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Former Orioles closer Chris Ray finds new career as owner of craft brewery

Ray operates Va. brewery with brother, produces charity beer every summer to benefit military families

By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

2:58 PM EDT, June 8, 2013

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The end greets so many ballplayers like a concrete wall — faceless and unforgiving. Take away the 97-mph fastball or the 400-foot home runs and daily fulfillment no longer seems so easily attainable.

Chris Ray, though, he had beer.

Don't worry. It's not how it sounds. The angel-faced closer of Orioles clubs past didn't turn to the bottle to dull the pain of losing his arm strength.

Ray, who last pitched in the major leagues in 2011, actually makes beer at the craft brewery he opened with his older brother, Phil, in Ashland, Va. And he loves it, loves it so much that he says he hardly misses the once-in-a-lifetime feel of climbing the mound and pumping gas past the best hitters in the world.

"A lot of guys in my situation, I think once they retire, they have no idea what to do," the 31-year-old Ray says. "But for me, it was kind of liberating in a way."

Those who knew him in Baltimore aren't surprised. Ray was trying to educate them on the subtleties of fine pale ales long before he shelved his glove.

"You know there's wine snobs?" says current Orioles closer Jim Johnson, who was Ray's teammate for four years. "Well, he's a beer snob."

This is an important time of year for Ray and his Center of the Universe brewery. He made his entry into the beer world two years ago, pairing with Seattle's Fremont Brewing Co. to produce Homefront IPA, aged on Louisville Slugger bats and sold to raise money for Operation Homefront, a charity that supports military families.

In 2011, they sold 30 barrels of Homefront IPA around the Seattle area, raising about $8,000. Last year, they enlisted craft breweries around the country and raised $165,000. Ray hopes this year's release, timed to Memorial Day, will be even bigger.

Though Baltimore fans would have to go to Virginia to get the beer, Johnson is serving as one of Ray's ambassadors in the charity effort. "He just asked me to support him, and I think what they're doing is really cool," Johnson says.

'He does it the whole way'

From childhood, Ray always took his hobbies seriously. "When we'd get home from school and finish our homework, I'd go out and ride my bike around the neighborhood," recalls his brother. "But Chris was always out in the side yard with Dad, throwing the baseball."

When he was with the Orioles, Ray's fixation was carpentry. He observed carefully as a contractor finished his basement and went on to redo another room in the house by himself. Then there was the time he was injured and bought a 1992 Mustang on eBay, scouring the Internet for weeks in search of the best deals on replacement parts.

"If he gets involved in something," Johnson says, "he does it the whole way."

Ray developed a taste for finer beer when he made enough money to buy Sierra Nevada Pale Ale instead of the cheaper swill he drank in college. In 2008, a former teammate from William & Mary brought a home brewing kit by his house.

"There are just so many ingredients, so many styles," Ray says, explaining how he got hooked. "It's basically limitless what you can do with beer. It tapped into a creative side of me."

His first home brew was a pumpkin ale, a little heavy on the ginger, he recalls, but "good enough that I was not discouraged."

He guessed that his brother, then an engineer in Tampa, Fla., might also enjoy the brewing hobby. So he sent him a kit. Soon, brewing was 80 percent of what the Rays talked about.

"He'd call and it would be, 'How you doing? How's work?'" Phil Ray says. "But we'd quickly get to, 'So, what you got in the fermenter?'"

Meanwhile, Ray tried to keep his baseball career going after Tommy John elbow reconstruction robbed him of the zip on his fastball. Just three years after he saved 33 games, the Orioles traded him to the Texas Rangers for Kevin Millwood in December 2009. Seven months after that, the Rangers flipped him to the San Francisco Giants. He was officially a journeyman reliever.

"I wasn't the same," he says. "When I came back from surgery in 2009, it was really rough. Just a terrible year. I'd rear back to throw, and it just wasn't there."

On the other hand, San Francisco was a great place to enjoy a winning clubhouse and throw himself into a vibrant craft brewing scene. Ray signed with the Seattle Mariners the following year, moving to another city full of great beer. By then, he and his brother had begun talking seriously about turning their hobby into a business.

Matt Lincecum, the founder of Fremont Brewing, was certainly skeptical when this ballplayer showed up, pitching him the idea of collaborating on a charity beer.

"Honestly, we don't do that," Lincecum says. "We don't work with other people, and we don't do gimmicky stuff."

But Ray impressed the Fremont staff with his knowledge of brewing and impressed them even more with the quality of his home-brewed samples.

"He was really into beer," Lincecum says. "This was not just some ballplayer who wanted to play around at a brewery."

The men shared an interest in helping military families and a commitment to donating all the proceeds. So a partnership was born, along with the clever hook of aging the beer on maple bats donated by Louisville Slugger.

"Whether the bats impart flavor is up to the person drinking it," Ray says. "But it makes for a great story."

'He's happier deep down'

The first batch of Homefront IPA came out on the last day Ray pitched in a major league game. "So it was kind of like fate," he says.

Ray gave baseball another go in 2012, pitching in the minors for the Cleveland Indians and Oakland Athletics organizations. All the bus travel was tough for a guy who had pitched six seasons in the majors. He had to pop Advil to deal with shoulder soreness that never really went away.

Meanwhile, he and Phil found an old newspaper printing plant north of Richmond that offered enough space for their fermenting tanks. Phil gave up his stable engineering job to move to Ashland. They hired an experienced brewer, Mike Killelea, to take their home recipes to a commercial scale.

Oakland released Ray in July, but with the brewery set to open in the fall and a second child on the way in December, he never had much time or inclination to mourn his career. In fact, he loved being a pure fan for the first time since he was a kid, rooting for the Orioles in the playoffs.

"There were a lot of years where that clubhouse was kind of miserable," he says. "I got to see in Texas and San Francisco how much fun it is when you're winning, so I was just really, really happy for those guys."

The brewery debuted with three main flavors — Ray Ray's Pale Ale, Main St. Virginia Ale and Pocahoptas IPA — all sold around the Richmond area. The Ray brothers get a thrill when they're having dinner in a restaurant and look over to see their tap handle on the bar. They plan to obtain an interstate license so their beers can be sold in Maryland and other surrounding states.

"He and Phil have good heads for business, but ultimately, people have to like your beer," Lincecum says. "They send us samples whenever they can, and we're a pretty critical group when it comes to beer. But theirs is really good."

Ray gets to be home every night with his wife, Alice, and his kids, 2-year-old Virginia and 6-month-old Thomas.

"I think he's happier deep down," his brother says. "Every day is fun. Even when everything possible goes wrong, we're still making beer. We get to sit in our tasting room at the end of the day and have a beer."

Says Ray: "I can't be upset about anything. I got to play professional baseball for six years, which is not something a lot of people get to say. And now, I feel like I'm doing my hobby for a living."

childs.walker@baltsun.com