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Remembering Richie Lewis
The journeyman reliever, who died this week, stood 5'6" but was larger than life.
Richie Lewis only stood 5’6” tall. But in so many ways, he was larger than life.
He was pure adrenaline, a fastball rocketing toward the catcher's mitt.
The Muncie, Indiana native -- who died this week at age 55 -- was probably the best collegiate pitcher in the country during the mid-1980s for Florida State (one of his roommates happened to be Deion Sanders).
Richie would always take the ball. And he would throw and throw and throw. A bulldog on the mound. In the 1986 College World Series, Lewis pitched five times in 10 games, and in one 1987 game against LSU, depending on your source, he threw 178, or 212, or 198 pitches. It might as well have been a million pitches. He’s ranked third all-time in NCAA history with 520 career strikeouts.
The only thing livelier than Richie’s fastball back then was his bravado. After a college teammate nicknamed him “Hellcat,” he wore a “Hellcat” gold pendant around his neck. He’d do something silly or stupid (such as shooting out a streetlight) and the embellishment and legend would grow and grow, and you didn’t know where the fact ended and the fiction began — not-so-tall tales.
All the throwing at FSU took its toll. His arm would never be the same because of the overuse. He slipped to the second round of the draft and was scooped up by the Expos.
"Everybody has been telling me all my life I couldn't do this or that," he said after his draft day slide. "Looks like one more time I'll have to prove them all wrong."
He'd need four surgeries and fistfuls of Advil just to make it to the majors. But even with all the pain and procedures and prodding, even with his best pitching days behind him, he was able to grit it out and hang on for a while as a journeyman reliever. Baltimore in 1992. The expansion Marlins for three years (Florida took Richie over an unprotected Yankees prospect named Mariano Rivera). In Florida, he shared the bullpen with guys like Trevor Hoffman and Robb Nen and Bryan Harvey.
One of his biggest career highlights came in an Aug. 26, 1993 game against the Astros. He entered the game in the 12th with the score knotted at four and a runner on second and a future hall of famer, Craig Biggio, at bat. He got Biggio to ground to shortstop for the double play, and in the 13th, he got outs against Steve Finley, Jeff Bagwell and Luis Gonzalez.
Onto the bottom of the 13th, and the Marlins had two men on base against all-star closer Doug Jones.
The pitcher's spot came up. Lewis stayed in the game to hit. He looped the ball into the left field corner for the walk-off win.
"I'll tell you what," he said after the game, "with the exception of watching my daughter be born, this is the biggest day of my life. It ranks right up there with getting married and having a baby."
After Richie's years with Florida, he landed in San Diego for spring training in 1996, which is where he connected with Ken Caminiti, and in each other they found a kindred spirit.
I ended up talking to Richie for my book on Ken a few years ago. Richie told me about the time he, Ken and Rob Deer rode their motorcycles into the clubhouse together.
“We decided we’re going to ride our Harleys in,” he said. “When you pull in, everything is concrete. You could drop a pin and it breaks glass, it’s that loud. Of course, Cammy isn’t scared of nothing, and Rob Deer joined us, so all three of us, we just pulled in like a four-foot-wide entrance to the clubhouse, and Bochy’s office is the first door on the right, and we just rode our bikes in there.”
Near the end of spring training that year, Richie was traded to Detroit, then he bounced around with Oakland, and Cincinnati, and back with the Orioles, and drifted around the minors until 2003, when it was finally time to do something else, but like a lot of ex-players, Richie struggled finding that something else.
Looking back on his career, Richie was proud of the way he carried himself as a big leaguer.
"You look at my stats, and I'm your average bear, I'm not a superstar, I'm not a stud," he told me. In fact, his career wins above replacement was 0.1 -- the epitome of a replacement-level player -- with a 14-15 record. But the little things mattered to him, like never getting money when he wasn't available to play … well, besides one time with Detroit.
He was pitching against Minnesota on June 20, 1996, when Rich Becker bunted. "I pulled my hamstring trying to get around Cecil Fielder on a bunt," he said. "I called it, waived him off, the whole spiel, but he's coming in, I'm either gonna take a hit from a fullback that's bigger than anyone in the NFL, and we're not going to get the out, or I'm just gonna scoop it up and throw it on the run like a shortstop, and that's what I did. But I had to stop real quick and I pulled my hammy, so I was in Toledo with the Mud Hens for a week and I got paid major league money for that."
Richie and I stayed in occasional contact over the past few years, texting or messaging every few months. We talked about maybe writing a book together. By 2020, he was committed to going back to the gym.
"I haven't picked up a weight or ran a step since 2004… for crying out loud. This is going to hurt," he texted me.
He wrote me back a few days later.
"No joke, when I signed up and worked out for the first day in 16 years, the next day, CLOSED lol," he wrote. "I just really think that God has a great sense of humor."
There was so much love and care around Richie from his wife and three children, and he had recently become a grandfather.
Things would be good with Richie for a while, and then he’d struggle and find himself drifting … I was really hoping things would work out for him. And then I got the phone call yesterday alerting me to the awful news, and now my heart hurts.