Together with the rest of the world, athletes have had their careers reversed by the coronavirus pandemic. They are giving the New York Times an intimate look at their travels in periodic installments for the rest of the year. To read Lewis’ first episode here.
Kyle Lewis never thought of letting baseball return.
Major League Baseball will open its truncated season on July 23rd and 58 players are known to have tested positive for coronavirus. Buster Posey of San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher David Price and Washington Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman are among the stars of the game who gave up playing this summer and many others, including Mike Trout, the most valuable player in the American League, are considering him.
At the end of last season he had a stellar debut in the 18-game Major League and is in the process of becoming a starter for his reconstruction team. Lewis is also one of 10 African-American players who are expected to participate in the Seattle 40-man roster on inauguration day – a mind-boggling number at a time when black American-born players in the big leagues are rare.
With his Mariners summoned to Seattle for training at T-Mobile Park, Lewis said he never wavered over his commitment to play, even as he saw colleagues contract the coronavirus and helped protest racial injustice.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
I am definitely tuned in and paying attention to the guys who are deciding not to play. I want to know the decisions the kids make and understand their reasoning. I as a baseball player returning to the game, Covid-19 is something I think about every day. And the fact that there are players who get sick is something I seriously think about.
I never thought of sitting outside. Do not misunderstand me. I don’t want to confuse him with me by not thinking about his risks. I am fully aware of the risk and I certainly am not comfortable with everything, but at the same time baseball has established a health and safety protocol and they are trying to do their best to keep us safe. I will trust that.
The plane situation, flying from my home in Atlanta to Seattle, was certainly interesting. I just put on the mask and the hoodie and tried to stay away. When I got to the lobby, I tried to sit where I could get the distance from people and tried to get to the airport as close as possible to the departure time, 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. It’s kind of like I’m getting closer to all of this. It helped me to know that once I got here I would be immediately tested by the team. Having the test information would have been helpful, just to not be in the dark or uncertain about anything.
That first day was a little bizarre. It had been over 100 days since we had been separated, so to see what everyone had done and reconnect after that break, it was really something. However, meetings with teammates have been quite difficult. You want to give a big hug, but stay away.
The masks? After some time on the field, wearing them begins to blend in with the normal routine. It doesn’t even seem like you have a mask anymore. It is a learning process. I played around wearing them more and more during stretching and all activities.
In the club house you must have a mask. In our dining room you have to wear it until you get to your table and every table is scattered. All players are at their individual tables.
There are some interesting rules that forbid things that baseball players would normally do, how to lick your fingers and spit, the five and what not. We are all trying to get an idea, because once the game starts our competitive nature will kick off, and we will really have to be careful with some of those rules.
The thing about the five is strange, but actually we have a handshake that doesn’t really require a handshake. It was convenient enough that we are still able to maintain it.
At 24, I am now able to play at the highest level, and it is something that I can never take for granted. When I have the opportunity to play, I want to be part of it. This is why I’m here. My love of the game.
I think there are many variables to consider when deciding whether to play. Everyone has their own life to live, their own situation. Age is a variable, financial status is a variable family situation: everyone plays in it. So everyone’s situation is different and in the end players will do what’s in their best interest.
Let’s talk about these situations. Many guys, when you go to the baseball field, we are trying to do our job, we are trying to have fun playing, but we definitely communicate about the sports climate, the way some players give up, some players are joining, and some players are in somehow on the fence. This is definitely part of the discussion, since this is the nature of the world right now, we are just an extension of that world and all that is going on in it.
Many things have changed in the world in recent months. The Video by George Floyd, it was so hard to watch, man. Frustrating and painful, because you know we have been talking about these things for a long time now, so for this type of injustice, continuing to happen comes out as a lack of treatment.
That video. Did you know it would be what we considered the last straw before it got really serious.
Atlanta is really passionate about protesting justice. I was unable to cope with the protests, but we did some things. Some of my friends and I made posters and tried to put them around the city. They said “I LOVE EVERYTHING”, with golden letters. We put posters 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 of the other team teased me a little but it seemed normal, fun, because I was doing well. Then I went back to the locker room and there was a ball in my locker and when I looked at it I saw that someone had written something. It said: “Learn to swim”[unriferimentoaa[areferencetoa[unriferimentoaa[areferencetoaracist trope that blacks have difficulty swimming because of their physiology].
What a point. I asked an African American teammate if he knew where the ball came from and 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 raised it again.
Of course it made me suspicious. Not many people had access to that locker room. Was he a teammate? Was he a club house worker? I think it simply warns you socially where you cannot simply open up to everyone as you would think. You realize that everyone will not take care of you as you might think.
Since the start of the protests, the Mariners have been fantastic. A lot of teammates, coaches and staff checked in with me, people from all backgrounds. It was encouraging to be able to feel a sense of community, to get support for talking about situations that, to be honest, we African American baseball players would probably never have talked about before.
You don’t necessarily need to please everyone, but you have to give them respect. Growing up, this is what my parents preached. I’ve always tried to live with it.
I try not to watch the race and see if I can establish a good connection with someone. If I can establish a good connection with someone, then we can be friends. Unless you give me a reason to think that my race is doing something negative for you or your perception of me, I will not simply assume that it is. I will always try to establish good connections with people of all backgrounds and try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.