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Pandemic, unrest, fires? An MLB rookie still smashes home runs

Even as the Major League Baseball season trudged along, two larger social forces were inescapable: the coronavirus pandemic and racial injustice. Outbreaks of the former severely affected the seasons of the Miami Marlins and the St. Louis Cardinals, and had ripple effects on several other teams, from the Philadelphia Phillies to the New York Yankees.

Until this month, the Seattle Mariners and Kyle Lewis, 25, their breakout rookie outfielder, had not been affected by any positive cases of coronavirus on the roster, or that of their opponents, since the regular season began July 23.

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Then came the postponement of a three-game series against Oakland in Seattle from Sept. 1-3 because the Athletics had a positive case. The week before that, the Mariners agreed not to play an Aug. 26 game against the San Diego Padres, joining other MLB teams in following the lead of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, who sat out of their playoff game to protest systemic racism and police brutality after the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by the police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In the span of nine days, Lewis and the Mariners had four games postponed.

That was all before this week added yet another twist: climate disaster. The Mariners' home series against the Giants was relocated to San Francisco, and another against the Padres was moved to San Diego because of poor air quality from wildfires on the West Coast. Lewis, a top contender for the American League Rookie of the Year Award, has tried not to let the season’s starts and stops and changes prevent him from smashing hits or robbing home runs with leaping grabs.

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This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

On Aug. 26, we saw the way the world was going as far as not giving that just level of awareness. We were talking about it when we got to the locker room. There are TVs on. A lot of the guys were kind of uneasy. So it was a small discussion of like, ‘Man, should we show our support, too?’ It would be kind of off base to go out there and turn a blind eye to it. So a lot of the guys just came together and wanted to show unity. Then once that decision was made, the rest of the team showed support, as well, in sticking together.

We ended up having a team meeting to be able to decide what we were going to do. We had a meeting and heard from different players' perspectives and getting people’s opinions so we could come together and decide that we wanted to show our support as well.

I wouldn’t have felt comfortable playing. I’m looking at the way the world is going and I’m trying to show support for our community. It would’ve been hard to go out there and just be laughing and having a good time knowing that there’s a lot of people hurting and there’s a lot of people trying to make a difference and you’re not really trying to help at that point.

Back at the hotel that night, with the coronavirus protocols, you have to stay indoors, so we stayed in the hotel and kind of met up and talked as groups. We tried to use that to help people continue to understand the message we’re trying to get across. It was a good opportunity to connect with teammates — and quite honestly, with teammates that maybe don’t have that level of awareness. But now, they’re able to be around moments like that and have these conversations. It was a cool day.

Two of my better friends, Evan White and Sam Haggerty, on the team are white (Lewis is Black). That was a perfect opportunity to talk with them and they were able to voice their opinions. We were just bouncing ideas off each other and have been. They’re incredibly supportive as well. It’s not like they’re ignorant and I’m trying to school them on things. It was just ideas like, ‘How can we really make these things have some sort of real lasting effect?’ We were able to build the awareness by sitting out the game, but we were thinking about how we can parlay that into real effect.

We didn’t have formal meetings. It was very much, ‘Hey man, let’s get together somewhere, like the lobby, and talk about this.’ I did notice that most of the team made a pretty good effort to try to really have that conversation and not sweep it under the rug and be like, ‘Oh well, we sat out today and we’ll be back tomorrow.’ I give a lot of respect to my teammates and to Dee Gordon for leading that charge. But honestly, even my other teammates who you didn’t know if they’d be receptive of it were able to show support.

Doubleheaders aren’t fun. But if you did a doubleheader because you did something for the right reasons, and we felt like we did, then we just deal with it afterward and that’s fine. I played both games the next day. At the end of that, you’re gassed.

The day of the last game on our road trip, on Aug. 31, we found out we weren’t going to play the first two games at home against the A’s. And they didn’t know about the third game. When we got home, we found out they had canceled the third game, too. So we had one off day and then returned to practice the second and third days. That was bizarre because it felt like a lot longer because we had been playing so much. To take three days off is kind of bizarre in the middle of the season. By that third day, everybody was antsy and everybody was like, ‘When are we going to be able to go back to playing?’ Guys had a rhythm going and you want to keep that going.

The baseball is the same. The weirdest part is just the hotel life because you’re kind of cooped up in your room a lot. Which isn’t to say you just want to be outside all of the time, but it’s a little weird traveling to a city and you don’t even go outside of the hotel at all just to get a bite to eat. Baseball, when the game starts, is largely the same. It took a while to get adjusted to not having fans in the stands. It’ll be a readjustment when the fans come back. So hopefully next year, fans can come back because that element definitely adds a lot to the eighth and ninth innings.

At the hotel, you’ve got security in the lobby checking on you if you don’t have your mask on at all times. You’re getting written up for stuff. It’s a little bit bizarre trying to navigate that part of it because you’ve spent 25 years of your life doing it one way and now you got to do it another way. It’s a quick turnaround trying to change habits like that. But we still have a lot of fun with it and being in the major leagues has been a goal of mine. It’s still a dream come true so I’m still having a lot of fun.

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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