By Matt Schwab
Bay Area News Group Sports Columnist
Darren Lewis made the extraordinary look, well, routine as a center fielder.
Today, as a first-year assistant baseball coach at Cal State East Bay, Lewis can't give his speed or instincts to the Pioneers players. But the former Moreau Catholic High, Chabot College and Cal star can share his passion for the game and tips galore.
D-Lew brings a lot to the program.
"He's a real good teacher," first-year Pioneers head coach Bob Ralston said of Lewis, 44, who played for the Giants and A's during a 13-year major league career.
"He teaches the kids the fundamentals of hitting. He's real good with hitting and outfield play and baserunning. He breaks skills down. We're lucky to have him."
Ralston, Lewis, and assistant Jon Norfolk hope to bring the program up to speed in the powerful California Collegiate Athletic Association. But it's no small task. Keeping top local talent close to home could be key.
The Pioneers (9-13, 3-9 CCAA) have been in nine games decided by one run. A.J. Gallardo, with a 3-0 record and 0.68 ERA, leads the pitching staff.
A season highlight was a 4-2 win over Division I San Jose State on March 6, in which junior left-hander Michael Chaves (De La Salle) struck out four and allowed a run in three innings. Another lefty, Felipe Carvajal (Freedom), got the win in relief.
"We're learning," Ralston said. "It's a great conference. We're excited to be in that conference. We're going to get better, and for our first year we're very, very competitive."
Ralston and Lewis have a lot in common. Both are from Union City, Moreau Catholic graduates and members of the Mariners' Hall of Fame. Both played at Chabot and in the then-Pac-10 Conference -- Ralston was an All-American at Arizona.
Their playing careers even intersected with the Oakland A's Double-A club, when Ralston was on his way out of pro ball after seven years and Lewis was on his way up.
"We do have a lot of similarities, although he played 13 years in the big leagues and I didn't," Ralston said with a laugh. "It's weird how things worked out. When I got the job I talked to Bob Milano, a former Cal coach, and he told me I ought to give Darren a call."
Ralston has an extensive coaching career, also enjoying success at Diablo Valley College, Clayton Valley, St. Patrick-St. Vincent High, Cal, and in the minor leagues. He believes what makes Lewis, the player and the coach, successful is he "really studied the game."
A Gold Glove winner with the Giants in 1994, Lewis holds the major league record of consecutive games without an error, 392 (938 chances).
Lewis earned his coaching stripes as a Dougherty Valley assistant the past four years under Brian Freitas. Previously, he was a baserunning and outfield coordinator with the Giants for five years.
Lewis' son, Austin, is a Dougherty Valley first baseman, backing up Cal State-Fullerton-bound-star Tanner Pinkston, who thrived under D-Lew's instruction.
Why did Lewis choose the Pioneers?
"It's a way for me to get involved on the grass-roots level in helping young people out," he said. "I think it's important for the major leaguers like myself who've had long careers to stay active in the game."
Away from baseball, Lewis, a close friend of his former manager Dusty Baker, is the co-founder and president of Tastes on the Fly, which owns eight airport restaurants in San Francisco, Boston and New York.
In an eye toward public relations, Lewis and the Pioneers are hosting a free mini clinic for Little Leaguers on Sunday, April 29, in conjunction with a four-game series against Cal Poly.
They hoped to have a free clinic this weekend, but the rainy weather washed it away along with the Pioneers' scheduled series against Cal State Los Angeles.