RIP to Richie Lewis, a record-breaking college pitcher who went on to have a 7-year career in the major leagues with five different teams. He died on December 8 at the age of 55. Lewis pitched for the Baltimore Orioles (1992, 1998), Florida Marlins (1993-95), Detroit Tigers (1996), Oakland Athletics (1997) and Cincinnati Reds (1997).
“He was dominant on the mound but his infectious personality is what many friends will remember most,” said Florida State University baseball coach Mike Martin Jr. “He was a loyal friend that will be missed dearly. Our thoughts and prayers go out to [wife] Andrea and the kids.”
Richie Todd Lewis was born on January 25, 1966, in Muncie, Ind. He attended Southside High School in Muncie, and any articles written about him quickly mentioned two things: his height (which was listed anywhere from 5-foot-6 to 5-foot-10) and his fastball, which was clocking in the 90s even as a high school player. He threw multiple no-hitters and had hundreds of strikeouts as a high school pitcher, and he also was a strong hitter and a base-stealing threat. By the time he was a senior, more than 100 colleges and 23 major-league teams were interested him. Fortunately, his high school baseball coach helped him stay focused. His high school baseball coach was his father, Larry Lewis.
“Lots of coaches are still baffled about how hard he can throw,” said his coach/dad. “It’s hard to explain. All I know is he’s in good physical condition and he’s taken good care of his arm. We just have to be sure not to overwork him.”
The elder Lewis encouraged his son to go to college rather than turn pro right after high school. Richie Lewis was interested in going to a big school where the weather was warm. Florida State, then, was a natural choice. He worked both as a starter and reliever for the Seminoles baseball team and ended his freshman year with a 9-6 record, 2.99 ERA and a team-leading 117 strikeouts. He saved the team at the Metro Baseball Tournament in 1985. With the team already in the losers’ bracket, FSU had to get past South Carolina (twice) and Virginia Tech to win the tournament. In those three games, Lewis picked up a win and 2 saves, allowing just a run on 3 hits in 8-2/3 innings while striking out 13. He won the tournament’s MVP award, a rare accomplishment for a reliever.
“A big chaw of tobacco bulging his cheek, the remorseless expression of an assassin on his face and an assortment of blurring fastballs and back-breaking curves,” is how Tallahassee Democrat columnist George Maselli described him
FSU advanced to the championship game of the College World Series in 1986 before losing to Arizona. Lewis had 2 wins, 2 saves and 23 strikeouts in the tournament. He gave up 2 homers in the final game after tying a tournament record by making his fifth appearance. In his three seasons at Florida State, Lewis struck out 520 batters, which remains a Seminole record and is third all-time in NCAA history. He holds the school record for most career walks, too, with 232. Lewis also is in the school’s Top 10 for complete games, innings pitched, strikeouts per 9 innings and wins.
Lewis was drafted in the Second Round by the Montreal Expos in the 1987 Amateur Draft — which was a little low, in the opinion of his coach, Mike Martin. He was the ninth college pitcher taken in the draft, behind Jack McDowell, Mike Harkey and Jack Armstrong, among others. “Richie Lewis will go out and show there are not nine pitchers in the country better than he is,” Martin said. “I’ve heard some reports that Richie exerts maximum effort on every pitch and some organizations think that’s a detriment on a long career. But I know other pitchers who don’t exert maximum effort and they have trouble getting people out.”
Some teams may have been scared off by Lewis’ abnormally high pitch counts in college, as he worked more than 9 innings in a game on multiple occasions. He may have even topped 200 pitches in a game against LSU in 1986, in which he walked 13 batters and struck out 12. Some of that was by his own design — Lewis was so competitive that he threatened to fight his coach if he tried to take him out of a ballgame. Regardless, Lewis became an early example of the overuse that some college pitchers endured for the sake of team victories.
Lewis seemed to use the perceived slight as motivation. “They’ve got their computers that say a guy under 6 feet tall won’t last,” he said. “Everybody has been telling me all my life I couldn’t do this or that. Looks like one more time I’ll have to prove them wrong.”
Lewis debuted with the Expos’ Triple-A team in Indianapolis in 1987 and was roughed up in a couple of appearances. After that, he settled in as a started for the Double-A Jacksonville Expos in 1988, and he stayed there for most of the next three seasons. He was used as a starter, but he averaged only about 5 innings a start. He struck out a batter an inning or more, and in 1988 he nearly walked a batter an inning as well — 56 walks and 60 strikeouts in 61-1/3 innings. He eventually harnessed his control on the mound, but his behavior off the field gained him notoriety. He ran into trouble with the law on multiple occasions, and his swagger made him stand out, even in spring training. He wore four gold chains around his neck when he pitched, and one of them had a pendant that read “Hellcat” — a nickname given to him by a college teammate.
“You know how a cat gets when he’s backed against the wall? He fights his way out, and I’m sorta like that,” Lewis explained.
Lewis was slowed by tendonitis in 1988, and the Expos were conservative with his pitch counts. His pitching coach, Nardi Contreras, tried to teach him finesse so that he didn’t have to use maximum effort with every pitch. “Richie has come a long way [from his injury],” Contreras said in 1989. “He’s getting his velocity back into the 90s. He’s just got to remember to not go out and pitch like the old Richie Lewis.”
