ATLANTA (Apr. 10) — Some people would rather be lucky than good. For Georgia Tech baseball standout Richard Lewis, however, he’s a little bit of both.
As the leading hitter in the Atlantic Coast Conference with a .474 batting average, there’s no question that Lewis has outstanding baseball skills. But as someone who faced a very serious case of bacterial meningitis and lived to tell about it, Lewis is certainly a little bit lucky.
A graduate of Marietta’s Pope High School, Lewis arrived on the Georgia Tech campus in the fall of 1998 as part of a highly regarded freshman class. He worked his way into a primary backup position until the meningitis suddenly struck midway through fall practice.
“It just hit me one Sunday morning,” recalled the 6-1 second baseman. “I was in my room and it was getting difficult to breathe, so I called my mom and she came down and took me to the hospital. They didn’t really find anything then, so she took me back to the house.
“Then in the middle of the night I woke up with a pounding headache and I couldn’t sleep. My dad took me back to the hospital and I don’t remember anything from the next three days.”
What happened over those next three days was serious battle with a life-threatening illness. Lewis’ coaches and teammates all received vaccinations as they waited and watched on their fallen comrade. And with a little luck, Lewis came through the entire episode with flying colors.
“I was in the hospital for a week,” said Lewis. “It puts life in perspective because it’s such an extremely life-threatening illness. I didn’t know what was going on during the whole thing. I came out 20 pounds lighter and with a completely new outlook on life.
“It just makes you realize what you have going and how lucky you are. There are stories that have surfaced about a lot of college kids having the same thing. I haven’t heard of anybody that has come out of it as well as I did without any repercussions. I just thank God that I was so lucky.”
But there’s no amount of luck involved in Lewis’s success on the baseball diamond. He leads the ACC in batting and base hits (65) while helping the Yellow Jackets to the top of the conference standings midway through the regular season league chase.
Lewis and his teammates return to action this week with five games, including four at Tech’s Russ Chandler Stadium. The Jackets (26-8, 10-2 ACC) visit Mercer on Tuesday at 7 p.m. and then host The Citadel on Wednesday at 4 p.m. before opening a three-game ACC series against Virginia this weekend. First pitch for Friday and Saturday is set for 7 p.m., while Sunday’s contest will start at 1:30 p.m.
“I didn’t really expect to do this well at all,” Lewis said. “I set my goal at the beginning of the year to hit .400. When I’m batting I try not to think too much about the at bat before or the next at bat, but instead try to do whatever I can each time at the plate.”
And that strategy has certainly proved to be successful this season. As the Yellow Jackets’ everyday second baseman and leadoff hitter, Lewis has even surprised himself with his success.
“I’m extremely shocked,” he said. “But as the hits keep coming, all you want is more and more. Obviously you don’t want to drop off, so I just try to keep it going.
“I’m primarily a contact hitter, but if a guy makes a mistake then I can hit for a little power. I have a lot more extra base hits this year than I had last year. Wherever a pitcher is throwing it, that’s where I’m trying to hit it.”
Lewis stepped into the leadoff role after Georgia Tech’s regular leadoff man – Matthew Boggs – underwent surgery in the fall and was declared out for the season. Thus far, he has paved the way for a Tech offense that is batting .331 and averaging 8.4 runs per game.
“At the beginning of the fall I set my goal of hitting second in the lineup before Boggs got hurt,” recalled Lewis. “Hitting behind him would have been great because he is obviously one of the best leadoff hitters in the country. To have him around with all of the other guys that are already having great seasons would have made for an even more potent offense. When he went down, I just tried to step in and do the best job that I could.”
A middle infielder by trade, Lewis arrived to a Georgia Tech team with a very crowded infield. With Boggs entrenched as the everyday second baseman, Lewis used his potent bat to work his way into the lineup in center field. But midway through the 1999 season, head coach Danny Hall made a change that moved Lewis to second base and sent Boggs to the outfield.
“It was the biggest thrill to get back to the infield from the outfield,” said Lewis. “I started in the outfield for 15 games or so, but I never really felt comfortably out there. I played fairly well, but not like a good center fielder should.
“I finally got back in the infield on a Sunday afternoon against Wake Forest. I was so pumped up for that game to finally get back on the infield where all the action is.”
Lewis has been part of the action for the last year and a half, making all the plays and helping the Yellow Jackets pile up the victories. After 1999’s disappointment of not making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 15 years, Lewis and his teammates are focused on starting a new streak this season.
“Everybody remembers last year, and that’s just extra incentive to do well this year,” said Lewis. “Right now we’re just trying to get to 40 wins and then see what happens from there.”
And with a little luck, Lewis will be part of yet another successful baseball season on the Flats.