When Robert Lewis Jr., founder of The BASE, arrives at a morning baseball practice in Roxbury, the Astros aren’t sure what to do. They trot in to greet their leader, who recently beat COVID-19.
“We can’t hug no more,” blurted out one player, knowing that the charismatic Lewis usually gets about 150 hugs each day instead of handshakes.
“I got you, man,” says the raspy-voiced Lewis, raising his arms. “Air hug.”
Lewis began coaching the Villa Victoria Astros baseball team in the South End in the late 1970s, and eventually parlayed that into The BASE, a program that supports inner-city youths and their families through sports, education, and food security.
“The hardest thing for me is this is the first time in 41 years I haven’t coached,” he says.
Lewis was celebrating his 60th birthday on March 22 when he spiked a fever of 101 and had labored breathing. He went to Boston Medical Center, thinking he would pick up a prescription and head home.
Instead, he was admitted and told he needed to be intubated.
He was allowed to make one phone call before he was put into a coma. He called home to speak to his wife, son, and daughter. A man who has never been afraid to speak out was very blunt.
“I just told them how scared I was,” says Lewis. “I woke up 12 days later.”
Doctors told his family it was touch and go. He almost died.
He spent nearly a month at BMC and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.
“You’re just lonely,” he says. “There are no visitors.”
During rehab, Lewis was so weak he needed oxygen and a walker to take three steps. He had to relearn to brush his teeth and tie his sneakers. Little tasks became big barriers.
The physical therapist asked him to touch his nose.
“I missed,” he says.
He didn’t get to go home and reunite with his family until the end of April.
The May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minnesota triggered massive Black Lives Matter protests and an influx of support. Lewis pushed himself to get back to work quickly.
“I need to do more,” he says. “I want to talk about issues of race, but I want to talk about it as a unifier, not a divider.”
He is proud that The BASE is headquartered in Roxbury, and scowls when his kids are labeled “at risk” or “disadvantaged” because of their ZIP code.
“What are they at risk of? Succeeding?” he says. “They are talented. All we have to do is provide them with a chance and an opportunity and let them go.”
On Opening Day at Fenway Park on July 24, Lewis stood in the same bleachers he used to sneak into as a kid alongside Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston’s mayor, Martin J. Walsh. It was a good thing there were no close-ups, he says, because he was weeping as he tossed a first pitch to Jackie Bradley Jr., the only African-American player on the Red Sox.
The Red Sox called him “a civic and community hero.” He disagrees.
“I’m a son of my late mother who raised me to be respectful, loving, and caring,” he says.
His single mother had six children by the age of 23. He says they were the first African-American family in East Boston, where he played football, baseball, and hockey.
During the violent busing days, their home was firebombed when Lewis was 16. His mother urged him not to retaliate. You can’t achieve greatness from jail, she said.
Lewis moved to the South End in 1978, and trained hard to play football for UMass. One day, four 12-year-olds stopped Lewis on the street and asked him if he would coach their new baseball team. He couldn’t say no.
That sparked a life of coaching urban baseball and fighting for social change. He was executive director of City Year Boston, responsible for distributing $16 million in grants annually for the Boston Foundation.
He was inspired to start The BASE in 2013 after reading a poverty report that said youths of color were overwhelmingly negative about their future. He decided to do something about it.
Yoldi Soriano, 17, of the Astros team, says the program is unique.
" I love the family aspect,” Soriano says. “Everybody here treats me like family more than a friend.”
He says it’s not just about baseball.
“It’s like 60 percent baseball, 40 percent other stuff,” Soriano says.
And that includes homework and college preparation.
“They also invite you to college tours,” Soriano says.
The BASE recently expanded its program to accommodate 6- to 9-year-olds and also offers girls’ softball and baseball.
Former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein helped start a similar program in Chicago when he left for the Cubs, and there are now affiliated programs in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis too.
Bradley, Pedro Martinez, and Bronson Arroyo have all visited The BASE. A young Manny Delcarmen played for the then-Boston Astros long before he won a World Series championship with the Red Sox in 2007. His Astros teammate, Juan Portes, returned to coach at The BASE after playing in the Minnesota Twins farm system.
There have been victories both on and off the field. Three times The BASE Astros have captured the Triple Crown Sports 18-and-under tournament in Richmond, Va.
But some things don’t show up in the box score. During a recent doubleheader in Lynn for the 9-and-under Astros, one father called the other fathers into a huddle. He got everyone to agree to stop yelling at the kids and the umpires. Let the coaches handle it, he said.
At a recent 18-and-under practice, Richard Matos, a broad-shouldered slugger scouted by the Yankees, confided his thoughts to Lewis about whether to go to college or the pros.
“Whatever you do, man, you’re going to be good — always remember that,” says Lewis, smiling behind his mask. “Listen, man, you just made my day. Keep working.”
Lewis intends to do just that. He’s not 100 percent healthy yet, but he’s not complaining either.
The magic recipe for success isn’t that hard, he says.
“It’s about love, it’s about belief, and it’s about hope and opportunities,” he says. “We love them enough that we have high standards and expectations. We see them as America’s greatest untapped asset.”
He credits his hard-working mother for his sense of purpose, which goes far beyond baseball. He has met with Nelson Mandela in South Africa and visited Haiti after it was devastated by a 2010 earthquake.
“My mom always talked about, you know, it’s not where you come from,” Lewis says. “It’s where you’re going.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.