ST. PETERSBURG — What strikes you is how big Luke Raley is.
At 6-feet-4, 225 pounds with a muscular build and an accompanying lack of gracefulness, he looks like he would be more comfortable on a football field or sporting a plaid shirt and lumberjack gear.
Certainly more than on a baseball field, where he has played incredibly well for the Rays so far this season. Through Friday, he was hitting .243 with 10 homers, 19 RBIs and an .890 OPS; and flashing speed on the bases (six steals) and solid defense in the outfield and at first base.
“He’s an incredibly physical player, an imposing presence,” Rays baseball operations president Erik Neander said. “But he’s a more well-rounded player than he gets credit for.”
Two things about Raley’s size:
• He’s the smallest male in his family. His older brother, Brad, and his father, Doug, are both 6-5, 300-plus pounds.
• He wasn’t big until halfway through high school. When he got his driver’s license at age 16, he was 5-6 and about 160 pounds. He quit football after his sophomore year because he felt he was too small.
Then the spurts started, a genetic family phenomenon across several generations. By the time he went from Highland High in Medina, Ohio, to Division II Lake Erie College, he had grown to 6-3, 195 and added on from there.
“We’re just all late bloomers,” said Raley, 28.
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Raley is first to acknowledge that how he looks on the field — specifically the awkward running style, with his arms flailing, that he has tried repeated methods to adjust — is far from textbook and, frankly, not good.
“I mean, I see it,” Raley said. “Trust me. I’ve seen plenty of videos of myself playing, and I go, ‘Wow, that looks really bad.’ So, I definitely understand that.”
Which makes him even more well-liked in the clubhouse, in addition to his whatever-the-team-needs approach (hit by pitches seven times, pitching twice in blowouts); how hard he plays; how earnest, candid and especially self-deprecating he is; and how much success he has had in his breakout season.
“He’s an amazing teammate,” pitcher Zach Eflin said. “Just a joy to be around.”
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What strikes you is how powerful Raley is.
“He’s just, like, a Midwest-strong country boy who goes out and hits nukes,” Eflin said. “That’s why we call him Nuke Raley.”
That’s pretty much the root of it.
“It’s country-boy strength – 100 percent,” Raley said. “I enjoy working out, but I’m not a huge weightlifter. Mine’s more like manual-labor strength.”
That ties to his Midwest upbringing in a farming community in northern Ohio.
When Raley wasn’t playing sports or in class, he would lend a hand at the family business, Raley’s Tree Farms, based out of their Hinckley, Ohio, home.
Much of the year, they grow and sell pine and spruce trees in bulk to landscapers. But winter is Christmas tree season, and Luke would be counted on to lend a big hand.
“He’s a very good worker, and he’s a good salesman,” his mother, Beth, said. “We’re usually shorthanded. It’s just a small family business, but we retail probably 1,200 trees, which is a lot for a small Christmas tree lot, so it’s pretty busy.
“He knows how to run a chainsaw and tie trees on cars and a lot of that physical stuff.”
(So much so that Raley’s home run celebration includes a gesture with third-base coach Brady Williams simulating picking up a tree to place it on a car roof.)
He also knows how to have fun.
For about five years during the fall, the Raleys set up the CornStalkers Haunted Cornfield and Forest on their land, and Luke would help out.
“I was the clown with the chainsaw,” he said. “It was pretty terrifying.”
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What do Raley’s teammates, coaches and current and former bosses think of his style? We asked, with some gentle prodding to be as colorful as possible.
Eflin: “Almost like a football player playing baseball.”
Infielder Yandy Diaz, via team interpreter Manny Navarro: “He kind of plays like a monster, like with a crazy look.”
Reliever Jason Adam: “He’s obviously a ball of muscle. Everything he does is strong. He hits strong. He throws strong. He runs strong, and it looks like he’s making the ground shake.”
Neander: “A lot of things come to mind.”
Williams: “Fascinating. Just his sheer stature, just the way that he moves, the fact that he can do what he can do, it’s fun to watch. He’s a very talented baseball player. But when you watch him, you’re like. how? He’s not very fluid.”
Reliever Jalen Beeks: “Just this big dude hitting massive home runs.”
Outfielder Jose Siri, via Navarro: “He plays with a lot of energy. He plays with really good vibes. He plays aggressive. And he plays hard.” (And if the 6-2, 175-pound Siri ever were to collide with Raley in the outfield? “You’d find me on the stretcher.”)
Reliever Kevin Kelly: “Interesting, at times. Just a little different. But he’s so good at everything he does.”
Dodgers baseball operations chief Andrew Friedman, who traded Raley twice: “It’s unorthodox. Hunter Pence was unorthodox, and it worked. There’s some, like, torso-to-leg-ratio differences than in others. You look at (Raley) and you don’t necessarily think that’s a great athlete. And then you watch what he does, and you appreciate what a good athlete he is.”
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What strikes you is how determined Raley is.
Undrafted out of high school, he played college ball with his brother at Division II Lake Erie near Cleveland. He had a breakout junior season, hitting .426 (60-for-141) over 43 games with a .534 on-base percentage (26 walks vs. 10 strikeouts) and .780 slugging percentage (12 homers). In September, he will be inducted into the Storm’s athletic Hall of Fame.
That was good enough for him to be a seventh-round pick by the Dodgers in 2016, 221st overall and the first Division II player taken. He was signed for $147,500.
The Dodgers didn’t seem to know what to do with him, trading him to the Twins in July 2018, getting him back in February 2020 and bringing him to the majors for several short stints in 2021. They then traded him to the Rays in the spring of 2022. Raley called the LA experience “interesting” and “kind of crazy,” saying he liked the organization but “maybe it wasn’t just the correct fit.”
He has fit in well with the Rays, awkward style and all.
“I don’t even know how to explain how proud I am,” said Beth, whom he texts or calls after every game. “He’s always been an overachiever, always been kind of underrated. ... He does make fun of himself. I think he realizes his shortcomings and things that he needs to work on, which I like that in him.”
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