DENVER — Rockies Minor League catcher AJ Lewis is a long way from his dream, but he’s already become the reachable role model that he didn’t have growing up.
Almost unfathomable given the game’s history, Lewis, on the High-A Spokane roster, is one of the few Black North American catchers in professional baseball — and even then, some of his playing time has been at other positions.
Lewis and the Rangers’ Ian Moller, a fourth-round Draft pick in 2021, met often during Spring Training. The two are members of a small club: hopefuls at a position that hasn’t seen a Black North American play as even a semi-regular player since Canadian Russell Martin caught 60 games in 2019. MLB does not keep statistics for this small club, but a league official said anecdotally that the number is “very small.”
But Lewis, who turns 24 on May 31, is already inspiring others. He’s done instruction for many youth catchers where he grew up, on the south side of Chicago. He’s also mentoring Xavier (Ohio) University freshman and his neighbor, Emmanuel Scott, who has committed to the University of Louisville for 2023.
Lewis is humbled that others see his role as important, even as his own career is in its early stages.
After coming out of Eastern Kentucky University in 2020, when the MLB Draft was just five rounds, Lewis signed as an undrafted free agent. He may be waiting for playing time, since Spokane has the Rockies’ No. 2 prospect Drew Romo as its starting catcher, but still, Lewis inspires others with his instruction.
“It’s been a little revolution that’s been kind of cool, and we’re trying to get it going in the right direction,” Lewis said. “The conversations once a week, them sending video and showing me different things, the comments they make, even the comments their parents make, it’s like this is for a bigger cause.”
After Jackie Robinson broke the MLB color barrier 75 years ago today, MVPs Roy Campanella and Elston Howard came along behind the plate in his wake and gave he position regular Black stars.
But Charles Johnson, whose four-time Gold Glove-winning career ended in 2005 (he was with the Rockies in 2003-04), was the last celebrated Black American catcher. Martin made four All-Star appearances and won a Gold Glove.
“I don’t have a blueprint,” Lewis said. “But the minute that you start feeling sorry for yourself or having a woe-is-me, like, ‘This is hard, and no one looks like me,’ you’re in trouble.”
Lewis has already passed real-life and baseball tests. His mother passed away when he was 10. His father traveled for work, so Lewis threw himself into the Chicago White Sox Amateur City Elite (ACE) program that has steadily produced players. Seeing the need to develop a diverse pool of pitchers and catchers, MLB and USA Baseball in 2017 created the DREAM Series to focus on the dynamics of the position. It’s normally held in Tempe, Ariz., during Martin Luther King Weekend, but the last two years it has been held virtually.
Lewis signed with the University of Missouri but was behind Brett Bond, who would play in the Astros system. He transferred to Eastern Kentucky University, where he made the Buster Posey Catcher of the Year watchlist in 2019 and 2020 before turning pro.
Lewis began last year at Spokane, catching just six games and mostly pinch-hitting. His willingness to work earned him a larger chance at Fresno.
“I was grinding and grinding, and luckily, Chris Forbes, our player development director, came to town and saw me taking fly balls, taking ground balls and catching,” Lewis said. “He said, ‘We’ve lost a couple guys in Fresno. It was the class you came in with. There’s some opportunity.’”
Lewis hit .283 with a .421 on-base percentage in 15 games to keep himself on the Rockies’ radar, although his playing time was in the outfield and infield, rather than catcher. At Spokane he is behind Romo, whom Lewis envisions in “ … ’21 or 22 catching in the big leagues,” yet he pushes for opportunity — preferably at catcher.
Lewis considers himself a baseball lifer. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications from EKU, but after this season will complete his master’s in analytics from Northwestern University. He joins Spokane pitching coach Ryan Kibler to study the advanced technologies the Rockies are using throughout the Minors, and he aspires to join a front office when baseball is done.
But the future he prepares for the most is behind the plate.
“When I get that shot, no one is going to care that I haven’t played much,” he said. “It’s, ‘Let’s see what you can do.’ That’s all I’m focused on. Because that’s how you get to the big leagues. You add value in a major way that will help this organization.”