O's prospect heals shoulder, psyche

KEN ROSENTHAL

February 27, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

SARASOTA, Fla. -- His swing is so picture-perfect, it forces others to take notice. At the Orioles' first workout, catcher Mark Parent stood at the batting cage and asked assistant general manager Doug Melvin, "Who is this guy?"

Why, he's none other than T. R. Lewis, the Orioles' fourth-round pick in 1989, and as pure a hitter as you'll ever see. He'd surely be considered one of the club's top prospects by now, if only he could throw.

Indeed, when the Orioles protected him on their 40-man roster this off-season, it was a stunning vote of confidence in a player who has started only one game defensively since undergoing surgery to repair his right shoulder in June 1991.

Lewis, 21, has endured one trauma after another since turning professional. In November 1989, he lost his girlfriend, Kate, in a car accident. Now, he's consulting a sports psychologist to overcome the fear of re-injuring his shoulder.

The Orioles drafted him as a third baseman, but they'll be thrilled if he can play first. "I don't want to put pressure on him, but we have used the comparison of Steve Garvey," Melvin says. "If he can get back throwing, he can come quick."

Lewis, a native of Jacksonville, Fla., spent his third straight year at Single-A last season, batting a combined .304 at Kane County and Frederick with 37 doubles, nine homers and 76 RBI. This season, he's slated for the Double-A team that will play its home games at Memorial Stadium.

He's more than a year behind schedule in his recovery, but suddenly he can throw a ball across the infield. He's eager to take grounders, eager to appear in games. As he puts it, "I need to get away from the rehab mentality and go about my career."

Finally, it sounds as if Lewis is conquering his reluctance to test the shoulder, the byproduct of a tumultuous emotional period that began with the death of Kate and continued with the injury that threatened to shatter his career.

Lewis wasn't engaged to Kate, but he says: "We were as serious as you can be at that age. Our families felt like we would one day get married." The accident occurred after his first pro season. Lewis hit 10 homers at Bluefield, the same place where in 1978 Cal Ripken hit none.

The night of the accident, he was returning home with five friends, sitting in the back seat with Kate. The driver went off the side of the road. Lewis recalls the car flipping five times. He and Kate were thrown out, but all he suffered was a fractured left shoulder blade and cuts and bruises.

Kate, 18, didn't survive.

"It's been tough. It's been lonely," says Lewis, who hasn't had a steady girlfriend in the 3 1/2 years since. "You definitely have a void inside of you when you lose someone like that all of a sudden. You always wonder what the future would have been like."

But Lewis learned to cope, with counseling from Dr. Lem Burnham, director of the Orioles employee assistance program. Today, he recalls his year together with Kate "as one of the happiest of my life," adding, "I'll always consider myself lucky to know her for the time I did."

Lewis rebounded with a strong 1990 season at Wausau and Frederick, and got away the following winter by playing in Australia. His career was on the fast track until his surgery in '91. The injury was not related to the accident. Lewis says it was caused by poor throwing mechanics.

The prognosis was for him to return last season at full strength. Lewis had no problem hitting, but experienced one setback after another trying to throw. "One side of my career was taking off," he says, "but the other side was dropping fast."

His frustration peaked last October in the Florida Instructional League. "He was as down as I've ever seen him," says Rochester manager Bob Miscik, who had Lewis at Frederick last season. "He thought with the temperature and humidity, he'd be able to loosen his arm up and throw better.

"When it didn't happen, he really got down. He was putting a lot of work in and not getting results. He was starting to question whether he'd ever be able to throw. He was worried about his future."

But Lewis continued his rehabilitation work in Jacksonville, got examined by Dr. Frank Jobe in Inglewood, Calif., and began speaking by telephone with the psychologist recommended by the Orioles in December.

In the middle of all this, the club added him to its 40-man roster. "It was a shock, then a boost," Lewis says. "It was just real encouraging knowing the organization still feels about me that way. I'm still on Cloud Nine."

That's where he belongs.

T. R. Lewis is only 21.

He doesn't deserve so many dark clouds.

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