Very few athletes on any level realize the special opportunity to play with a person they consider the very best their sport has to offer. Such was the case for Carl Ray Stephens, Jr.
Stephens was an outstanding and versatile high school baseball athlete at Bradley Central. He played one season at Cleveland State before transferring to Middle Georgia College and then setting in as a top professional prospect as a catcher at Troy State University.
He was drafted in the sixth round by the St.
Louis Cardinals and began an eye-catching Minor League career. Stephens was named to Minor League All-Star teams at every level, Single-A, Double-AA and Triple-AAA. His top Minor League prize was being voted the MVP of the Triple-AAA American Association League Championship.
No doubt he paid his dues in battling to work his way up to the Majors and was called up more than once by the Cardinals and Texas Rangers between 1990 and 1992. In September of 1990, Ray made his Major League debut and blasted a home run during his second time at the plate for the Cards. After being traded to the Rangers, he earned the MVP honor, leading Oklahoma City (Triple-AAA) to the American Association championship and capturing the headlines with three homers and batting .533 in the series sweep of Buffalo.
A dream came true for Stephens on Sept. 27, 1992 in Arlington, Texas. He was penciled in as the starting catcher for the Rangers and Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan would be on the mound. They would be pitted against another Hall of Fame pitcher, Randy Johnson, and the Seattle Mariners. Ryan and Johnson ended up 1-2 on the Major League career strikeout list. Ryan with 5,714 and Johnson 4,875.
Said Stephens: “It was a nationally televised game on ESPN. Nolan went seven innings and picked up the win. My dad happened to be in attendance at the game that evening. It meant the world to me for him to experience that moment with me as I caught my childhood hero. My most prized possession is a photograph of me on the mound with Nolan during that game.”
After being up and down in the professional baseball ranks the veteran catcher thought his big opportunity had finally arrived. He was in the spring training camp with the Philadelphia Phillies and it appeared he would break camp as the club’s number two catcher. Manager Jim Fregosi decided to bring in another veteran catcher, Steve Lake at the midnight hour.
“Lake’s return to the Phillies at the midnight hour was certainly disappointing,” said Stephens. “But to forget that baseball was as much a business as it was a game would have been a huge mistake. Things change overnight, and a call to the manager’s office can unexpectedly change your life, either way, on any given day. This happened to be my day to step back and reassess things and Steve’s day to step up and rejoin his former team. Yes, it was tough, but I hold no animosity towards that situation or the circumstances surrounding that decision.”
Stephens added, “I had many years to remember and consider those 10 seasons. I was honored to play the game professionally. With most jobs there were many times of uncertainty, discouragement, and tough calls. None more difficult for me than deciding to walk away on my own terms, when I felt it was time. I had given baseball everything I had for most of my life and devoted all my dreams and energy into my career as a professional player. Of course, I left wanting more but I knew it was time to walk away.
“The life lessons, knowledge and discipline gained through my baseball experience have proven to be priceless as I have moved forward in business and life. I thank God for the tools and opportunity to play professional baseball,” explained Stephens.
Walking away was made much easier having his wife Angie (Dodson) and two daughters waiting back in the Cleveland area. He added that a third daughter would soon follow. “Looking back, it was definitely the right decision,” he declared. Ray and Angie have been married for 32 years. They have three daughters and four grandchildren, including twins.
Stephens started his own business, Pro Builders Unlimited, Inc., in 1994. He is a commercial general contractor and has been building in the Bradley County and surrounding area for 26 years. He has also served as a volunteer assistant baseball coach at Bradley Central for the past 12 years. He was inducted into the Greater Chattanooga Area Sports Hall of Fame in 2017 and will be inducted into the Bradley County Sports Hall of Fame in 2020.