Jeff Jacobs: Pitching Through Loss

WATERFORD — Father's Day 2015 remains a blur for Connor Lewis. How could it not be?

He had been a terrific athlete at Waterford High, talented enough on the baseball field to be recruited as a pitcher by the University of Hartford. Talent was only part of it. Calm, poised, Lewis had a gift for producing when his team needed him most.

He scored at the buzzer to beat Watertown in the state basketball tournament on March 11, 2014. While that would stand as a once-in-a-lifetime thrill for most, Lewis turned it into an annual event. He scored at the buzzer to beat Sheehan-Wallingford in the state tournament on March 11, 2015.

Three months later, Lewis pitched a no-hitter in the state baseball tournament against Bacon-Colchester. And in what would stand as his encore, he homered in his last at-bat to pull his team within a run in a 3-2 loss to St. Joseph's-Trumbull.

So there they were outside the high school that Thursday night of June 18, 2015, arm in arm. Betsy and Dave Lewis flanking their graduate son, Connor in a gown colored in the familiar blue of the Waterford Lancers. Flanking them were sons Ethan and Zach.

Betsy had written, "Happy Graduation" on the kitchen blackboard and those words remain there inside her home on a cul de sac in this shore town.

"And we didn't have a recent family photo," Betsy said. "Graduation night, right after graduation, we got our family photo. It's not perfect. But we have one."

A group of the graduates — teammates and buddies for years — headed to the Sports Center of Connecticut in Shelton. Their parents headed to Filomena's Restaurant in Waterford.

"David had a great time," Betsy said. "He didn't look sick. He wasn't sick — no indication at all."

David Lewis, 50, was dead early the following afternoon.

After cooking breakfast for Betsy and his mom that Friday morning, Dave decided to dig out a stump of tree out back. He returned filthy, all dirt and sweat.

"I was fooling around with him, 'It didn't look like you did anything to that stump,'" Betsy said. "He goes, 'Hey, I took out four wheelbarrows full of stuff.'"

He headed upstairs to take a shower. Betsy heard a bump, but it wasn't particularly loud, and when you raise three boys you grow accustomed to crashing sounds. Ten minutes later, she went upstairs to put on some makeup. She opened the bedroom door.

"All I saw were his feet," she said. "He was lying at the foot of the bed. I thought he might be looking for something under the bed. Then I came around the corner …

"I saw his face."

The cul de sac suddenly was filled with emergency vehicles. The paramedics did their best, but Betsy knew he was gone. Dave was taken to Lawrence and Memorial Hospital in New London. There was 90-percent blockage in three arteries and 75 percent in a fourth. He had no chest pains, no symptoms beyond some discomfort in his feet and minor discoloration in his shins.

The boy she had met after the ninth grade at First Baptist Church in Waterford and had dated through most of high school, the boy who was a basketball star and would play a few years at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the man she had loved and had been married to for 27.5 years — yes, he was gone.

Later, Betsy walked out in the hospital hallway to get her three boys, and in the midst of her sorrow, she saw something unexpected and wonderful. All sorts of familiar faces. That's what Dave Lewis meant to people around Waterford. They had rushed to the hospital, too.

"My friends used to ask, 'Has your dad ever gotten mad at you — ever?" Connor said. "They saw him as such a gentle guy. He was always there at my games. Before every basketball game and when I pitched, he'd send me a text, 'Play hard tonight. Be tough. Keep it rolling.' After games, he'd tell me what he thought. Baseball he didn't know so much, but basketball he did.

"A lot of kids are self-centered. It's all about them. It's never what I was about. That is because of him. He'd never let me be the main focus on a team. It would, be, 'Listen to your coaches.' He wouldn't yell at anybody at games. None of that."

Dave had left RPI after a couple years, worked at Radway's Dairy of New London full time while getting an associate's degree at Mitchell College. Up every day at 3 a.m. to drive the milk truck. He'd get his bachelor's degree in computer science at New Haven. He would work at Travelers Insurance for more than two decades. To the end, as a senior information director, he'd drive to Colchester and take the bus into Hartford.

"He'd wear a suit to work, so he'd come in with a long overcoat and a scarf to games," Betsy said. "All the kids called it the man scarf, especially Griffin Beaney."

