Third in a series of profiles of potential Phillies draft picks.
GREENSBORO, N.C. - Craig Gibson begged. As the coach at Mercer University for more than a decade, he knew how the system viewed small-school baseball. So he had relented before. But two autumns ago, as he tried to place Kyle Lewis on a Cape Cod League roster, Gibson could not capitulate.
Either someone in the prestigious showcase league would grant Lewis a full-time spot, or he wasn't going for the summer.
"Man," Gibson said, "I had to threaten everyone I knew up there."
These days, Gibson keeps saying they should make a movie about his star outfielder. Mercer - a school with 4,500 undergraduates in Macon, Ga., that plays in the neglected Southern Conference - could produce the first pick in the draft this month. Pro scouts overlooked a lanky Lewis in high school because he played first base. Gibson offered Lewis a 25 percent scholarship, the smallest possible.
And, as he rises, Lewis will never shed the small-school label. It is a principle that guides the 6-foot-4 junior from the Atlanta suburbs.
"It worked out for the best," Lewis, 20, said. "In life, you always end up where you're supposed to be."
Last summer, after his coach's threats, a Cape League team finally made an offer. Lewis hit .300 with seven homers and seven doubles in 39 games using a wood bat against top college pitchers. Scouts gushed. He emerged as one of the nation's best prospects.
"That always happens to me," Lewis said. "They always think, 'Oh, he plays at a small school.' They finally took me, and I ended up being one of the top guys."
He carried that confidence into his junior season at Mercer. Lewis batted .395 and smashed 20 homers in 61 games. He walked 66 times, tied for most in the nation. Teams stopped pitching to him. Two weeks ago, with the regular-season SoCon title on the the line, UNC-Greensboro walked Lewis three times, including once intentionally. He scored three runs in a Mercer victory.
It all makes Gibson nostalgic about a meeting he had with Lewis at the conclusion of his sophomore season, before the Cape League surge.
"What's next for you?" Gibson asked.
"Coach," Lewis said, "I want to be one of the top five players in the country next year."
Gibson, a year later, shakes his head in disbelief.
"He's going to be one of the top five players in the country," he said. "That's . . . wow."
How was Lewis, an athletic centerfielder with power, overlooked by pro scouts? He played both basketball and baseball at Shiloh High School in Snellville, Ga., but did not focus on baseball until his junior year. He never played on the showcase circuit. And he played out of position.
"With our infield, we needed his athletic ability at first," said Reggie Ingram, the former baseball coach at Shiloh who now coaches softball. "We were throwing the ball all over the place. He eliminated a lot of errors, being able to jump out of the gym."
"I was a skinny guy playing first," Lewis said. "I didn't hit that many home runs. You can't have a skinny first baseman who doesn't hit many home runs."
The first time Gibson saw Lewis was not until his senior year at Shiloh. The coach walked behind the school and down a hill to the quaint field nestled at the edge of a forest. Lewis hit a ball off the gym, beyond the center-field fence. Sold.
"He wasn't ready for professional baseball," Gibson said. "Nobody missed on him. He wasn't ready for Georgia, Florida, or Auburn. We took a flyer on him.
"We thought once his skill level caught up to his athleticism, he would be a good player. Did we dream of this? No way."
The best player to come from the Southern Conference might be Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner, who played for the College of Charleston. The conference has minted just four first-round picks since the inception of the draft. The highest, lefthander Atlee Hammaker from East Tennessee State, went 21st overall in 1979. He had a 3.66 ERA in 12 major-league seasons.
Lewis hears the small-school doubts. He had one request: Just watch. The Phillies have; they sent six scouts and executives to see a mid-May series. Gibson does not blame major-league clubs for doubting Lewis' numbers.
"That's legitimate," Gibson said. "That's fair."
Then the Mercer head coach told a story from April. His team played against Georgia Tech. Lewis faced a reliever with a good arm, a mid-90s fastball. He smashed a double high off the center-field fence on the first pitch.
"When you look at him, the bat speed is phenomenal," Gibson said. "You could put him in any organization and that bat speed plays immediately. It's just different."
That is the quandary for teams at the top of the draft. They do not draft on numbers, but Lewis is tougher to evaluate. "If they took him, and it didn't work out, I would still say it was a right pick," a rival scout said about the Phillies' interest in Lewis. The lack of separation at the top of the draft has benefited Lewis.
"You just worry about the level of competition," another scout said. "He is not seeing 93 [mph]. On most nights, it's 85."
If the small-school stigma will follow Lewis into the minors, so be it.
"If God was going to make a baseball player," Gibson said, "this is the body and the athleticism."