How MLB vet found a home in Atlantic League

Lew Ford has been playing for the Long Island Ducks for 11 seasons

September 21st, 2021
Photo via Long Island Ducks/Art by Tom Forget

In the summertime, Central Islip, Long Island becomes home to the Atlantic League Long Island Ducks.

Here, about 42 miles from New York City and 25 from New York's Great South Bay, you'll see recent college graduates testing out their pro skills in independent baseball. You'll watch a few 30-something-year-olds who've played a year or three in the Majors, fighting for another pro ball contract. You'll find a seasoned manager, who also played for the 1986 World Series-winning Mets.

Long Island Ducks manager Wally Backman

And then, if you look hard enough, you'll see a player who may look a little older than all of the others.

He may be helping other hitters with their swings, but also taking swings himself -- not looking any different in the cage than some of the guys 20 years his junior. If you're a big enough baseball fan, you might recognize the name on the back and do a double-take -- is that really him?

"Mainly, I just feel like I can still do it," 45-year-old Lew Ford told me over a recent phone call.

Photo via Long Island Ducks

If you were watching baseball in the early-2000's, you may remember Lew Ford as the Twins' folk hero who came out of nowhere to help lead Minnesota to the 2004 postseason. The then-27-year-old filled in for an injured Torii Hunter and ended up getting AL MVP votes -- putting up 15 homers, 72 RBIs, 20 steals and a .299/.381/.446 slash line. "Lews" rained down from the Metrodome bleachers. Twins writers still fawn over his heroics today. He was on top of the world.

"Yeah I got a chance and just took off that year," Ford said.

Ford played for the Twins from 2003-07, but just as abruptly as he appeared, he was gone. Then he popped back up again with the Orioles in 2012 for another playoff run -- and then disappeared again. He played in Asia, the Mexican League and various Minor League parks around the country in between, but the place he's played the most, the place the Texas native is still playing today 22 years after he was drafted by the Red Sox in 1999, is out in Long Island. The first time he ventured there was in 2009.

"I went to Spring Training with the Colorado Rockies and was released," Ford said. "That was the first time I had been released out of Spring Training. I didn't have a job. I had a guy that was there with me, Kenny Ray. He had signed with Long Island and he had called me and said, 'Hey, you wanna keep playing?' I didn't know anything about independent ball or anything about the Long Island Ducks, to be honest. But I wanted to keep playing ball, so I took the opportunity."

The Ducks have been around as an unaffiliated, independent team since 2000, and hosted many former MLBers. Hall of Famer Vlad Guerrero signed there in 2013, Ian Snell and Dontrelle Willis played in the orange and black and Rich Hill even used a terrific year with the Ducks in 2015 to get back to the Majors.

So, hope was there on the shores of the Sound. And Ford lit up the Atlantic League circuit -- hitting .330 with 10 homers in just 93 games. The appearance got him signed to a Minor League contract with the Reds.

Although he didn't get back to the Majors that season, he had that confidence back. And at 33, he still had that burning desire to get back to the big leagues. He played the next year in Mexico and then, that little ballpark up in Central Islip called out to him again.

Ford latched on with the Ducks in 2011 and '12. He played extremely well, putting up a .937 OPS the first season and a 1.024 OPS in 19 games in the second.

The Baltimore Orioles took notice, signing him to a Minor League deal in early 2012. Once again, his performance with the Ducks had paid off. Ford continued to play very well at Triple-A Norfolk -- 11 homers, 40 RBIs and a .331/.390/.550 slash line.

Finally, five years after his last MLB appearance, after multiple stops playing around the world, double knee surgeries and failed comeback attempts, the O's called the 35-year-old journeyman up.

"Making it back," Ford told me. "It was more enjoyable than the first time I got called up. It had been something that I had been working for for years. A lot of setbacks, you know, as far as trying to get a job. Trying to find the right organization. It was tough. It was a long road. It was accomplishing this huge goal to get back up there. There was a lot behind it this time around."

Ford's foray into the Bigs wasn't as successful as his first go-around, but he did immediately become a crowd favorite. He hit homers in back-to-back games in August and had some clutch hits in the ALDS.

After the 2012 season, Ford was signed to another Minor League deal with Baltimore and sent to Triple-A. He spent the year bouncing around the Minors before being released. His big league magic had seemed to run out, but, he still had his adopted home of Long Island.

Ford signed with the Ducks at the end of the 2013 season and signed on again in '14. That year, he had one of the best ever for an Atlantic League player: He set the all-time record for hits in a season (189), led the league in doubles (40) and slashed at .347/.415/.511 with 15 homers and 95 RBIs. He also became the first in league history to play in all 140 regular-season games and was named Atlantic League Player of the Year.

Ford played winter ball, but continued to come back every summer to the Ducks -- where he now has a house and fiancée.

"I liked it," Ford said. "I got signed out of here. I have ties with this place, so I kept coming back."

The 2021 season is Ford's 11th with the Ducks -- his .320 career average is a franchise record, he's been selected to three regular-season All-Star teams and two in the postseason. He's even participated in the Home Run Derby ... at 41 years old.

But his favorite moments have been team-oriented.

"We have won three championships in this league," Ford said. "We broke the record for wins in 2019 and won the championship. That stands out. The winning stands out. All those championships stand out."

The team has also given Ford the chance to test out a potential future job: baseball coach or manager. He's been a player/hitting coach for the team since 2014 and thoroughly enjoys working with the younger guys, perhaps helping them realize their own big league dreams.

"I've put a lot more into the coaching side," Ford, who's given up a lot of his playing time to focus on the new role, told me. "Working with all the guys on their swings, cage work, scouting reports, BP, things like that. Signing guys here, I'm involved in all those things. That's what I enjoy. I really like the coaching side and I'm embracing it."

Photo via Long Island Ducks

As far as the playing side, Ford is hitting .282 this season with 35 hits in 46 games -- six knocks away from tying Ray Navarette for the all-time franchise record of 963. The Ducks are on their way to another division crown. But how long can he keep taking swings? Is a 12th or 13th year in Long Island in store for the man who still hears "Lews" raining down on him during a big at-bat -- albeit from an intimate 6,000 fans rather than a boisterous 64,000? Baseball is a hard game to give up.

"Well," Ford paused. "I'm approaching this year like it's my last year playing. But I've done that a couple times in the past. I can't say that maybe I'd do this again. I love playing, but you know, I'm here getting a little older. I still think I can do it. ... We'll see what happens ..."