CEDAR RAPIDS — Cellphone cameras were out and filming as he walked into the Veterans Memorial Stadium clubhouse for the first time Saturday. That video was immediately posted online by the Cedar Rapids Kernels.
Minutes after the gates opened, about 20 fans had congregated to the side of the home team’s dugout. Prime autograph territory.
Bids on his “Beach Night” jersey reached $300 before first pitch was even thrown and eventually went for $900. For context, bidding on special jerseys always begins at a mere $75.
Then the game began, and you got a chance to see what all that fuss was about. Royce Lewis singled in his very first Midwest League at-bat, again in his second, third and fourth, ending up 4-for-5 and looking every bit the part of a top draft pick in C.R.’s 9-1 win over Quad Cities.
Make that THE top draft pick, the first ever to play baseball in Cedar Rapids. The 18-year-old shortstop from California, who signed in June for $6.7 million, was promoted to the Kernels from the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Twins.
“A whirlwind of emotions going on in my head right now,” Lewis said pregame. “But at the end of the day, it’s baseball, and I’m going to have a lot of fun playing the game tonight.”
It’s always fun when you do well, right?
Lewis said he found out he was being promoted late Friday afternoon. He woke up at 3:45 Saturday morning, headed to the airport and got into Iowa about 11 a.m.
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Manager Tommy Watkins promptly put him into the lineup at the leadoff spot. Watkins said the plan is to play him a couple of days, then give him a game or two off to catch his breath.
The kid was playing high-school baseball just three months ago, after all.
“Down to earth, easy to talk to. You can definitely tell already the way he has interacted with his teammates that he’s a clubhouse guy,” Watkins said. “David Ross did an interview in the Player’s Tribune (recently) on having glue guys in the clubhouse. This kid is definitely a glue guy.”
Lewis hit .271 in 36 GCL games, scoring 38 runs, stealing 15 bases and walking more times (19) than he struck out (17).
“I felt like it was good, felt like it was my type of baseball,” he said. “I brought speed and my defensive game every single day. The bat, you can’t always get a hit every single day. But I felt like I was consistently hitting the ball hard, and that’s all you can ask for. Was having a lot of fun down there.”
Lewis homered in his very first professional at-bat, so he’s kind of got a flair for the dramatic. He pulled a line-drive single to left field on the second pitch he saw from Quad Cities starting pitcher Patrick Sandoval, went the other for a hard-hit single to right in the third inning, did so again for a RBI hit in the fourth and plopped a poached egg just fair inside the right-field line in the sixth.
Doing most of it with a smile on his face, something that doesn’t seem to leave often. Mature and engaging for such a young kid, he was asked how he is coping with all of the attention a first-overall draft pick always gets.
“There are still little adjustments here and there that you haven’t seen before,” he said. “Fans asking you for certain things that you’ve never heard before. Sign my head or something, things like that. But everyone has been really great about it, and I’ve just appreciated the opportunity to be the number one pick and to be in the situation I’m in today.”
Shane Carrier hit a two-run home run in the second for Cedar Rapids (61-57, 22-26), with Jimmy Kerrigan adding a solo shot in the fifth. Starting pitcher Anthony Marzi allowed just a run in six innings for the victory.
The teams play again Sunday afternoon at 2:05.
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