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. Read Lewis’s first installment here.
Kyle Lewis never thought about sitting out baseball’s return.
Major League Baseball is set to open its truncated season on July 23, and 58 players are known to have tested positive for the coronavirus. San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher David Price and Washington Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman are among the game’s stars who have opted out of playing this summer and several others, including the reigning American League most valuable player Mike Trout, are considering it.
Lewis, a powerful and promising 24-year-old outfielder for the Seattle Mariners, knows he has an unusual vantage point amid the uncertainty.
He had a stellar 18-game major league debut late last season and is slated to become a starter for his rebuilding team. Lewis is also one of 10 African-American players expected to be on Seattle’s 40-man roster on opening day — an eye-popping number in an era when American-born Black players in the big leagues are rare.
With his Mariners convening in Seattle for workouts at T-Mobile Park, Lewis said he has never wavered on his commitment to play, even as he’s watched colleagues contract the coronavirus and helped protest racial injustice.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
I’m definitely tuned-in and paying attention to the guys who are deciding not to play. I want to know about the decisions that guys are making and understand their reasoning. Me as a ballplayer going back to the game, Covid-19 is something I think about every day. And the fact that there are players that are getting sick is something I think about seriously.
I’ve never thought about sitting out. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to confuse that with me not thinking about the risks of it. I’m fully aware of the risk and I am definitely not comfortable with everything, but at the same time baseball has laid out a health and safety protocol and they are trying to do their best to keep us safe. I’m going to trust in that.
The plane situation, flying from my home in Atlanta to Seattle, was interesting, for sure. I just put the mask on and the hoodie on and tried to stay out of the way. When I got to the concourse, I tried to sit where I could have distance from people and I tried to get to the airport as close to departure time as possible, so I didn’t have to hang around. My boarding pass was on my phone, so I didn’t touch anything. I was trying to stay aware and not put myself in a compromising position. That’s sort of like how I’m approaching this whole thing. It helped to know that when I got here I was going to get tested immediately by the team. Having that test information was going to be helpful, just so I wasn’t going to be in the dark or unsure about anything.
That first day back was sort of bizarre. It had been over 100 days that we’d been apart, so to see what everybody had been doing and reconnect after that break, it was just really something. The reunions with teammates were kind of tough, though. You want to give a big hug, but you stay away.
The masks? After a while out there on the field, wearing them kind of starts to blend in with the regular routine. It doesn’t even feel like you have a mask on anymore. It’s a learning process. I’ve been toying around with wearing them more and more throughout the stretching and all of the activities.
In the clubhouse you have to have the mask. In our lunchroom you’ve got to wear it until you get to your table and every table is spread out. All of the players are at their own individual tables.
There are some interesting rules that ban things baseball players normally would do, like licking your fingers and spitting, high-fives and what not. We’re all trying to get a feel for that, because once the game starts our competitive nature is going to kick in, and we’re going to have to really stay mindful of some of those rules.
The high-five thing is weird, but we actually have a handshake that doesn’t really require a handshake. It was kind of convenient that we’re able to still keep that.
At 24, I’m now in the position to play the game at the highest level, and that is something I can’t ever take for granted. When I have an opportunity to play, I want to be a part of it. That’s why I’m here. My love for the game.
I think there are a lot of variables to consider when deciding whether to play. Everybody has their own life to live, their own situation. Age is a variable, financial status is a variable, family situation — they all play into it. So, everybody’s situation is different, and players are ultimately going to do what is in their own best interest.
We talk about these situations. A lot of guys, when you go to the ballpark, we’re trying to get our work in, we are trying to enjoy playing the game, but we definitely communicate about the climate of the sport, the way certain players are opting out, certain players are opting in, and certain players are kind of on the fence. That is definitely part of the discussion, because that’s the nature of the world right now, we are just an extension of that world and everything that’s happening in it.
So much has changed in the world in these last few months. The George Floyd video, that was so hard to watch, man. Frustrating and painful, because you know we’ve been speaking on these things for a long while now, so for this kind of injustice to keep happening comes off as a lack of care.
That video. You knew that was going to be what we considered the last straw before it really got serious.
Atlanta got really passionate about protesting for justice. I wasn’t able to make it out to the protests, but we were able to do some things. Me and a few of my friends made posters and tried to put them up around the city. They said ‘LOVE ALL,’ in gold lettering. We put the posters up around the city, trying to spread the message.
In the minor leagues, my Double-A team was in the playoffs, and we were in Tulsa, Okla. From the stands, the fans on the other team were kind of getting after me a little bit but it seemed like it was just normal, in good fun, because I had been doing well. Then I came back to the locker room and there was a ball in my locker and when I looked at it I saw someone had written something. It said, “Learn to swim” [a reference to a racist trope that Black people have difficulty swimming because of their physiology].
That stung. I asked an African-American teammate if he knew where the ball came from, and he had no idea. I asked some of my white teammates, and they said they had no idea. I threw that ball in the trash and never brought it up again.
Naturally it made me suspicious. Not many people had access to that locker room. Was it a teammate? Was it a clubhouse worker? I think it just puts you on guard socially to where you can’t just open up to everybody the way you would think. You realize that everybody is not just going to look out for you the way you might think they would.
Since the protests began, the Mariners have been great. A lot of teammates, coaches and staff have checked in with me, people from all backgrounds. It’s been encouraging to be able to feel a sense of community, to get support to speak out on situations that, to be honest, we African-American baseball players would probably not have spoken on before.
You don’t have to necessarily like everybody, but you have to give them respect. Growing up, this is what my parents preached. I have always tried to live by that.
I try to keep on not looking at race and just see if I can make a good connection with somebody. If I can make a good connection with somebody, then we can be homies. Unless you give me a reason to think that my race is doing something negative to you or your perception of me, I am not going to just assume that it is. I am just always going to try to make good connections with people from every background and try to give everybody the benefit of the doubt.