Air Force veteran embraces chance with Cubs
By MARK GONZALES | Chicago Tribune | Published: July 22, 2014
MESA, Ariz. — Daniel Lewis has yet to pitch in a minor league game, yet he may be as mentally prepared as any closer in the majors.
And despite never having participated in a spring training camp, Lewis is as well-conditioned as any player.
The only ingredient Lewis lacks is baseball experience, which he hopes to gain soon after spending four years in the military before wowing Cubs scouts by throwing 98 mph in his third game for the Cotuit Kettleers in the amateur Cape Cod League.
The Cubs believed Lewis' arm was too strong to pass up, so they signed the undrafted free agent despite a four-year layoff he ended this spring at Pensacola State College.
"The experience of being in the military and the stressful situations that the military puts on you, whether it be training or doing your job, gives me a leg up on the maturity side," Lewis said Sunday night before an Arizona Rookie League game at Cubs Park.
"I think it puts things in perspective for me that I've been in more stressful situations. I've had to complete hard tasks, now it's time to go to work on the mound. It's an applicable skill. Everything translates from the mentality from it's time to go to work. It's the same thing when you're on the mound — tunnel vision, see the catcher and go to work."
Lewis, 23, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound right-hander, was guarded about where he served during his four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force. He did confirm he enlisted after high school following the death of a friend who served in the military.
But he freely elaborated on the parallels between serving the country and pitching.
"I've always been told, whether it's dealing with shooting or on the mound with mechanics, slow is smooth, smooth is fast," said Lewis, who has a tattoo with the phrase "Make it yours'' inside his left forearm. "If you take time to slow it down, and think about what you need to do and go ahead and envision yourself completing the task, then it's going to be that much easier.''
Pitching wasn't that easy for Lewis, who described himself as an "awful" player at Croatan High School in Newport, N.C., and had to ask for a tryout at Pensacola last fall and enrolled there only because it was the closest school to Hurlburt Field, in Mary Esther, Fla. — his last stop in the Air Force.
He said he felt no soreness five hours after throwing a bullpen session Sunday — a far cry from the first time he resumed throwing and felt sore for a week.
"A lot of coaches here have asked me (about the conditioning)," Lewis said. "In high school, I was throwing only 82 to 84 mph. I don't know if it was the swimming, the push-ups, the pull-ups or the running. I don't know how I took four years off and went from 82-84 (mph) to 94-98. So I'd probably say the rigors of the physical training helped me out the most."
Despite a 5.13 ERA, Lewis struck out 26 in 31 innings at Pensacola. Lewis showed enough potential to receive a recommendation by Pensacola coach Keith Little when Billy Sadler, who now serves as Lewis ' adviser, asked about potential players for Cotuit this summer.
In less than a month, Lewis further enhanced his skills under Cotuit coach Mike Roberts, the father of Yankees second baseman Brian Roberts.
"The way (Roberts) approached me was very direct, and I like things direct," Lewis said. "And he would say, 'You have to do this. This has to be done on these counts. If you don't do this kind of thing, you're not going to throw strikes. And if you don't throw strikes, you're not going to play.' ''
Lewis' first game in the Cape was eye-opening.
"I remember the first time I toed the rubber, I was in complete awe of what was going on behind the screen," Lewis said. "And I tried to set that aside. It never was an issue, but I never had the exposure of the scouts, the atmosphere and the fans. It was great.
"The best players in the country. Everyone in that league, batting 1 through 9, is a 3-4-5 hitter at their school. It lets you know where you are and if you can play at the next level."
Cubs area scout Tom Clark spotted Lewis while scouting five players from Chipola College and turned in Lewis' name, but Lewis went undrafted.
After special assistant Tim Wilkin and scout Trey Forkerway saw Lewis throw in the high 90-mph range in his third game for Cotuit, the Cubs signed Lewis and assigned him to Arizona.
"There was so much that intrigued me," Clark said. "He's 23, but he has an 18-year-old arm. I liked his body and his background was so obvious with his 'yes, sir' and 'no, sir' replies. This is no hoax. He's been fun to follow."
Lewis, who competed against pitcher Adam Warren of the Yankees and Lonnie Chisenhall of the Indians in high school, understands why teams didn't draft him or sign him in the Cape until the Cubs offered.
"I think they were leery of someone who was 23 and hadn't played in four years," Lewis said. "And I saw this as a great opportunity to come here. In my mind, I'm thinking, 'Who is going to draft a 24-year-old sophomore from a junior college who has played for only two years?'
"Life gives you limits. You got to go.''