The Minnesota Twins’ Royce Lewis in center field experiment famously lasted only three innings. Kansas City Royals third baseman Emmanuel Rivera put a charge into a Sonny Gray curveball. Lewis tracked it down as it hurdled toward the warning track in right-center and snagged it with a leaping grab.
It was ultimately a Pyrrhic victory. Lewis crashed into the center field wall and tore his ACL again. The relentlessly positive Lewis, who Derek Falvey and Thad Levine projected to be a clubhouse leader when they drafted him No. 1 overall in 2017, tried to find the silver lining.
“It was worth it, right?” he asked Gray, 32.
“No,” Gray responded, “not for you to be hurt.”
“Hearing him say that made it feel bad,” Lewis admitted last week. “Maybe I should have just dropped that one.”
Lewis may have torn his ACL again, but he hasn’t lost his sunny disposition. In 2019, Lewis raked in the Arizona Fall League (.353/.411/.565) after scuffling in High-A and Double-A (.236/.290/.371). But Major League Baseball canceled the minor leagues during the 2020 pandemic, and he slipped on ice outside his home and tore his ACL during a rare winter storm in Texas. He missed the entire 2021 season, meaning he didn’t play professional baseball for two years.
Still, Lewis debuted this year in place of Carlos Correa and looked like a player who went 1-1. Lewis handled shortstop with aplomb and hit .300/.317/.550 (12 games). But the Twins controversially sent him down when Correa returned and asked him to move around the diamond in Triple-A St. Paul. Lewis played center field in the Arizona Fall League, and he took to third base and left field.
Lewis put in extra hours to learn his new positions and insisted that he was happy to play big-league baseball – no matter where he was playing. He lacks the entitlement of other first-overall picks, or millennials in general, which makes his injury in center field that much more unfortunate.
Rocco Baldelli said he’s been happy to have Lewis back in the clubhouse, if only for how his attitude affects the other players.
“It’s good to have him back, for all of us,” said Baldelli, “and I bet it’s really good for him, too, to get around his teammates and be moving around and be out there. Be out there for meetings, be out there for the games. He’s gone through a lot over the last year-plus, but especially since he hurt himself. [Lewis] always got a good way about him. He’s always got a good smile on his face. He’s a very positive young man.”
Lewis echoed those sentiments, saying that his teammates keep him in the right frame of mind.
“I’m able to be around some of my favorite teammates and players growing up, watching these guys and learning from these guys,” Lewis says, explaining his positive outlook.
“Just being around the game of baseball, which is what I dream of and love about the game. Learning, it’s hard to be not happy, right? Beats being at the office or working at a McDonald’s or something, or I hate to say it, but working for my dad, even. I love my dad and the restaurant that he owns and stuff, but I’d hate to be working there when this is my dream.”
There are days when he’s not feeling as positive, of course.
“I would say this, he does a good job of staying in a good frame of mind,” says Baldelli. “It also doesn’t mean just because that’s what we see, that there’s no ups and downs. I think there’s certainly a lot of challenging days for him. It’s okay to show those at times because it’s not easy. It’s a battle to get through what he’s going through right now.”
Lewis admits that there are tough days and that he can’t always be positive.
“When it happened, it felt very similar, kind of. I didn’t know the extent,” Lewis says. “Then obviously, once we found out it was an ACL, it does suck, knowing that the odds of that happening my first game in the outfield, right? It’s so rare, happening twice within two years.
“All those things, right, those things come to your mind. It sucks. It does. I’m not going to lie to you about it.”
Lewis’ day-to-day is monotonous for a 23-year-old who lives to play baseball. Instead of chasing down fly balls al fresco, he’s doing hours of physical therapy, trying to return to the player he was before his second ACL tear.
“Coming in here, doing a couple of hours of rehab, working out the upper body,” Lewis said, describing his daily routine. “It’s kind of fun. I get to just get jacked now and not have to worry about being too tight. Or try to be jacked. I’m pretty skinny, so I can take advantage.”
It’s fun getting jacked? Seriously? But that’s Lewis.
He’s not just working out, though. He has to tend to the knee itself.
“So just flush out the swelling as much as we can, get the quad feeling good and stronger and a lot of stem, stuff like that,” he said.
“Pretty basic, but at the same time, it’s pretty extensive. Three hours and then repetitive. It’s more repetitive to do and monotonous to do those kinds of exercises every day. It’s the same, same, same. So usually, when it gets too repetitive, and you start getting over it, you need to start making changes. This time, knowing it’s going to be a long recovery and what I did last year, what worked and what did not work, what I said before, it’s going to help.”
Lewis has taken a more active role in the rehab and is on a more aggressive path because he knows what worked last time. It’s one positive, perhaps the only positive, of re-injuring his ACL rather than suffering from a separate injury. The procedure is different this time. The doctors have taken the IT band, cut it, and wrapped it around like a woman’s braid to stabilize his knee. It’s been painful at times, but it should better support it once he returns to the field.
“I’d say this rehab has been a little bit more painful to start,” Lewis admits. “But I think that more pain, more gain is what I’m kind of, my mentality is on it right now. Just because I feel like everything’s going faster, it’s a more aggressive approach this time around.”
Fortunately, Lewis did the early part of his rehab at home in Dallas. It allowed his mother to care for him early in the process. The Twins brought him back to Target Field once he could walk, and then he’ll go to Fort Myers once he can play baseball again. It’s a streamlined process that keeps him from having to travel frequently, and he’ll spend most of his time at their two biggest facilities.
“I just wanted to enjoy being home with my mom,” Lewis says, talking about the early part of his rehab. “So she took care of me. She was like the best stay-at-home nurse you could ever have. I was super needy. I couldn’t really get up; I was achy, in pain and stuff.”
My guess is that his mother didn’t mind.
Baldelli says he’d like to have Lewis around indefinitely. Lewis returned to the Twins clubhouse around the same time that Kenta Maeda was there, another critical player who is injured. Maeda, 34, was Minnesota’s ace in 2020 but underwent Tommy John surgery in September 2021. He may join the bullpen later in the season.
For a brief moment, things felt normal. Maeda standing in one corner; Lewis in the other. But Baldelli knows that it was fleeting. Both players will eventually continue their rehab elsewhere.
“I love having them here. I also know they have things to do,” says Baldelli. “They know that as well, and there’s gonna be times where, we’ve already seen it, where they’re gonna not here. They’re gone, and they’re taking care of what they need to take care of. [But] we feel better when our entire group is together.”
Lewis would like to be in the Twins clubhouse indefinitely, too.
“It’s not fun, sitting on the sidelines,” he admits. “I’m excited about wanting to play each and every day. That was my goal. Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to happen early in my career. But hopefully, later on in my career, it will, and for the rest of my career, it will.
“But [I’m] staying positive because knowing how close I was and that I had a chance to be a big leaguer. And this time, knowing it’s possible to be a big leaguer and the ways to go about that and how to be a better big leaguer is what’s keeping me kind of positive and excited.”
For some players, being that close and getting injured would be devastating. For Lewis, it’s an incentive to come back stronger. Motivation to push through the monotony. Reason to believe that after he steps into the clubhouse next year, he won’t leave for a long time.