Royce rolls into Cedar Rapids

Photo: Andrew Dodson/Cedar Rapids Kernels

Jeff Dahn
Published: Wednesday, August 30, 2017

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – On Aug. 14, 2016, So Cal favorite son Royce Lewis put on a show in front of the several thousands of fans assembled for the 14th annual Perfect Game All-American Classic at Petco Park in downtown San Diego.

All Lewis did on that picture-perfect evening was stroke a triple, a single, drive in two runs and score another one on his way to earning the event’s Most Valuable Player Award.

Almost one year to the day later, on Aug. 12, 2017, Lewis sprinted out onto Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium to make his Class A Midwest League debut wearing the uniform of the Cedar Rapids Kernels, and showed the more than 4,000 fans in attendance that his game was transitioning seamlessly from the amateur version  into pro ball.

A 6-foot-2, 188-pound shortstop from Aliso Viejo, Calif., who the Minnesota Twins selected with the No. 1 overall pick of the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft, Lewis went 4-for-5 with an RBI, two runs scored and a stolen base in the MWL playoff-bound Kernels’ 9-1 win over Quad Cities that night.

It was an impressive Class A debut for a top 18-year-old prospect who played in only 49 games for the Rookie-Level Gulf Coast League Twins in Fort Myers, Fla., before his promotion to Cedar Rapids, the Eastern Iowa city where Perfect Game is headquartered.

Lewis’ track has certainly been a fast one over the last 12 months, a year filled with life-changing moments and events for the young Californian. Since that PGAAC MVP performance in San Diego last August through his brief MWL career this August, he has kept his foot on the gas and a wide smile on his face every step of the way.

On Monday, the personable Lewis took time out of his busy schedule to visit PG Headquarters. While PG president Jerry Ford showed him around the facility and introduced him to a couple of dozen admiring employees, Lewis smiled non-stop, shook more hands than a politician and talked about life being the first No. 1 overall draft pick to ever be included on a Cedar Rapids Baseball Club roster.

“Being an 18-year-old, there are a lot of emotions running through your head; missing your family back home and your dogs and your friends,” he said Monday when asked about adjusting to the world of professional baseball. “But this has just been a lot of fun for me, playing the game that I love each-and-every day. I’ve been given this opportunity and I’m trying to take advantage of and have a lot of fun while I’m doing it.”

Lewis went 18-for-58 (.310) with a home run, a pair of doubles, 10 RBI and 12 runs scored in his first 14 games with the Kernels. He was hitting .271 with 11 extra-base hits (3 HR’s), 17 RBI, 38 runs and 15 stolen bases for the GCL Twins at the time of his promotion; he hit a home run in his first professional at-bat.

“I think I’ve landed in the perfect spot,” he said of being a part of the Twins’ organization. “It fits me and I feel like I fit into the organization perfectly, as well. It’s been a lot of fun meeting all the new guys – my teammates and coaches – and the whole organization and staff is amazing.”

There aren’t many aspects of Lewis’ personality that could be called “typical” and his actions since signing with the Twins and accepting a $6.7 million bonus have been roundly atypical. He stashed the bonus money into a trust fund and lives off his minor league salary, which is less than $1,000 a month.

He didn’t buy a new car – Lewis doesn’t even have a driver’s license – or a condominium or any other form of extravagance, like many young instant millionaires are apt to do. He lived in a dormitory setting with his Gulf Coast League Twins’ teammates at the Twins’ CenturyLink Sports Complex in Fort Myers; he lives with a host family in Cedar Rapids.

Lewis also stayed away from the wacked-out world of social media until just recently, when he joined Instagram. And he only did that because his agent, Scott Boras, and the Twins organization thought it would be a good idea for him to begin interacting with not only Twins’ fans but baseball fans in general.

“I want to be the face of baseball one day; that’s obviously the goal,” the humble Lewis said without the slightest hint of bravado. “I feel like to do that you have to reach out to your fans … and hopefully Boras and I can figure out how to do it the right way and lead it in the right direction.”

Every decision Lewis has made to this point in his burgeoning career has seemed to be a positive one, an indication that he has so far figured out the right way to do things at every turn. He can count PG’s Ford among his biggest fans.

No. 1 pick Royce Lewis visited the Perfect Game headquarters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Monday.
“Royce is going to be really good for the game of the baseball,” Ford said. “He is one of the nicest young men that we’ve run across in the 22 years PG has been doing this and his talent speaks for itself. The young major league all-stars of today are great for the game of baseball and Royce is another example of that type of young player.”

Royce Lewis is the son of William and Cindy Lewis, and they instilled in their son a strong work ethic that rides comfortably side-by-side with an equally strong competitive nature. William Lewis, who co-owns two high-end restaurants in Orange County, Calif. (he is also the sommelier at the two establishments) played football at Cal State Fullerton; Cindy Lewis played softball at San Jose State.

Cindy Lewis was with Royce at the 2016 PG National Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla., and told PG at that time what she hoped her son got out of the experience.

“The number-one thing is to just always work hard and do your best, and be a good teammate,” she said. “You need to work hard, have respect for the game, have respect for everyone involved and just always do your best.”

That’s sound advice, and Lewis can’t thank his parents enough for the impact they’ve had on his life.

“They have literally done every single thing for me leading up to this point. Pretty much everything except for my homework, and even with that they’d help tutor me with the things I didn’t understand,” he said. “… There were just so many little things that I appreciated while I was growing up and now I’m actually starting to see the rewards that have come from listening to them and doing what they say.

