FORT MYERS, Fla. – Foundations are being laid here, courses set that could determine the direction of careers down the road. Teenagers drafted or signed by major league organizations may know baseball, but they must be taught how to be professional baseball players.
It’s a painstaking, deliberate process that anticipates a payoff years in the making, so there’s nothing urgent about the Gulf Coast League, the lowest rung on professional baseball’s ladder. Hours are spent each morning preparing for games played on quiet back fields each afternoon in the oppressive mugginess, with only a handful of spectators in the bleachers, mostly scouts searching for clues to those futures. For the GCL Twins, it’s an immersive lifestyle, baseball 24/7, right down to the dormitory rooms assigned to each player, named for All-Stars of the past.
From the outside, it can seem a tedious, exhausting, sweltering way of life. To Royce Lewis, “It’s an amazing thing. I love it. I’m having so much fun out here, working at my craft every day, it’s a dream come true.”
Whew. On sheer enthusiasm alone, the Southern California shortstop, just six weeks beyond his 18th birthday, deserves the No. 1 overall status that the Twins bestowed at last month’s MLB draft. And come to think of it, that thirst for the game is a not-incidental reason the Twins chose him.
Lewis has played in 19 games, has 10 extra-base hits in just 72 at-bats, has only one fewer walk than strikeout, remarkable discipline for such a young hitter. The very first baseball he ever hit as a professional disappeared over the left-field fence and was never seen again. (Seriously. The Twins sent someone to retrieve it, but it had apparently splashed into a lake.)
But ask a talent evaluator about the overall No. 1, and it’s not Lewis’ hitting skill that he mentions first.
“What makes him stand out is his charisma. He’s a very charismatic guy, and that comes through in how he plays,” said Derrick Dunbar, the Twins’ scout assigned to compile reports on other teams’ GCL prospects. “I’ve seen him dancing on the field a couple of times. He’s always smiling, always talking, very engaged with his teammates and coaches. This is the first time I’ve seen him, but it’s been fun to watch him.”
Imagine how much fun it must be to manage him. The first time Ramon Borrego met his new shortstop, “He was saying, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s get it. I’m ready.’ His mentality for his age, that was one thing that put me in shock. He was so positive,” the Twins’ manager said. “Playing shortstop, he’s solid right now. Hitting-wise, he’s solid. He’s got really good instinct to steal. Really good instinct for baserunning. He’s the whole package.”
Borrego was struck by Lewis’ maturity right away. After Twins’ pitchers accidentally plunked Orioles cleanup hitter J.C. Escarra three times in the season’s second game, then once more the next day, the manager suspected payback might be coming. Sure enough, in the bottom of the inning, Lewis came to bat with two outs and was hit with a fastball in the back.
“Royce was a very mature guy. He knows it was on purpose. He went over to first base, he took it very well,” said Borrego, who exchanged some unpleasant words with Orioles manager Carlos Tosca over the incident. “When he sees me [yell at] the manager, he said, ‘Hey, thank you.’ Thank you for what? You’re my player, I’m going to be there for you.”
The only thing Lewis doesn’t seem completely comfortable with, oddly, is being a typical teenager. Get this: A California kid who doesn’t Facebook, has never tweeted, only joined Instagram when his agent’s marketing department recommended it. “I’m not that person that likes to put myself out there for anyone or any reason,” Lewis said. “I feel like every time you post a picture, you’re kind of saying, ‘Look at me, look at this, look at what I’m doing.’ And I’m not really about that.”
He’s also never owned a car, thanks partly to a couple of failed driver’s license attempts — “I’m really bad at taking tests,” he shrugs — and his far-more-important time commitment to baseball.
And how did Lewis splurge when the Twins deposited $6.725 million in his back account, the largest bonus ever paid to a high school player? “I might have bought a shin guard,” he said. “No, I think my parents bought that for me.”
That cash is in a trust fund, and Lewis, rather than buy a place of his own near the Twins’ Florida base, chose to live in the Twins’ academy with the other teenage rookies — he rooms with Ricky De La Torre, a 17-year-old Puerto Rican shortstop — and subsist on the standard GCL stipend of less than $1,000 a month. (He might go apartment-hunting this winter, though, to establish Florida residency for tax purposes. Again, not a typical teen.)
