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OC Register: Twins prospect Royce Lewis, Torii Hunter have known each other for years … without knowing it

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As the Morton’s Steakhouse in South Coast Plaza wound down for the night, William Lewis was still pouring wine. A restaurateur’s hours are long, the perks often subtle.

One subtle perk: it isn’t easy for a ballplayer to get clean, change his clothes, leave Angel Stadium after the final out, and still have time to eat a steak and drink a glass of wine. All of Orange County closes shop too soon, or at least it did back then, Lewis said. He began as a sommelier at Morton’s when Manager Terry Collins wore a pinstriped periwinkle jersey and Gary Disarcina, Dave Hollins, Troy Glaus and Darin Erstad were the big names in town. He saw them often.

“They would call me,” Lewis recalled. “That’s how they got to know me because I would be open a little bit later. They would just give me a quick call. … We could take care of the guys, they would be in there for the most part by themselves. There wouldn’t be fans bugging them. They could have a nice dinner. They could just be guys eating their dinner, and they would get out of there.”

As Lewis poured the wine – he was Morton’s sommelier and assistant general manager – he did not discuss baseball. Win or lose, the conversation was the same. How’s your wife? How are the kids? How’s the wine?

The faces changed over the years – Howie Kendrick, Jered Weaver, Torii Hunter – but a baseball player’s quest for a good, late meal did not. It helped that visiting teams often stayed at the Westin Hotel down the street from Morton’s. Lewis said he gathered a decent collection of autographs over the years, something he could give his son one day.

Years later, Lewis decided to strike out on his own. He opened his first Winery Restaurant and Wine Bar in Tustin in 2007. A third location opened its doors in La Jolla five months ago. Business is good. That ought to please Weaver and Erstad, whom Lewis said helped with his initial investment.

Lewis, a former football wide receiver at Fullerton Junior College and Chico State, said he told his family that famous athletes sometimes stopped in for a meal. Hunter, a frequent diner during his years with the Angels (2008-12), just happened to be one of his oldest son’s favorite players. But if William Lewis specifically mentioned getting to know Hunter, Royce Lewis doesn’t remember.

“(Hunter) gave my dad his phone number but he kept it real low-key,” Royce said. “He never told me (Hunter) was in his phone contacts. I’d ask him, ‘did you see him hit a home run?’ He’d say, ‘yeah it was cool.’”

Royce Lewis turned into a pretty good baseball player himself. In four years at JSerra Catholic High, his team won three Trinity League championships. In 2016, Lewis won a gold medal with the USA Baseball 18U National Team. Pick an individual award given to the best baseball players in Southern California; Lewis probably won it.

In June 2017, the Minnesota Twins held the first overall pick in the amateur draft. Hunter was nearly two years into his retirement and a special advisor to the Twins’ front office. He was the perfect bridge from chief baseball officer Thad Levine and General Manager Derek Falvey to whichever young man heard his name called atop the draft.

Lewis, a shortstop, was the Twins’ choice at number 1. That was the day he remembers his father breaking the news: oh yeah, by the way, I’ve known Torii Hunter for years.

That was the day William Lewis broke the news to Hunter: oh yeah, by the way, you just drafted my son.

Hunter “was just surprised that I didn’t tell him,” William Lewis said. “Then he was happy for me. He said, ‘you didn’t tell me?’ I said I’m not going to talk about my kid who’s 10 years old when I met him. That’s how long ago it was.”

Flash forward a year. Royce Lewis said he and Hunter have their own relationship now. After last season ended, Lewis spent about a week with Hunter at his home in Dallas. Just like his father, Royce Lewis didn’t always talk about baseball with Hunter: “Tutoring. Life skills. He taught me how to live my life, do it the right way.”

The early reviews on Lewis the baseball player are good. He has a .302 batting average for the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Kernels, the Twins’ Class-A affiliate. Tuesday, he played in the Midwest League All-Star Game. William Lewis flew out for the occasion. Hunter was there, too. Royce Lewis went 1 for 2 with a single and a stolen base.

The off-the-field reviews on Lewis are very similar to the off-the-field reviews of Hunter.

“He’s such a good kid, he doesn’t want to disappoint anyone,” said Jeremy Zoll, the Twins’ director of minor league operations. “That comes in the form of answering all the fan mail, reading every letter, signing for the fans, saying yes to the interview requests. That’s different than being a high school player in Orange County, even with all the attention that comes with that. Toby Gardenhire (the Kernels’ manager) is trying to help him with it.”

If there is a moral to this story, it’s that in baseball, it isn’t always about who you know.

William Lewis had plenty of opportunities to share glowing reviews of his teenage son’s baseball career with the professional athletes who ate at his restaurant. He didn’t. He didn’t want to. His son got a $6.725 million signing bonus anyway.

With Hunter, “we just talked about family, the kids, things like this – normal conversation, you know – and just feeding him a good meal,” William Lewis said. “If he wants a nice glass of wine, he knows where to go.”

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