At Beaney's graduation party, not long after Dave's death, Betsy gave him that scarf.

Beaney, Kyle McComic, Kevin Johnson, there are 10 of them, guys who played and won at Waterford. Their bonds are tight. The bond between Connor Lewis and McComic, who headed to pitch for Central Connecticut, is forever forged by the beauty and brutality of life. McComic's dad, Rob, died suddenly May 10, 2012. He was 43.

"At first I had been surprised by how Kyle handled it, he seemed totally fine for a long time," Connor said. "About a year later, he grew angry. We'd got over his house and he'd disappear for two hours. He'd yell at his mom and sister. It was tough for him.

"He worked his way through it. He has been really helpful to me through it all. He talks to me all the time."

McComic's mom Jackie, too, has been there for Betsy Lewis.

"It's eerie how this paralleled each other," Betsy said. "And what happened the day after Dave died, those two boys, best friends, they just pitched their hearts out."

It seemed like half of Waterford had gone over Tommy Pezzolesi's house the night of Dave Lewis's death. The boys, their parents, that's where Connor spent the night. Betsy wasn't ready yet. She sat alone in the dark of her bedroom. Connor texted his American Legion coach. He said he wanted to pitch on Saturday. He wanted to pitch the first game, but Betsy had to go to the funeral home.

"I just knew I was supposed to be out there on the mound that day," Connor said.

"I knew David wanted him to be right where he was," Betsy said. "I knew he wanted our kids to keep living life."

McComic pitched the opener against Tri-Town. Betsy was there when Connor pitched the second game. So were all sorts of folks from Waterford. And when the two were done, Waterford had swept the doubleheader. The two boys, bonded by their loss, had combined for 24 strikeouts. Lewis had three hits in support of McComic and four more during his two-hit pitching shutout.

"You can't make that kind of stuff up," Betsy said. "I was so impressed with Kyle that day. He knew Connor needed him. He had a purpose. Connor had him when his father died. He made sure he had Connor when his father died."

Betsy Lewis laughed when she said remembered her husband losing it only once. He couldn't put an exercise bike together and threw it across the room. He was so easy to get along with, considerate, the kind of guy who would linger among the greeting cards just to find the perfect one.

"It was never about him," Betsy said. "He was such a good husband because he was such a good father."

I met Dave Lewis twice. Mike DiMauro of the New London Day introduced us at a baseball game. "You're my second-favorite sports writer, next to Mike," he said. We laughed. We talked easy for 45 minutes that afternoon. The next time I saw him, it was like I knew him all my life. I never saw him a third time. I didn't have a chance to tell him I had a heart attack a few days before my 50th birthday, that they had to LifeStar me for a quadruple bypass. My own son graduated from high school Thursday night. Sunday, Father's Day 2016, is June 19, exactly one year since Dave Lewis died. And I can't shake the thought I was luckier than lucky to have a second chance at life.

"I don't know I even thought about Father's Day last year," Connor said. "I don't know if I allowed myself to think about it. It has been harder as it approaches, but I feel it will be a day when I can look back and know I was fortunate to have such a great dad. I was talking to Kyle about it the other night, how unfair that two great dads were taken away and there are horrible people out there, horrible dads still out there. But that's the way it is.

"I go through Twitter and I see kids complaining about their mom or dad and that they're annoying them or they say they hate their parents. It makes me so mad to see that stuff. It makes me sick. Your parents love you. Don't take it for granted. Be thankful for what you have."

After being redshirted as a freshman, Connor is pitching for the Torrington Titans of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League of New England. His time will come at UHart.

"My coaches sat me down a couple of times to talk about it," Connor said. "I'm not super emotional. I do have times think about it alone. Be upset alone."

"You wouldn't know it from talking to him, but Connor's my most sensitive kid," Betsy said. "A mom knows. I knew he'd be the one to struggle the most. Kevin Johnson is another of the guys and his older brother Matt has really helped Connor. I just think we have all grown.

"I do know there have been a lot more hugs the past year."

Betsy says the time is coming soon when she'll erase "Happy Graduation" from the blackboard. She knows you never erase the love, never erase memories of a lifetime. She is wrong, though, about one thing. The family graduation picture that sits inside her home on the cul de sac in Waterford is perfect.

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