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Sept. 28, 2013

By Jon Cooper
Sting Daily

Baseball has such a long season that players understand they’re going to have good stretches and bad ones. Finding a way to have more of the former — even if that way is not necessarily spectacular — separates the great players from the rest.

From 1999 through 2001, Richard Lewis employed a steady, workmanlike, approach and became one of the greats in Georgia Tech history.

Lewis will be recognized on Oct. 18, as one of seven athletes inducted into the Georgia Tech Athletics Hall of Fame. He’ll join swimming’s Shilo Ayalon, football’s Kelly Campbell, volleyball’s Kele Eveland, track and field’s Andria King, golf’s Troy Matteson and two-sport star (football and baseball) and football assistant coach Billy Williamson.

“You never really think about that kind of thing while you’re playing. You just go about your business, do the best you can and continually try to get better,” said the Marietta native and Pope High School star. “When some of the guys I played with were starting to get inducted, you know, Mark Teixeira, Chuck Crowder, Cory Vance, it started to creep into my mind that [induction] might be a possibility.”

Similarly, Lewis crept into the minds of Yellow Jackets coaches scouting Pope and the East Cobb Yankees in Connie Mack League play.

“I would never say that I was part of a spectacular career in terms of being able to wow you with one visit,” he said. “I always just was a guy that you looked at and had a couple of hits, made all the plays. To guys that came to see me play enough over a long enough period of time, that became very attractive to them. Of course, you have those guys that will wow you, your big-time recruits. I was just never one of those guys. But good programs also are made up of guys that continually get the job done.”

That’s what made Lewis a perfect fit for Georgia Tech.

“There was nothing flashy about him. But the way he way he went about his business, you could just count on him every day,” said Georgia Tech Baseball Head Coach Danny Hall, who will present Lewis at the induction banquet. “Whether it was in a practice or in a game he was going to give a very good effort and he was going to make everybody else better around him because of it.”

Lewis’ consistency and his ability to get on base made the Jackets’ offense go. Ironically, in a sport that most aptly fits the cliché “it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” he used his sprinter’s speed to give his teammates a lift and give opposing teams, especially pitchers, fits.

“Speed kills,” Lewis said. “You can turn a walk or a hit, hit-by-pitch, into a double maybe a triple. You also have the opportunity, if you can bunt — which I could — to bring the corners in and that opens up the gap between the third baseman and the shortstop as well as between the first baseman and the second baseman.

“You want to get pitchers into the stretch,” he added. “They’re typically not as comfortable pitching from the stretch so anything you can do to get a pitcher out of his rhythm….So it’s just one of those baseball things that doesn’t show up in the box score but can definitely influence a game.”

Of course a lot of what Lewis did made it into the box score and the record books.

Lewis .376 career batting average is sixth all-time in Georgia Tech history, his 259 hits rank 17th, and his 182 runs are tied for 21st. He led the team in hits in 2000, and led the team in RBIs runs and steals in 2001.

His 27-game hitting streak in 2000, ties for third-longest in school history, while his 56-game streak reaching base (2000 and ’01) is the fifth-longest in school history — only two games behind his teammate, Teixeira, who did it in the same span of seasons. He’s also the last Jacket to hit for the cycle, doing so on Feb. 17, 2001 against Georgia Southern. Lewis’ 109 hits in 2000 are the third-most in a season for a Yellow Jacket, while his 100 hits the next season rank 11th.

Perhaps most impressive, is that he was the first and is one of only two Yellow Jackets ever to record more than one 100-hit season, doing so in 2000 and 2001 — teammate Victor Menocal (2001 and ’02) is the other.

It’s the achievement that Lewis admits makes him the most proud of his time on The Flats.

“Absolutely I would say that it would have to be that one,” he said. “To have a lot of these guys come through — Nomar [Garciaparra], Jay Payton, [Jason] Varitek, [Mark] Teixeira — and to be able to say you were the first to do something in a group like that is pretty special.”

Sparked by Lewis at the top of the order, the Jackets won nearly 70 percent of their games (129-56, a .697 winning percentage), never losing more than 20 games in a season, and won nearly 60 percent of their ACC games (43-29, .597). In 2000, Tech won the ACC regular-season and Conference Tournament championships and won the NCAA’s Atlanta Regional in 2000. Lewis earned second-team All-America honors as well as All-ACC first-team honors in 2000 and was named second-team All-ACC in 2001.

Yet, Lewis’ heroics and greatness on the diamond might have taken place instead on the basketball court.

“We probably had to convince him,” said Hall. “He was a really good high school basketball player and probably was entertaining as any small Division I basketball offers as he was baseball offers.”

Lewis admits he had opportunities to fulfill his hoop dreams, but found baseball at Georgia Tech a better option.

“I considered playing basketball either at Mercer or at Furman but the opportunity to play at Georgia Tech and the opportunity to advance into professional baseball — which became a reality — was much too great to pass up,” he said. “There was some talk on campus that I might get a shot to play basketball but it never really came to fruition. It’s flattering, but I think I made the right choice.”

Lewis’ instincts were confirmed, as following his junior season, the Atlanta Braves selected him as a supplemental first-round pick (No. 40 overall).

“It was quite a shock,” he admitted. “I had been doing a lot of talking with the [Florida] Marlins and the [Cincinnati] Reds and they seemed like an option, early second round, maybe third round. When the Braves took me that early it was definitely a surprise. I’m from Marietta, played college ball in Atlanta and then to be drafted by Atlanta was a great feeling.”

Lewis methodically began his climb toward the Majors and was right on the cusp in 2004. After being included in a trade to the Cubs, he was named Southern League (Double-A) MVP and finished the season with Iowa (Triple-A). But in his Iowa season finale, he injured his leg sliding into second base. The injury would alter his career. He found out later that he was to be called up by Chicago following that game.

It was a cruel blow even by the standards of baseball, which can be a very cruel and humbling game.

“It’s heartbreaking but you never assume that that’s going to be the end. You just assume you’re going to rehab and everything will be okay. It didn’t quite go that way for me,” said Lewis, who retired as a ballplayer in 2008. “I did a ton of rehab but I was never quite the same player.

“Because it wasn’t the same and I wasn’t able to do the things I was able to do before, it had become not as fun a sport,” he added. “That helped with the transition with moving on but it was not easy to go from having Major League aspirations to being so close to then having that taken away. With each passing year it gets easier. Obviously, playing in the Majors, would have been great but that’s not the way it turned out and that’s okay, too.”

Lewis went back to Georgia Tech and competed his degree in Management in July 2009. Today he works with Alpharetta-based REACH Health. He’s still a fan of the Yellow Jackets, although being the father to a four-year-old daughter and two-year-old twins, a son and a daughter, makes it tough getting to games.

“I do keep up,” he said. “We’re trying to get their attention span to lengthen a little bit. We’re getting to that point.”

Hall would love to have Lewis come to the stadium, if not to watch an entire game, then just long enough to talk with his team.

“He would be a good guy just to talk to everybody,” Hall said. “Physically he wasn’t the biggest guy but just in terms of performance and the way he handled his business he was one of the best.”

• Richard Lewis will be inducted along with six other former student-athletes on Friday, Oct. 18, at the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center. Tickets for the induction dinner are $50 and can be purchased through the Alexander-Tharpe Fund at 404-894-6124. The inductees will also be honored during Tech’s football game against Syracuse on Saturday, Oct. 19, at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

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