In Miles Lewis, North Dakota’s loss becomes Michigan’s gain
Little did Miles Lewis know that one text would change his life – that a lone message was the first step towards him becoming a Michigan Wolverine.
That message came last April, while Lewis was still a member of the North Dakota baseball team and his then-coach Jeff Dodson urgently demanded a team meeting.
“I got a text from my coach that said ‘If you have class right now, you have to miss it,’ ” Lewis recalls. “And the athletic director came in and told us the news that the program was getting cut (at the end of the season) and said good luck basically.”
After 115 years, the Fighting Hawks baseball program was dropped as part of budget restructuring that also saw the golf program evaporated. The cuts were estimated to save the university $720,000 in operating budgets and salaries according to KVRR.com, the school’s local news station. The announcement came mid-season and was unexpected, even for the coaches.
Losing the team marked the end of a baseball career for most players on the roster. Lewis wasn’t most players.
He redshirted his first year at North Dakota while recovering from a double labrum injury suffered while playing high school football. In his first season of play, Lewis led the Fighting Hawks in home runs, hits, slugging percentage, total bases, stolen bases and batting average (at .360). His impressive stat sheet earned him a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American nod and 2016 Western Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year honors. Most importantly, it turns out, his high level of play drew attention from many programs throughout the country.
For the team’s most talented players, such as Lewis, the cut merely meant they would be moving on.
“As soon as the word got out that they were dropping their program, I think every competitive recruiter went right to the stat page,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “(They) looked at their top pitcher, a kid named Zach Muckenhirn and their top hitter, Miles Lewis.”
Bakich was right. Miles not only drew attention from Michigan, but other major programs including Iowa, Oregon and Creighton. This sort of notoriety was new for Lewis. His shoulder injuries forced Lewis to miss the high school baseball season his senior year, which deterred many college recruiters.
“Getting recruited by big schools was kind of a new experience for me,” Lewis recalls. “That really didn’t happen for me in high school.”
Lewis attended Hudson High School in Hudson, Wis., where he was an All-State selection in baseball as well as Academic All-State in baseball, football and basketball. For a while, he considered playing college football instead of baseball. However, inspired by his older brother Mitch – who is 27 and played baseball at University of Wisconsin - La Crosse – Miles stuck to baseball.
“(Baseball) was something that my brother always loved growing up,” Lewis said. “And he was my biggest role model and I just wanted to follow in his footsteps.”
Following in Mitch’s footsteps turned into a mutual bond in which the two challenge and motivate each other. While Miles feels that his older brother is a role model for him, Mitch finds this ironic.
“It’s good to hear (that I motivate him) but I feel like he motivates me to be better,” Mitch said. “It’s amazing to see him work so hard in not only baseball, but also his academics. To balance those two and play at such a high level, it really motivates me to take on more challenges and better myself.”
The brothers’ competitiveness also drives the duo to succeed. Their brotherly rivalry extends from the baseball diamond, where Mitch claims that he is the “smarter ballplayer while Miles is the more athletically talented player,” to the living room, where playing Mario Kart and Mario Party Three have become some of their favorite pastimes.
Laughing, Mitch contests that, “Miles is a very good baseball player, but he is a very average Mario Kart player.” Miles, on the other hand, is quick to refute this statement, asserting that he is one of the best players in the state of Wisconsin.
However, the one thing they can agree on is that they owe thanks to their father for introducing them to baseball and inspiring the two to play. Their father taught them the game, coaching them in some capacity from tee-ball all the way through high school.
Now, Miles eagerly anticipates his father and the rest of his family attending a game at Ray Fisher Stadium and watching him play in a Wolverine uniform for the first time.
When the North Dakota program was cut, Lewis wasn’t concerned that it would mark the end of his baseball career. That didn’t make saying goodbye to the friends he had made any easier. It was difficult to leave behind the life that he had become accustomed to and the teammates he considered family.
“It was a very emotional time,” Lewis explained. “Having to leave your best friends that you’ve known for years and some great coaches. It was really tough, but it all works out.”
Fortunately for Lewis, it seems as one door closed, another one opened. Shortly after the program cut was announced, coach Bakich took a trip to North Dakota to see Lewis play. The two went out to dinner and Lewis visited the team in Ann Arbor a few weeks later.
“The one thing that stuck out to me was the coaches here and how much energy they have,” Lewis recalls. “And how much they can help from a developmental standpoint and the fact that they love winning here.”
And for Bakich and Michigan, Lewis was the ideal person to replace the now-graduated left fielder Matt Ramsay.
“It just lined up,” Bakich said. “Not only the baseball program and our development and how we do things, but the school academically. He was a 4.0 student at North Dakota, never got one B in any class. It seemed like all the pieces fell into place and he was a perfect fit.”
Another thing that stood out to Bakich – or anyone in Lewis’ presence – is his athletic build and sheer size. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, Bakich describes Miles physique as a “football body” and as someone who “could play tailback for coach Harbaugh.”
“He’s just absolutely shredded, ripped, very strong,” Bakich awed. “It’s like he’s out of a muscle and fitness magazine.”
Fortunately, his abilities as a ballplayer were equally impressive. Lewis is what Bakich describes as a multi-tool player – a switch hitter who can get on base, drive in runs, steal bases and make web-gem plays in the field.
Now a redshirt sophomore left fielder, Lewis has lived up to the expectations and has showed off his various tools. Primarily batting fourth or fifth in the lineup – spots typically designated for a team’s best hitters – Lewis is currently boasting a .302 batting average with 14 runs batted in, 15 runs scored and eight stolen bases. Additionally, Lewis has committed no errors on the season.
While the left fielder feels that he has progressed in all facets of his game in his short time as a Wolverine, his defense is what he has seen improve most – something on full display Tuesday, when he robbed Toledo of an extra base hit on a diving catch.
This sort of effort and intensity has become the norm from Lewis in games and during training.
“He stands out in all of our training sessions and all of our practices,” Bakich said. “He’s always diving, he’s always hustling (and) he’s always going full speed. He has no off switch. You’re never going to need to prompt him, he’s a self-starter. He’s on go all the time... He could have a bad game and bounce right back and have a great game.”
Lewis isn’t all business, though. His roommate – junior catcher Brock Keener – was quick to point out that he is “fun to be around and real goofy.”
That much was clear this past Wednesday, as Lewis was juggling baseballs with teammates in the dugout after turning in a 2-for-4 effort in the Wolverines’ routing of Central Michigan.
That comradery was almost instantaneous, as Lewis credited the group for making him one of their own from the second he stepped on campus.
“The moment I got here it was like a new family,” Lewis explains. “All the guys are really great.”
That’s not to say his North Dakota family is gone, though. Lewis still texts his former teammates. He still visits them when he’s back in Wisconsin. The North Dakota program is gone, and it’s certainly unfortunate.
But with his new career unfolding in Ann Arbor, Lewis explains, “I don’t really like to live in the past too much. You just have to play the game and not think too much about it.”