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Don Lyons had major-league heart

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When Don Lyons was a kid, he wanted to be a baseball player, a firefighter and a teacher.

Lofty dreams indeed, but Lyons became all three. He played minor league baseball in the Los Angeles Angels farm system, was a firefighter for the San Francisco Fire Department and taught English at Sonoma Valley High for more than a decade. And for the last 18 years he was the Sonoma Valley High Dragon baseball coach.

But for the past two years, he waged a gallant fight against cancer, a fight that he lost last Friday morning, Oct. 20. He was 63.

Don Lyons was born Oct. 7, 1954, in San Francisco, the third of four brothers.

He went to Riordan High School in San Francisco where he was cut from the freshman baseball team. The next year, as a sophomore, not only did he make the varsity, he was a three-year starter at first base and was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in 1972. He didn’t sign, and instead headed to CCSF where after a year, he was drafted again by the Orioles and the Oakland A’s in two separate drafts in 1973.

Lyons again declined to sign and headed to Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, on a full-ride baseball scholarship. Along the way, he was accorded various honors and was the Northern Pacific Conference Player of the Year in 1976.

In 1976, he was drafted by the California Angels and spent three years in their farm system playing in Salinas, California; Idaho Falls, Idaho; and El Paso, Texas. It was while he was playing in the minors that he met and became friends with current Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon.

Last year, in the fifth game of the World Series, the action was stopped for baseball’s annual Stand Up to Cancer.

All of the fans, the players and the umpires were given cards ahead of time that they could fill in the name of someone to honor.

The television cameras panned around the stadium stopping on various players and spectators

Cubs’ Manager Maddon was shown holding a sign that simply said, “Doc,” which was Lyons’ nickname when the two of them played together.

“I didn’t know he was going to do that,” Lyons said at the time. “We were watching and my son Travis, said, ‘I think he means you.’”

Lyons was released by the Angels in the fall of 1978, and went to spring training the next year where he ran into a brick wall, injuring himself and ending his baseball career.

In 1979, he joined the San Francisco Fire Department, following in his father’s footsteps. His father, who was a captain in the fire department, died when Don was 13. While he was a firefighter, Don wore his late-father’s badge.

But Don Lyons had baseball in his blood. He played on various fire department softball teams including the department’s first co-ed team.

Being a firefighter takes a toll on one’s body and Lyons ended up having nine knee surgeries before hanging up his turnouts.

From 1992 to 1994, he was a volunteer freshman baseball coach for Sonoma Valley High and became head coach of the junior varsity from 1995 to 1999. And in 1999, he became head coach of the Dragon varsity baseball team, a team he coached until he stepped down this past June.

Along the way, he went back to school and earned his teaching credential in 2001 and taught English at Sonoma Valley High until he retired at the end of the last school year.

Lyons loved Shakespeare and tried to get his students engaged. He wanted to make learning fun.

As coach of the Dragons, Lyons compiled a record of 258-158. In 2008, the Dragons captured their only North Coast Section championship – a triumph that included having his son, Tommy, playing first base on the team. Lyons was also named Empire Coach of the Year twice – in 2008 and again in 2012.

“He was very humble,” said his wife of 35 years, Teresa Lyons. “He never thought he was a big deal. But he loved an audience.”

He loved music and gardening. But his family came first, although baseball was second.

Lyons was instrumental in getting Arnold Field upgraded to include a grass infield and he planted a plot of daffodils there.

“He used to go out to Arnold Field and just sit,” Teresa said. “He thought of Arnold Field as his cathedral.”

His son Tom spent so much time at Arnold Field, he referred to it as his “little brother, Arnie.”

“He loved every kid he coached,” Teresa said. “When they moved on, he told them they had a coach for life.”

Prior to Tuesday night’s Sonoma Valley High volleyball game, Mario Alioto, who was a long-time assistant coach under Don, introduced the Lyons family and led a moment of silence for his friend.

“One of Don’s former players, Gabe Guzman, came up gave me a hug and said, ‘Thank you for sharing your husband with us,’” Teresa said.

In addition to his wife, Teresa, and sons, Travis and Tom, Don Lyons is also survived by his 88-year-old mother, Beverly Bei, and his brothers, Dennis, Mike and Gerry. In addition to his father, Don was preceded in death by his 39-day-old son, Jeffrey. Memorial services are being planned. But they’ll be held at Arnold Field. After all, it was Don Lyons’ cathedral.

Email Bill at bill.hoban@sonomanews.com.