ON HIS TERMS
Lewis gets his perfect ending with one last base hit
Taped to the back side of the fence in left field Wednesday evening was a poster that goes back a few years. Today’s South Hamilton baseball players were pre-teens back then, still learning the game that would one day lead them to the big diamond at the Mike Penning Athletic Complex.
Most of the kids, just 11 and 12 years old at the time, had toothy grins on their faces in the picture. But standing in the second row, second from the left and turned partially to the side, was a solemn Sam Lewis, the stoic expression that he still wears so often today plastered on his face.
That’s Sam, at least the Sam I’ve come to know. Quiet. Calm. An introvert when it comes to his emotions. But behind that sometimes hardened shell is one of the nicer kids you’ll ever meet.
But not even Sam could mask the emotions that funneled through his body at approximately 5:35 p.m. on Wednesday. He tried — boy, did he try — to contain the tears. A hug from assistant coach Cole Swenson brought them to the surface though, and they continued to cascade down his face as teammate after teammate made his way onto the field just to be a part of the scene.
First came fellow senior Cole Berg. Then it was Zeke Balderas, the final member of the senior trio that has meant so much to the Hawks’ program. Head coach Kyle Galetich wasn’t far behind. And then here came Matt Lewis, Sam’s dad, onto the field to complete the picturesque scene as South Hamilton’s fans stood and clapped, many of them with tears in their eyes as well.
Folks, I’ve covered too many state tournaments to count. I’ve watched individuals and teams become state champions. And I’m telling you, the scene surrounding Lewis will forever rival them all. If you were there and you have even an ounce of humanity, then you felt it. It tugged at your heartstrings and stuck that lump directly in your throat.
Sports, I love you forever.
Let’s back up now. What caused such a scene? I’m glad you asked.
Arguably South Hamilton’s best player when the 2018 season ended, Lewis seemed destined to have a breakout senior campaign this summer. Through two games and one at bat, he was doing just that, hitting .778 with seven hits, including three doubles, in nine plate appearances.
But in the first inning of the third game against Nevada on May 31, life threw Lewis a curveball when he was thinking fastball. A run-of-the-mill head-first slide into second base, something he’d done probably hundreds of times, caused a torn posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) in his right knee.
Surgery came seven days later.
Just like that, his season was over. And it was devastating.
“It was really tough the first week, especially when I couldn’t be out there with the guys,” Lewis said.
But then Lewis got an idea: How about just one more at bat for old times’ sake? He didn’t have to beg too hard.
“A doctor’s note and him saying he wanted to hit one time was all I needed to hear,” Galetich said. “As much as he’s done for every sport at South Hamilton, we owed it to him and that’s what I told him.”
Cue the first inning against ninth-ranked (Class 3A) Gilbert on Wednesday. With a hefty brace under his pants, there was Lewis gingerly stepping to the plate in his familiar No. 2 spot in the lineup with a chance to show off his sweet left-handed swing one more time.
The first pitch from Tigers’ pitcher Easton Johnson was in the dirt. The second pitch though — low and over the outside corner — was right in Lewis’s wheelhouse and he attacked it like Mr. Steinbrenner went after those calzones (Seinfeld reference … watch it kids, you won’t be disappointed).
Muscle memory did the rest.
Lewis sent the ball into the gap in left-center field and it scored Cole Berg all the way from first base. What would have normally been a double or triple was only a single since the one restriction placed on Lewis was absolutely no running. He walked to first, stepped on the base, looked around for a moment just to soak it all in, and then let his tears flow.
It. Was. Beautiful.
“It got me all emotional,” Lewis said. “I couldn’t be more thankful for all these fans, my teammates and my family. They’ve been with me through all this stuff.”
Here’s something maybe you don’t know though: Lewis told me before the game he was going to pull off the improbable.
“It’s going to feel good and I’ll get on base,” he said, almost as if it wasn’t even a question.
Galetich wanted to win the game, but had he been forced to choose between the upset win and Lewis writing a perfect final chapter to his career, he says it would have been easy.
“Sam getting the hit means more than a win,” Galetich said. “The wins and losses you forget about, but something like that lasts forever. When you come together five or 10 years down the road, it’s not the wins and losses you remember. It’s the memories and the relationships you’ve built.”
Gilbert won the game, 11-4 — an “oh by the way” statement if there ever was one. Seven players had multiple hits in the game, but they all took a backseat to Lewis.
This was his night. His chance to say goodbye to the game he’s loved since he wore that stoic expression in that picture six years ago.
He didn’t get the season he wanted. He got the ending everyone wants instead.
Gilbert 11, South Hamilton 4
Wednesday at Jewell
Gilbert 403 031 0 — 11 12 1
S. Ham 110 011 0 — 4 13 5
Easton Johnson, Sam Vanderpool (5), Alex Baumgarten (6) and Jake Shedarowich. Cole Berg, Zeke Balderas (6) and Elijah Balderas. W — Johnson. L — Berg. Multiple hits — GIL: Ben Simodynes (4), Nick Chasey, Jack Borts; SH: Berg (3), Z. Balderas, Cade Balvanz, Carter Hewitt. 2B — SH: Z. Balderas. RBI — GIL: Simodynes (2), Chasey (2), Borts (2), Mitchell Johnson; SH: Z. Balderas, Balvanz, Sam Lewis, Cade Flaugh.