a chance to rejoin the Flames.

"I've been given a lot of opportunities," Ray said. "Coach Brew gave me a chance to play, and fortunately I've been able to take advantage of it.

"I don't think of the pacemaker as a negative. I use it as a way of motivation to work to be the best I can be."

Contact Ron Bush at rbush@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6291.

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