His teammates tease him about his big-money bonus, joke about him picking up checks. But Lewis is careful not to be Johnny Bigtime, Borrego said.
“Good thing about Royce — he’s very humble. ‘I signed for 7 million?’ — no, he doesn’t show it,” said Borrego, in his seventh season as the Twins’ GCL manager. “He hangs with everyone. He loves the Latin guys. He’s trying to learn Spanish. He doesn’t want to be different.”
That means living a life that, for now, is about nothing but baseball. He rises at 6:15 six days a week (there are no games on Sunday), and immediately downs his daily bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. After a shower, he’ll head to the academy dining room for a more complete breakfast, usually omelets, then head to the training room.
“I’ve got to get stretched out. Keep my body healthy,” Lewis said. Then comes weightlifting from 8 to 8:40 a.m., a regimen that has had a noticeable effect just in the three weeks he’s been here. After that comes a team meeting, where coaches use video clips to correct mistakes, offer instruction, and hand out praise, too.
“They call it a ‘good-vibe video.’ They usually show home runs,” Lewis said. “They showed my home run, which was embarrassing.”
After that comes at least 90 minutes in the hot sun, at least half of it spent on infield drills. Ground ball after ground ball, Borrego and his coaches pose game situations and challenge the infielders to make the correct play. It’s a daily lesson that addresses Lewis’ biggest shortcoming.
“We need to keep him working defensively. His footwork is too fast,” Borrego said. But the Twins aren’t particularly aggressive about instruction this early in camp, because they want players to be comfortable with the sudden change in lifestyle first. “We don’t want to touch this guy, especially since he’s being so successful. Play your game.” Borrego says he’s convinced Lewis can remain a shortstop, though some scouts insist his future is in the outfield.
After the extensive fielding work, the Twins take batting practice, and that’s where Lewis shines. “He’s got bat speed and a good feel for the strike zone,” said Dunbar, the scout. “He’s got some ability to recognize the spin and adjust at the plate. What stands out is his extreme athleticism. He attacks the game, doesn’t let it overwhelm him.”
His hitting has been so good, in fact, that Borrego said Lewis is “dominating” GCL pitching. He even suggested to the Twins’ front office after only three weeks that Lewis could handle a promotion — all the way to Class A Cedar Rapids, skipping the next level at Ellizabethton. That’s not the Twins’ plan, according to chief baseball officer Derek Falvey. “For a high school player, the GCL is reasonable. You typically don’t want to rush a guy that young,” Falvey said. “Let him get accustomed to pro ball.”
Batting practice finished, the Twins break for lunch at 11, change into their full uniforms, and return to the field for their daily noon game. Afterward, the players are encouraged to rest up, to relax in the dorms. Most are in bed before 10.
It’s a lifestyle designed to melt away, almost literally, everything but being a ballplayer, to teach the most important talent in pro baseball: Dealing with the grind. Hitting and pitching are hard enough, but doing it day after day, virtually without letup, is what separates the true stars.
At that, Lewis believes he is thriving.
“I thought it would be a little harder, to be honest. Not necessarily the level of play, but the grind,” Lewis said. “I didn’t think I’d get used to the weather this quick. The sweat, that’s the only thing that bothers me, sweat going in my eyes. My dad said I should wear a bandanna, but I said no, I’ve got to show off the hair,” he joked.
He was going to get noticed anyway, with or without those curls on top, just because of where he was drafted. “To be the No. 1 guy, you’ve got to have ‘it,’ however you define that,” said Mike Radcliff, the Twins’ vice president for player personnel. “It’s going to be next to your name forever.”
As long as it’s baseball, that’s fine with Lewis.
“The love for this game that I have is truly amazing. If I were to marry anyone other than a woman, it would be baseball. l love baseball,” he said, his enthusiasm gathering momentum as he describes his new life. “I was almost thinking about getting a ring with baseball around it, but that’s just crazy. [I have] the passion for the game, wanting to get to the very best level.”
Even from the bottom, even from six rungs below and 1,700 miles away, Lewis has Target Field in his sights.