CLEVELAND: Jensen Lewis became a professional baseball player first. But Lewis, now a member of the Indians’ television team, might have been meant to be on TV all along.
“Pitching is something that I loved and worked very hard at doing,” Lewis said. “But talking about sports, especially baseball, has always been something that came easy to me.”
In 2004 as a member of an All-Star team playing in New Orleans from the Cape Cod wood-bat Summer League, Lewis found himself bored as the team’s position players were hitting.
“So I just pulled out the benches and began commentating, calling the game,” he said. “I honestly had no idea the guys could hear me until one of them stepped out of the batter’s box after I pretended to introduce him. He goes, ‘Hey, you actually sound like you’re on the radio or TV.’ ”
It was a nice compliment at the time, but Lewis had another dream to attend to first — pitching in the major leagues.
Throughout Lewis’ five-year career with the Indians, it became apparent to those who interacted with him that whenever Lewis hung up his glove, he wouldn’t be out of work very long.
So it came as no surprise in June 2013, two months after his playing career ended when he was released by the Chicago Cubs midway through his first month at Triple-A Iowa, that Lewis was presented with an offer he couldn’t refuse.
SportsTime Ohio, the Indians-owned TV channel, was seeking someone to work with host Al Pawlowski as a fill-in for a week for co-host Jason Stanford, another former Tribe pitcher.
“When Jensen’s name came up about helping out on the Indians pre- and postgame shows temporarily, I remembered the times I’d interviewed him as a player,” Pawlowski said. “I’d walk away thinking, ‘This guy should have a career in broadcasting.’ He’s funny, he’s articulate and he has a great personality. He’s easy to talk to and not only knows the game, but can communicate about it in a way that makes it easy for all kinds of fans to understand some of the intricacies of the game.”
A communications major in college, Lewis had recently emailed a handful of contacts, inquiring about trying to break into the business. So he didn’t think twice about jumping at the opportunity.
When the time came, Lewis packed up and hit the road in his year-old Mercedes for a two-day, 2,000-mile drive from the apartment he’d rented in Arizona to the same ballpark he played in as a professional — Cleveland’s Progressive Field.
There were no promises for anything other than the gig for a week. But it was his first break and Lewis wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass him by. So he attacked it like he did so many times while on the mound with a slugger at the plate, casting worries aside, living in the moment and giving it his all.
“Honestly, I’d never done it before,” Lewis, 30, said. “I didn’t have any on-camera experience at all. But I know baseball and they said to approach it like we’re just two guys sitting in a bar, having a drink and talking about their team. Now, when I’m on set, that’s exactly how it feels to me. Hard to believe I’m doing it to make a living.”
Lewis did so well with the weeklong gig, it’s evolved into a consistent stream of work as part of the Tribe’s pregame show featuring Pawlowski, Stanford and Lewis during home games along with Lewis’ weekly features on the club’s top minor-league players.
Meant to be an Indian
Lewis’ first dream came to fruition as a junior at Vanderbilt when he was the 102nd player selected in the 2005 draft by the team he grew up rooting for — the Indians. It was rare for a kid born in Cincinnati and who went on to become one of the area’s top high school prospects to not root for the hometown Reds.
“My entire family grew up in Medina before moving to Cincinnati for my dad’s job,” Lewis said. “But they never lost their Cleveland roots. I loved watching Mark Price hit 3-pointers for the Cavs, [former Browns quarterback] Bernie [Kosar] was my guy. And I know exactly where I was in 1995 and ’97 when the Indians were one of the best teams ever in baseball. I always wanted to be in a position to help bring a title to the fans of Cleveland.”
Lewis got close.
The 6-3, 220-pounder not only went on to be drafted by the Indians, but pitched for them from 2007 to 2010, compiling a 7-11 career record with a 3.68 ERA with 14 saves and 177 strikeouts. After beginning his career as a starter, he was playing in Double-A with the former Aeros, when he was told that his quickest way to the majors would come as a reliever.
It wasn’t an easy transition initially, but it was that much more rewarding when Lewis made his major-league debut July 16 — during the Indians’ magical 2007 season. It’s a special period of life Lewis will always cherish, as he soon learned that it’s one thing to root on a baseball team from the stands during the playoffs, and quite another to experience it from a front-row seat on the field.
Lewis remembers every detail, from the thrill of helping the Indians reach the cusp of the World Series to the stunning heartbreak that followed when the Boston Red Sox rallied from a 3-1 deficit to eliminate them in the American League Championship Series.
“When we took the Red Sox to seven games, it was like my life was a storybook,” Lewis said. “I was 23 years old and pinching myself to be in the middle of it all.
“After growing up a Cleveland fan, being drafted by the team and eventually playing in the big leagues with the Indians, it just seems like a perfect transition for me to come back with the team as a broadcaster.”
Kind of like it was meant to be all along.
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at www.ohio.com/indians. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/abj.sports.