An M.L.B. Rookie Works on His Timing

An M.L.B. Rookie Works on His Timing

Along with the rest of the world, athletes have had their careers upended by the coronavirus pandemic. They are giving The New York Times an intimate look at their journeys in periodic installments through the rest of the year.

Kyle Lewis’s major league debut was the stuff of dreams.

In the fifth inning of a home game against the Cincinnati Reds in September, Lewis, a Seattle Mariners rookie, stood firmly in the batter’s box and pulverized an offering from Trevor Bauer, one of baseball’s best pitchers, for a home run.

Lewis, 24, went on to become the second player in Major League Baseball history to hit a home run in each of his first three games. Then he became the only player to homer in six of his initial 10.

This season, the rebuilding Mariners expected much from their 6-foot-4 outfielder, a first-round pick in 2016 and a promising African-American talent in a game that struggles to attract homegrown black players. Though he played in only 18 games for the team late last season, he was on track to be a full-time starter in 2020 and provide a powerful spark for one of M.L.B.’s youngest teams.

The pandemic put the start of Lewis’s first full major league campaign in limbo. Now, with baseball’s owners and its players’ union at loggerheads over returning to the field, it is unclear when Lewis will be able to resume a budding career believed to have All-Star potential.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Instead of playing for the Mariners, I’m in a suburb outside Atlanta, living alone in a townhouse about 15 minutes from my parents. Sometimes I’m even training at my high school, which is across the street from their home. When spring training ended, I stayed in Arizona at first, in a house with a few teammates. Like everyone else, nobody was sure what was next, but then it became obvious things weren’t changing any time soon. So, here I am.

The mental side of baseball, and life, has been a priority for me for a while, and it’s really helping me now. I meditate and visualize. I read a lot about how the brain works, about focus and quieting things down internally. My thing right now is to be present, stay on point physically and mentally, enjoy my house and this period while it lasts and then, if they call us back to play, enjoy that for as long as that lasts.

I pay close attention to what’s going on with the negotiations over us returning. But me, being the status in the league that I am at, a rookie, the decision is out of my control. I’m resigned to that.

My main concern if we come back would be for the health of my family, being able to interact with them in a way that I feel doesn’t expose them to anything. Then there’s the coaching staff, which comprises a lot of people who are older. What about our interactions with them? Those are things I would be concerned about. I think the personal concern about me getting sick is a risk that would have been accepted if we accept coming back to play. I would try to sanitize a lot, for sure.

Things opened up here in Georgia. I’m able to do one-on-one things, get all the baseball-related physical work in. I do a private lift three times a week at a facility nearby. Then there’s running, sprint work. Me and my trainer started doing long toss to get my arm back. I work on my hitting a lot. Batting practice and soft toss. Right now we are just trying to make sure I get my timing down. When I’m hitting, I’m good. I love hitting. Hitting, that’s home for me.

We’re just like everybody else. Nobody has been through this before so everyone is trying to figure it out from scratch. The teammates I’m in touch with the most are Evan White and Justin Dunn, my two best friends on our team. We were in the minors together. We talk all the time, just to check in and make predictions about when we’ll be coming back. They’re in different cities, but we play a lot of video games, connected over the internet.

I’m actually learning some things by playing MLB the Show against Justin, because he’s a pitcher. We’ll play, and he’ll show me the way a pitcher thinks. Like, the nuances of how a curveball comes off the hand versus the way a changeup comes off the hand, how that makes the hitter’s eye perceive it a certain way. I’m not with my team, but I’m still learning. I’m always learning.

How would I have handled this three years ago? Mentally, yeah, it would have been a tough time. Just because I would have been so anxious to get back and play, anxious to prove myself and show off what I can do, prove my worth and things like that.

The expectation was that the Mariners would have 10 African-Americans on the 40-man team for opening day. One-fourth of the whole roster. That is such a unique thing. You don’t see that in baseball these days, and it’s something we think about quite often as a group. It’s something we don’t take for granted at all. We want to really carry that torch, or at least represent it well, represent the community well and be a pillar moving forward so hopefully we get more, get the numbers of African-Americans up in baseball.

From time to time I watch a highlight video of my start last year, just to kind of stay motivated in the right way. Hits, home runs, doubles, singles, a couple of nice catches. But for me now it’s extra motivation to create more of those moments. Those are things that are beautiful, and me being able to look back now, being home and being away from that environment and being able to look back at it on TV, it’s just, wow. It creates the desire to do more.

Having to sit down for a period of time and wait for your moment is something I learned when I was injured in the minors. Now I think the greatest things happen after periods of waiting, when things have a chance to brew.

Upstairs in my house, I have a meditation room. By the window I have three candles, and then I have Himalayan pink salt and a lamp that heats up the salt and kind of evaporates it into the air. I try to let the natural light come through and I light the candles. The candles are a fresh cotton scent, so it’s a very neutral smell. It doesn’t influence my thought process.

I’m a big guy, but I’ll sit on the floor in the lotus position. I’ll reflect, do some reading and just breathe. Just stay in the quiet; the quiet is ultimately the goal. Be in the quiet so my mind can take me where it wants to go.

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