CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA – Royce Lewis is only 18 and already has his own bobblehead.
The Cedar Rapids Kernels gave away 1,000 of them last month, in only their second full week of the season, knowing his time there could be short. Fans lined up outside Veterans Memorial Stadium three hours before first pitch.
The real-life Lewis is batting .315 and wears a perpetual smile, much like the bobblehead. Everyone from manager Toby Gardenhire to the stadium ushers to Lewis’ Cedar Rapids host family raves about the way he conducts himself.
A shortstop from California’s Orange County, Lewis hasn’t shrunk from the attention he’s received since the Twins made him the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s amateur draft and paid him a $6.7 million signing bonus.
Social media reaction was mixed on draft night, with some fans disappointed the Twins didn’t take Sports Illustrated cover subject Hunter Greene, or Louisville standout Brendan McKay.
“It’s not about proving people wrong,” Lewis said last week, awaiting batting practice in the Cedar Rapids dugout. “It’s about proving to the Twins that, ‘You guys made the right decision.’ ”
The Twins showed their faith in Lewis last August when they moved him two steps up their minor league ladder, from the Gulf Coast League to Class A Cedar Rapids. They gave Lewis a three-week Midwest League taste and returned him there this April.
In a league where the average age is about 22, he entered Thursday with a .368 on-base percentage (36 points above the league norm) and was 13-for-14 in stolen-base attempts.
Still three minor league steps from the majors, Lewis remains a work in progress. His strikeout rate recently climbed, and he had only five extra-base hits in 136 plate appearances — four doubles and one home run.
Some scouts believe his future is in center field, especially since the Twins are flush with shortstop prospects. But Lewis’ favorite player growing up was Derek Jeter, and he’s determined to be that type of leader at shortstop, at the plate and in the clubhouse.
“I haven’t even hit my full potential,” said Lewis, who turns 19 on June 5. “I’m not even close to that yet.”
A second family
Lewis spent the first nine hours of Mother’s Day — from midnight to 9 a.m. — on the team bus, returning to Cedar Rapids from a series in Bowling Green, Ky.
The Kernels had that Sunday off, so Lewis caught up on sleep before heading to dinner with teammate Akil Baddoo and their host parents, Chuck and Cindy Young. The players arrived with a handwritten card for their host mom.
Cedar Rapids, a city of 130,000 about 30 miles north of the University of Iowa in Iowa City, has a proud, two-decade history of pairing players with host families, something that doesn’t happen in every minor league town. Lewis stayed with the Youngs last August, and when he found out he was returning to Iowa, he requested the same host family.
“He’s a very grounded young man for someone who isn’t yet 19,” Cindy Young said. “He’s very focused and mature. He’s also a typical teenager. He likes to play video games and eat ice cream.”
The Youngs have been hosting Kernels players for 15 years. Twins catcher Mitch Garver and pitching prospect Stephen Gonsalves are among those who have called the spacious Young farmhouse home.
Lewis’ parents, William and Cindy, visited Cedar Rapids from California last month and spent time with their son’s host family.
“Royce being drafted and shipped across the country was one of the hardest things to go through; I think it was harder on me than him,” Cindy Lewis said. “I was thrilled when I found out he was going to have host parents [in Cedar Rapids], that he wouldn’t be in a hotel, four to a room.
“Chuck and Cindy are such wonderful people. They treat those guys like family.”
The Youngs also have a car for their guests to drive around Cedar Rapids, so Lewis left his new wheels back in California.
He famously had yet to secure his first driver’s license before getting drafted. He took care of that last fall and bought his first car — a Toyota Camry. If that seems like a modest purchase for a millionaire, Lewis said: “I always wanted that car. My grandparents have always had Toyotas, so once I got it, I was really excited.”
Next stop: Florida
The tough thing for host families is most prospects can’t wait to say goodbye. That usually means they have been promoted, and there has been speculation for weeks about a probable promotion for Lewis to Class A Fort Myers.
“We’re hoping he stays to play on the All-Star team [June 19],” Cindy Young said. “And then, I would imagine he’ll move up shortly after that. I think he’s proven everything he needs to prove at this level.”
Teams don’t take these promotions lightly, especially with a player who already has been riding the fast track.
“He still hasn’t had that much time at Cedar Rapids,” said Derek Falvey, the Twins chief baseball officer. “Seeing the league a second time around — pitchers learn something, he’ll learn something about himself — and we’ll make the decision based on his progress toward his goals, not his stat line.”
Falvey said the Twins could have started Lewis in Fort Myers or Class AA Chattanooga, “and I’m sure he would have handled the challenge.”
Asked if he’s getting antsy to move up, Lewis gave another disarming smile. “No, because I know I’m 18,” he said. “… God willing, maybe this year would be nice. But if it’s not, I totally understand. Whether I’m playing in low-A, high-A, Double-A or Triple-A, it’s all the minor leagues. My goal’s the major leagues.”
Strong first impression
The Monday after Mother’s Day was $1.50 hot dog night for the Kernels, and a few hundred fans trickled into the ballpark.
Lewis bounded to shortstop during batting practice, dancing to the stadium music between pitches and taking extra grounders from Gardenhire.
Lewis wears white Adidas shoes with his “RL” initials on the tongue. Before each at-bat, he taps his bat on three corners of home plate and etches a cross into the dirt. He also adjusts his batting gloves after every pitch, much like Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia.
“Honestly, I’m kind of [obsessive and compulsive] and stuff,” Lewis said. “So I have to feel the correct way. My batting gloves have to be tight and renewed.”
Lewis went 1-for-4 with a bloop single that night and had one misplay at shortstop that was still eating at him the next day.
“The ball was a little wet,” he said. “It wasn’t a horrible throw, but it wasn’t the perfect throw. You can’t throw a wet ball hard. Each and every day, I’m learning something new.”
Lewis wasn’t in the lineup that Tuesday. The Twins schedule two off days per week for him, gradually building his endurance.
“The off days aren’t necessarily rest days,” Falvey said. “It might be a heavy lift day, a sprint day, or heavy defensive day. I think it’s important to think about the full, holistic development to become the player we want him to be up here [in the majors], not necessarily in Cedar Rapids.”
The 6-2 Lewis weighed 180 pounds on draft day and added 15 last offseason. Eventually, he would like to get to about 215, like another player he admires, Astros shortstop Carlos Correa.
Lewis’ goals extend far beyond Cedar Rapids, but no matter what happens next, he has already left his mark in Iowa.
“It’s such an overused cliché to talk about these guys being good players and even better people,” Kernels radio broadcaster Chris Kleinhans-Schulz said. “But not only is Royce Lewis a great ballplayer, with great potential, he’s even more of a fantastic person.”
The Twins remain focused on his development. But at this rate, it won’t be long — 2020? September 2019? — before Cedar Rapids is a memory and Lewis is regularly parking his Toyota at Target Field.