Jensen Lewis settles into broadcasting career
Jensen Lewis settles into broadcasting career
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Jensen Lewis still remembers the epiphany about his baseball career.
He was cruising through St. Louis, on his way to Cleveland from Arizona. He had pitched four years for the Indians, from 2007 to 2010. He had signed minor-league deals with Arizona and then the Chicago Cubs, playing Class AAA, before being approached about a broadcasting gig.
“Driving back across the country I was passing Busch Stadium. I knew I was done,” he said. “There was an overwhelming feeling. It was a crossroads moment. Busch Stadium and the arch were in the rear-view mirror. Baseball, at least from the playing side, was done.”
It marked the ending – and a beginning. Lewis has parlayed a four-year Major League career and an ability to coherently break down the game as a broadcaster. He teams with Al Pawlowski on Fox SportsTime Ohio, the two fixtures near the centerfield gate at Progressive Field after games. He hosts “Beer Money,” the sports-trivia game show. And in August he was named as John Lanigan’s replacement on WTAM’s The Spew with Mike Trivisonno.
It’s a career that suits him, but one he fell into. A player’s focus takes on kind of an invincible air, where you think about the present and not so much the future.
“Our heads are kind of down,” he said. “You’re not really thinking ‘What am I going to do when I am done?’ You think ‘I’ll play 15 years and then do what I want.’ ”
Lewis’ kick-start came from a call from Indians play-by-play announcer Matt Underwood about an on-air opening. Underwood, he said, made it clear there would be no hard feelings if he didn’t take the job but, he added, “to be honest, these kind of things don’t come up too often.”
Lewis’ training – if you can call it that – was horsing around with Jason Kipnis, who played a “fake color guy,” Lewis said. It was something to pass the time. But the job appealed.
“I didn’t give it a second thought,” he said. “I’m going to pack up my car and drive across country in two days and see what happens.”
And here’s what happened: In his first shot, he had a bug land on his nose. His phone, in his pocket, began to vibrate with friends telling him about it. Like he didn’t know.
“People were contacting me – ‘Hey, you got this bug on your nose!’ ”
Like being on a mound, he kept his focus.
“You have to get in the moment, lock it in,” he said. “That was the first day. The next day the networks crashed. We had to fill time in a commercial. I never had someone talking in my ear. You have the camera on you, you have someone talking in your ear. It was baptism by fire.”
But he figured: “If I can handle those two days I can handle anything else. It was a hell of a first 48 hours.”
He stuck with it, and the job stuck with him. He hosts “Beer Money,” the show that rewards guests with cash for correct answers. They can quit anytime, or go for more money and risk it all. What they also risk is blowing an easy question. That draws a look of sarcastic admonishment from Lewis that screams a thousand unspoken words, especially when he tries in vain to offer hints.
“Sometimes,” he said, “you have to walk people to the water, and they still can’t get in.”
At first, Lewis told a boss he hesitated about taking that gig.
“My apprehension was ‘If I do this people won’t take me seriously.’ My boss said ‘People will take you seriously because you do know your stuff.’ ”
Now, Lewis said, “People come up to me by the set and say ‘Hey, Beer Money guy!’ It’s increased my exposure more than I thought.”
What makes it more fun is that he is doing the show where he grew up.
Lewis was raised in Medina and moved at a young age to Cincinnati.
“We always had roots here, have been die-hard Cleveland fans. I wore my (Omar) Vizquel jersey to high school during the World Series in ’95 and took the wrath from guys I went to school with who were Reds fans.”
It was fitting that it was the Indians who first drafted him at age 18. But he also had a scholarship pending from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and his parents were adamant: Go to college.
“There are things you need to polish,” they said, referring to both life and baseball skills.
He went to college. (At Vanderbilt, Boston pitcher David Price was his roommate, and Indians assistant general manager Carter Hawkins was a backup catcher.) In staying in school, he increased his draft status from being a 33rd-round choice to a third-rounder, the 102nd overall pick in 2005.
“They were pretty smart,” he said of his parents.
He worked hard to finish school, bouncing between the short-season Mahoning Valley Scrappers and the Class AA Akron Aeros.
Akron got into the postseason. When the playoffs ended, Lewis jumped in his car for Nashville, moved into his apartment, and went straight to a geology exam.
“You’re not going to get any special treatment,” a professor had told him, knowing his situation.
Lewis met the challenge. He sat in the front row and was the first to finish.
“I kind of had that smirk,” he said.
The professor called him and noted how well he had done.
For the test, he studied. For his broadcasting career, he is more of a natural.
“I never had a minute of on-air training,” said Lewis, a communications major. “My first pregame show with Al in 2013 was my first ever on air I had ever done. I was thrown into the fire right out of the gate.”
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t work now. Preparation continues non-stop through the grind of a Major League season.
“We’re a psychologist’s worst nightmare,” he said. “We get done with the game and turn on a West Coast game. I watch as much (baseball) as possible.”
He’ll focus on matchups to squirrel away for potential broadcasts. He gets to the ballpark by 3 p.m., visits the clubhouse. He chats with a player who might be featured on the show and maybe asks a question or two to manager Terry Francona. He reads reporters’ stories. He will gather as much information as possible for the 24 to 26 minutes he is on the air.
“From a preparation standpoint, it’s more details (to keep track of) than when I played. I have to be up on 30 teams instead of two. That’s kind of crazy to think about.”
Pitching, he said, requires a one-track mind. “I know what I’m good at, I know what the hitter is good at. Now, it’s being aware of what’s around the league,” he said, from streaks to tendencies.
“There’s a lot of pride when the team struggles. You have to tell the truth.... It’s great when things are going well. But when they’re not you have to do a constructive critique. That’s part of the job.”
And it’s one he has embraced.
“You couldn’t draw it up any better,” he said. “You feel like you’re going to play till your 40 and retire into the sunset. I’m 34. I feel like the Joe Nuxhall of broadcasting, citing another player-turned-broadcaster, who holds the record as youngest player ever in the Majors. In 1944, Nuxhall was 15 when he broke in.
“When the season is over it’s nice to decompress and let the brain get back to even,” Lewis said. That means golf, watching football, catching movies and spending time with girlfriend Alyssa Raymond, an anchor-reporter with WTHR in Indianapolis.
Raymond used to work at WKYC. Her colleague Betsy Kling introduced them at an Indians charity golf outing several years ago. Raymond left for a job in Pittsburgh before moving to Indianapolis.
“She’s originally from Pittsburgh and I’m from Cleveland, so we had to get over that,” he said.
Lewis recognizes how fortunate he is to be working in the city where he played and where his family is from.
“With more reps you get comfortable. It’s that connection with the team and the city. I got a chance to play here but also know these people,” he said.“It makes it that more special.”