Cardinals Take the Long Way to Sign Markray

It took almost seven years and at least five stops along the way, but the St. Louis Cardinals' 31st round draft pick from 2001, left-handed pitcher Marcus Markray, has finally signed.

This past week, as I was scanning the St. Louis Cardinals' minor league rosters in preparation for the upcoming Rule 5 Draft, I noticed a new name parked for now on the Gulf Coast League Cardinals – a pitcher by the name of Marcus Markray.

Other than the obvious alliteration in a name that is pleasing to pronounce, it was already stuck in one corner of my brain from somewhere long ago. But, from where had I heard the name before?

John Vuch, St. Louis Cardinals Director of Minor League Operations, came to my rescue even before Google was called upon. "Marcus Markray was a player we had drafted a few years ago, but he didn't sign at the time," Vuch reminded me.

Marcus, then an 18-year-old high school left-hander from Shongaloo, Louisiana, was selected by the Cardinals in the 31st round of the 2001 First Year Player Draft. At Springhill High School, Markray was a four-year letterman and two-time all-district player. He had drawn attention far and wide, finishing his senior season with a perfect 12-0 record.

Markray chose not to sign with the Cardinals, instead enrolling in college to pursue his education. That is when his long odyssey began, a journey that took almost seven years and five colleges before he once again received the opportunity to play professional baseball.

From 2001 through 2003, Markray attended Paris Junior College in Paris, Texas and pitched for the Dragons. He had been placed there to improve his grades after having originally signed with Louisiana Tech.

While at Paris, Markray picked up two letters and posted a combined 4-1 record, 6.75 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 34 innings pitched. However, an illness at home with his father required Markray to not only transfer, but the youngster also took the entire 2004 season off from baseball as he attended a two-year college near home, Southern University at Shreveport.

Ready to take the field again in the 2004-2005 school year, he enrolled at Nicholls State University, located in Thibodaux, Louisiana, and joined their team. In his junior year with the Colonels, Markray appeared in 16 games, making 13 starts. His record was 5-4 with a 6.78 ERA in 67 2/3 innings pitched, He allowed 81 hits and 36 walks, while striking out 62 batters. Markray was a standout on a struggling team as his .556 winning percentage was tops on the squad and his five wins were second-best.

Unfortunately, a "loose shoulder" condition that did not require surgery sidelined Markray during most of the spring of 2006. "I was bouncing back from a shoulder injury. I was in recovery, so I didn't want to push it," he explained.

It would be a season during which the 6-foot-4, 180 pounder was only able to pitch in five innings over three games for Nicholls State, yielding six earned runs. Though he had to relieve, Markray is clear on what role he prefers. "I am more effective as a starter," he stated matter-of-factly.

A series of administration changes in the athletic department at Nicholls led Markray to head next to Southern University in Baton Rouge for 2007 and one more shot at his senior year. Markray still wasn't 100%, but his new coach, a former professional player named Roger Cador, respected that. Cador, coach at Southern for the last 23 years, believed Markray had the potential to continue his career, so he used the 24-year-old carefully.

Markray remains grateful. "It was up to the coach. I was able to pitch, but the coach felt I was a good pitcher and had a future beyond college. After coming off injury and rehab and all that, he didn't want me to throw a whole lot. He was a very understanding coach," Markray said.

The Jaguars went 23-16 in the regular season before going 3-2 in the Southwestern Athletic Conference tourney and just missing a chance for an NCAA regional berth. The lefty didn't contribute much, pitching in just six innings over four games last spring. Markray yielded 11 hits, five walks and five earned runs and fanned just one batter. Hardly a standout performance, but he wasn't worried.

Over the internet about a month ago, Markray learned of a Cardinals tryout camp in Florida and headed right down there. Vuch succinctly explains what happened next. "He threw for one of our scouts, and was impressive enough that the decision was made that we should sign him."

It was Area Scout Charlie Gonzalez who Markray approached. "I was feeling really good, so I asked him if he would come down and watch me throw a bullpen… He was interested but wanted to see me face live hitters, so he watched me throw a few innings," Marcus explained.

Markray sports the standard offerings – fastball, curve and change-up – and like many, he says he prefers his fastball, all things equal.

Gonzalez liked what he saw and made the offer to the well-traveled hurler – basically right on the spot. The deal became official on November 8, 2007. On that day, 2001 31st rounder Marcus Markray was finally signed!

While he is pleased, Markray exhibited a level of quiet confidence in that he felt it would only be a matter of time. "It is pretty exciting, but I knew I had the ability to play in a pro organization. It wasn't a big shock, but it was exciting," he said.

While time is somewhat short for a man who turns 25 years of age in early February, he receives inspiration from his close-knit family.

First cousin Thad Markray, a right-handed pitcher two-and-a-half years his senior, reached the Triple-A level with the Kansas City Royals in 2007. But it wasn't easy for Thad either. He has toiled in the minors for 11 seasons with five different organizations including two stints in independent ball and a transition from third base to pitching during his fourth professional season.

Thad's resume makes Marcus look like a baseball newcomer. The elder Markray provides inspiration and serves as the off-season workout partner for his younger cousin. As one might expect, Marcus is a strong supporter of Thad.

"I don't know what they (the Royals) are waiting for. He is ready. He has an arm, a Major League arm. He should be there, not because he is my cousin, but because I know a gifted person when I see one," Marcus explained.

Who knows? Maybe in a few years their roles will be reversed, with Thad observing and explaining how Marcus Markray is ready for his first shot in the big leagues. He has already paid some of his dues and his first professional season has yet to begin.

While Markray is listed on the Gulf Coast League roster currently, Vuch says where he starts next season will be up to how Marcus performs in Jupiter, Florida. "He'll be in our minor league camp this spring, and his performance there would dictate where he starts his career," Vuch said.



Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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