The Expos converted Lewis into a reliever. He took to the role well, though a 1990 elbow surgery kept him off the mound for a few months. He was traded to the Baltimore Orioles for a minor-leaguer in 1991 and, though he’d gone through four arm surgeries to that point, he went back to being a starter. In 1992, he had a 10-9 record for Triple-A Rochester, with a 3.29 ERA and 154 strikeouts in a career-high 159-1/3 innings pitched. The Orioles brought him to the majors on July 15, but he returned to Rochester days later without having seen any action. He finally was given a start in Baltimore on July 31 against Boston. It wasn’t necessarily a pretty performance, as he walked 6 and gave up 3 runs in 4-1/3 innings. Still, he picked up his first major-league win when the game was called in the sixth inning on account of rain. He got a third call to the majors in August to start a game against Oakland. This time, the A’s knocked him out in the third inning and left him with a 1-1 record and 10.80 ERA in the majors that year.
The Florida Marlins selected Lewis in the November 1992 expansion draft. For most of the next three seasons, Lewis was a key part of the Marlins bullpen. He appeared in 123 games with the team between 1993 and 1995, with all but one of them coming in relief. Lewis’ best season was in 1993, when he had a 6-3 record in 57 games. One of those wins came courtesy of his first major-league hit. The Marlins and Houston Astros were locked in a 4-4 tie going into the bottom of the 13th inning on August 26. Lewis came to bat against Astros reliever Doug Jones and ripped a liner into left field for a walkoff hit to score Rich Renteria from second base.
“I’ll tell you what,” he later said. “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.”
Lewis had a career-low ERA in 1993 with a 3.26 mark. It shot up to 5.67 in 1994, however, as Lewis struggled with his control. He walked 6.3 batters per 9 innings and led the National League with 10 wild pitches. He spent 1995 between the Marlins and Triple-A Charlotte, where he got some work as a starter. He made his one and only start for Florida on August 11, 1995, and he held the Colorado Rockies to 2 runs on 6 hits in 6-1/3 innings for a 3-2 win. He was returned to the minors after that game, but he was brought back in September and pitched well enough over his final 6 appearances to give him a 3.75 ERA in 21 appearances with Florida.
Lewis became a free agent after the 1995 season. He signed a contract with the San Diego Padres, but before he ever threw a pitch in a regular-season game for them, he was traded to Detroit, along with catcher Raul Casanova and outfielder Melvin Nieves for pitcher Sean Bergman, outfielder Todd Steverson and a minor-leaguer. He became one of the workhorses of the Tigers bullpen in 1996, appearing in 72 games, second only to LOOGY Mike Myers’ 83 games. He had 4 wins and 6 losses as a reliever and picked up the only 2 saves of his major-league career. With 65 walks, his control remained problematic, but he had 78 strikeouts, which led all Detroit relievers and was third-best on the team.
Detroit released him after the season, and Lewis signed with the Oakland A’s for 1997. However, after sporting a 9.64 ERA over 14 appearances, Lewis was sent to Triple-A Edmonton. He was later released and signed with Cincinnati, where he made 4 appearances and gave up 4 earned runs on 3 home runs in 5-2/3 innings. He spent most of 1998 back in the Orioles organization with the Rochester Red Wings. He was called up by Baltimore to make 2 appearances, including a start. He allowed 8 runs in 4-2/3 innings in what were his final appearances in the majors. A shoulder injury brought his season to an early end.
Over 7 years in the major leagues, Lewis appeared in 217 games, including 4 starts. He had a 14-15 record and 2 saves, with a 4.88 ERA. He struck out 244 batters and walked 191 in 293-1/3 innings, and he had a WHIP of 1.630.
For the next five seasons, Lewis pitched for several Triple-A teams, as well as a couple of teams in the independent Atlantic League. He played in Mexico and Korea as well. He closed out his career in 2003 with the Edmonton Trappers, the Triple-A affiliate of Montreal. He came out of retirement when he was asked to help fill out a pitching staff that had been depleted by injuries and possibly get a call to the majors with the Expos. He pitched well, though one bad outing left him with a 6.08 ERA in 7 games. However, the Expos were controlled by Major League Baseball at the time. Even though the team was above .500 and quite competitive, MLB did not bring up any players from Triple-A when the rosters expanded in September.
Though injuries brought his major-league career to an early end, Lewis overcame many expectations about him. Before he was even drafted, ESPN’s Peter Gammons warned that his overuse in college would make him “over the hill” at 23 years old. Lewis pitched until he was 37 in four different countries, appearing in more than 500 games at all levels. He was inducted into the Delaware County Athletic Hall of Fame in 1994 and the FSU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1995.
Lewis briefly worked as a minor-league pitching coach in the Dodgers organization, but it seems he spent much of his post-baseball career away from the sport. In 2016, he was a guest on the “Dr. Phil” show, as his family confronted him about his drinking. He acknowledged suffering from depression, which was associated with the injuries that derailed his major-league career. He was offered help and support by his former FSU teammate Deion Sanders. This episode took place five years ago, and with no updates available, I can only hope that the offers for help were legitimate and not just for show, and that the Lewis family was able to move forward from that low point.
Lewis is survived by his wife and three children.
For more information: Tallahassee Democrat
For more information about depression: American Psychiatry Association