When Keith LeClair became the eighth head baseball coach of the East Carolina Pirates in 1998, he brought with him passion, determination, and the ultimate goal—to make it to Omaha, site of the NCAA College World Series, and win a national championship.
In only five seasons as head coach, LeClair compiled a 212-96-1 (.688) record and became the second-winningest coach in ECU’s history. He also led the Pirates to four straight NCAA Regional appearances, three Colonial Athletic Association championships, and one Conference USA title.
LeClair suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a debilitating disease that would eventually claim his life. Commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS forced LeClair to relinquish his coaching duties on June 19, 2002, two weeks after leading the Pirates to a berth in the NCAA Super Regional. Save for the NAIA National Championship won by ECU in 1961, the baseball program had never achieved greater success than it had under LeClair.
“Coach LeClair remains a huge part of ECU baseball,” said ECU Athletics Director Terry Holland. “He provided inspiration and vision for our program as our coach and then as he battled his disease, and continues to do so through the memories of all those whose lives he touched.”
In sports it is customary to retire the jersey numbers of great players once the number and player become inseparable from one another in the consciousness of the fan base. But at ECU the number 23, LeClair’s number as both a player and coach, doesn’t hang on a wall. Since 2003 the number 23 jersey has been awarded annually to the player who best embodies the qualities that made LeClair a great player and coach. It is a fitting tribute to a man who loved to play the game.
“Wearing that jersey means you get to represent everything that [Coach LeClair] means to this program,” said current assistant coach Ben Sanderson, the first player to wear the number. “It was just a very special honor—especially at that time. Coach was still with us, and he was able to come out to our games and actually see me wear his jersey. It almost cheapens it by talking about it because there are no words to describe what it means.”
Brian Cavanaugh was selected to wear LeClair’s jersey in 2003. “To wear this jersey is the highest honor to be bestowed upon an East Carolina baseball player,” he said. “And that’s really special in my heart to [be able to] represent everything Coach LeClair stood for, and for everyone to see how he played, how he worked, and how he coached every day.”
On the field LeClair was a relentless worker who got the very most from his players. He believed that hard work—fueled by passion and desire—was the key to a successful program. Off the field he was a thoughtful communicator who inspired those around him to achieve to their fullest.
“He always said, ‘If you are going to put your name on something, it had better be your best work,’” recalled Cavanaugh. “And I think that is important with all aspects of your life, whether it’s on the baseball field, whether it’s in the classroom, or whether it’s in the community. He taught us that. In every aspect [of our lives] we need to put forth our best effort and work as hard as we possibly can to get the results we want.”
The Keith LeClair Classic
Now in its fifth year, the Keith LeClair Classic baseball tournament continues to keep alive the spirit of the man who coached some of ECU’s most successful teams. The Classic attracts some of the nation’s best programs and creates the big-game atmosphere that LeClair always believed belonged in Greenville.
The tournament also provides an opportunity to raise awareness of the disease that afflicted LeClair. The Jim “Catfish” Hunter Chapter of the ALS Association maintains a presence at the stadium throughout the tournament and offers fans the opportunity to help continue LeClair’s fight against ALS by purchasing “Strike Out ALS” wristbands and making donations.
The money raised supports both national and local programs. Locally the ALS Association provides grants for respite care, transportation, assistive technology and equipment, and funding for support groups for ALS patients and their families. A portion of the money raised at the Keith LeClair Classic also goes to help fund the more than 100 research projects the ALS Association currently supports.
“The community in Greenville has been extremely supportive of our chapter,” said Megan Gardner, executive director of the Jim “Catfish” Hunter Chapter of the ALS Association. “We thank them for their continued support of our chapter and those that we are serving. Through this tournament and through our annual Walk to Defeat ALS, we are able to do more for our families.”
LeClair passed away on July 17, 2006. His impact on East Carolina University remains evident and undeniable. His courage deeply touched the community in Greenville and gave an already-baseball-crazy town more reasons to cheer.
“The LeClair Classic and the awarding of Coach LeClair’s number 23 annually to one of the current players ensures that we continue to be inspired by Coach LeClair’s desire to see ECU play in Omaha in the College World Series,” said Holland.
The Fifth Annual Keith LeClair Classic begins on Friday, March 7, with a game between Georgia Southern University and the University of Michigan. ECU plays the University of Pittsburgh on Friday, and continues through the weekend with games against the University of Michigan on Saturday, March 8, and Georgia Southern University on Sunday, March 9. Tickets are available in advance at www.ecupirates.com or at the ECU ticket office 252-328-4500.