"This is the first step to Omaha."
With those seven words, East Carolina University athletic director Terry Holland, said aloud what was on the minds of many of approximately 450 ECU baseball fans who came out to the Murphy Center on February 14, for the eighth annual Meet the Pirates luncheon.
Last year, the Pirates finished a mere four games away from playing in the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. This year, players, coaches, and fans all agree that reaching Omaha and playing for a championship is the number one goal.
While cold weather and dreary skies reminded everyone that winter was still around, the mood inside the Harvey Banquet Hall was warm and optimistic.
For fans, the annual event was an opportunity to spend some time with the players and coaches. It may be called Meet the Pirates, but it was apparent that for many of those there, the introductions had been made long ago. Younger Pirate fans eagerly sought autographs from their favorite players on baseballs, bats, and posters.
For the members of the Pirate baseball program, Meet the Pirates was an opportunity to give back to those who give so much to them.
“We’ve got the greatest fans,” said freshman pitcher Mark Wilder. “If we are down, and not playing well, they are always there to pick us up. And when we are up, they boost us up even higher. I think it is really great that we get to meet the fans like this.”
The event held extra significance for Wilder. A Greenville native who played at J.H. Rose High School, he grew up a fan of the purple and gold. Some of his earliest memories, he says, are of watching the Pirates play baseball.
“I’ve been a Pirate fan my whole life,” he said.
His allegiance caused him to spurn two scholarship offers from other schools to be a walk-on at ECU. So when Wilder meets young Pirate fans who dream of playing for the Pirates some day, he understands how they feel.
Meet the Pirates gave fans unfettered access to members of the program, as a player or coach was seated amongst the fans at each of the tables. At Wilder’s table sat 13-year-old Curt Cone and his father, Dean—season ticket holders for the past eight years.
“Curt hasn’t missed many games since he was five years old,” said Dean. “We average between 33 and 35 ECU games a season.”
Curt plays baseball in nearby Ayden, loves ECU, and hopes one day to follow Wilder onto the pitcher’s mound at Clark-LeClair Stadium.
“I play third base, first base, and I pitch. But I want to be a pitcher for ECU,” he said.
When asked what it was about the Pirates baseball team that they liked so much, father and son answered almost simultaneously.
“Heart,” they said.
If any quality reflects the East Carolina baseball program, it is heart. The Pirates revel in a scrappy, blue-collar approach to the game, something fans have come to expect from a program shaped by former head coach
LeClair coached ECU from 1998–2002, becoming the second-winningest coach in ECU history in only five seasons. 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.
LeClair succumbed to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 2006. And while he only coached the Pirates for those few seasons, he had an indelible impact on the program that lasts to this day with the awarding of his number-23 jersey to one player each season. At Meet the Pirates,
As much as heart can be a used to describe the Pirates, the word held extra significance for this year’s Meet the Pirates event, as it took place on Valentine’s Day. For Margaret Brown and her husband Frank, both long-time ECU fans and season ticket holders, the date made the day extra special.
“When we saw on the tickets that this was going to be on Valentine’s Day, Frank offered to take me out for a nice night out, or bring me here. I told him, ‘Frank, I want to be here more than anywhere else.’ So this is where I chose to come for Valentine’s Day. That tells you how I feel about the Pirates,” said Margaret.
The first pitch of the 2009 baseball season is Friday, February 20, at Clark-LeClair Stadium, with the Pirates playing Monmouth University. or at the ticket office.