“It’s hard to listen sometimes – I’ve been there – but when you listen to your parents, at the end of the day they know what’s best for you and it’s worked out well for me.”

Through his extensive experiences as a top national prospect at JSerra Catholic High School, at two PG showcases – the 2015 Underclass All-American Games and 2016 National – the PGAAC and USA Baseball, Lewis began his professional career with the confidence that he was well prepared for what might lay ahead.

He had already faced pitchers who threw in the mid- to upper-90s (mph), after all, but he admits this is a whole different kettle of fish. The pitchers are much more consistent and much wilier at the professional level, and game is moving at a much faster speed than he had been used to. But there is at least one aspect of the professional game that mirrors the amateur version and offers some familiarity: the players.

“It’s been cool and a great experience and just kind of heart-warming seeing the faces of people that you’ve met before,” Lewis said. “I feel like that in this game of baseball, that happens all the time. There are a lot of people that you’re going to get to know and meet in this world, and it will be that way even after the game of baseball is over for me.”

The talented Lewis was a three-time Trinity League Player of the Year playing for head coach Brett Kay at JSerra Catholic HS, but didn’t get to slide into the shortstop position until his senior season; he played third base his first three years while Kay played Chase Stumpf (now at UCLA) at short. Lewis is still learning the position, but he’s making progress.

Ramon Borrego has been the manager of the GCL Twins for the past seven seasons: “I think he’s going to be a great shortstop, just from the way he’s moving out there,” Borrego told the Fort Myers News-Press in late July. “He just charges to the ball.”

The first day of the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft on June 13 – 10 months after his MVP performance at the PGAAC – was an emotional one for Lewis and his family, mostly because they had no idea as to what was about to transpire. They didn’t know Royce was going to be the No. 1 overall pick until Commissioner Rob Manfred stepped to the podium and called his name.

“Just to realize that all the hard work has paid off at the end of the day,” he said. “To hear my name being called first was absolutely ridiculous and unbelievable and amazing and very special for me.”

There was a lot of familiarity among this year’s top-three picks. After the Twins took Lewis No. 1 overall, the Reds snagged fellow Californian Hunter Greene with the No. 2 pick and the Padres grabbed North Carolina’s MacKenzie Gore at No. 3. Greene and Gore had joined Lewis at the 2016 PGAAC.

Now a professional ballplayer, Lewis really hasn’t had to make many adjustments to the way he goes about his business on the field, but he has had to change the way he does things off the field. He is living away from all the creature comforts of home for the first time and trying to find his way as an adult. It’s the little things like making sure he eats right and develops sound sleeping habits so he can always feel at his physical and mental best.

“It’s a matter of maturing as a person and a player,” he said. “When you’re playing with people that are four or five years older than you sometimes, you kind of have to get up their level maturity wise and making sure you’re all on the same page and getting it going as a team; I feel like I’ve done that so far.”

It didn’t take long for Lewis to become a favorite among Cedar Rapids Kernels’ fans – going 4-for-5 in your debut can leave a lasting impression. But there’s more to it that, of course. His personality borders on radiant, and he takes the time to interact with his new-found fans one-on-one and even personalizes each one of his autographs.

Some young ballplayers would consider that a distraction, and while there certainly are plenty of distractions out there, Lewis is able to take it all in stride.

“You have to stay with your faith, and when you’re always playing the game that you love each-and-every day, I feel like it’s easier to stay focused,” he said. “I love this game and I’m just trying to put forth my best effort and help the team win; I have a lot of fun doing it. I’m always learning and I still have a lot more to learn. This is the fun point of my career, getting to learn as much as I can.”

Lewis has never really tried to his pattern his game after current or former big-leaguers but does have a lot of favorite players with Derek Jeter, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and Mike Trout among them. He especially like the nickname the Indians’ Lindor wore on his jersey during Players’ Weekend: “Mr. Smile.”

“Those are just a couple of the players that I love watching every day,” he said. “I kind of just try to play my own game but I do like how they play the game, with a smile on their face and when they’re out there playing.”

As Lewis’ first season as a professional ballplayer winds down, he can first look forward to helping the Kernels in the Midwest League playoffs before heading back to Fort Myers to take part in MLB’s Fall Instructional League. From there he is hoping he might be able to return home to Aliso Viejo to see family and friends before taking part in offseason workouts while preparing for his first spring training camp back in Fort Myers.

“I’m looking forward to ‘instructs’ for sure,” Lewis said. “That’s where I’ll really start my learning curve as a baseball player, fine-turning the little things that I might have already figured out and then working on progressing them even further and progressing the things that I don’t know yet at all. That’s the best part of this game is that you can always learn each-and-every day.”

Playing in the PGAAC a little over a year ago a “really fun experience” but as someone who is always looking ahead with anticipation of each new day, he never felt for one moment like he had “arrived.” He left the Classic feeling like had just gotten his feet wet before diving head first into an ocean of opportunity.

“I have a long-term goal of making the major leagues but before I can accomplish that I understand that the short-term goals have to be (achieved), as well,” Lewis said. “Taking care of those short-term goals, I feel like that’s gotten me to where I am today … and I still have those goals in mind. Hopefully, I can keep moving up through every level (of the minor leagues).

“There’s a long, long way to go but every day I’m having a lot more fun,” he concluded. “It just gets more exciting every day and I’m really happy to be here in Cedar Rapids."

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