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Pirate Notebook Special: Part One of Three Parts

Pirate Notebook No. 50
Monday, February 11, 2002

By Denny O'Brien
Staff Writer and Columnist

Coach Embraces Bold Goals in Face of Adversity


Editor's Note: This edition of Pirate Notebook is Part One of a three-part feature focusing on East Carolina baseball coach Keith LeClair. Click the following links to view each part in the series:
1. Pirate Notebook No. 50
2. Pirate Notebook No. 51
3. Q&A with Keith LeClair

LeClair's Faith Fueling His Fight

GREENVILLE — Keith LeClair has faced his share of curves over the last seven months. And each time life throws a new wrinkle at East Carolina's fifth-year head coach, he uses the same approach demanded of his players on the baseball diamond.

He goes with the pitch.

For even the game's greatest hitters, such a task requires the patience and discipline to not succumb to temptation. For LeClair, who is battling his most challenging opponent to date, the test calls for perseverance, not to mention the will and endurance to wage a lengthy fight.

Keith LeClair
Photo: ECU SID Office

LeClair, who often speaks in analogies, doesn't shrink from the battle. He likens his current situation to a race and has prepped himself for the marathon run.

It is still unknown just what has unleashed its power on LeClair's body, though the effects are growing increasingly hard to miss. His speech is severely slurred and sometimes hard to understand. His movements are robotic in nature, with each one carefully performed.

The symptoms are highly akin to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a fatal neuromuscular disease for which there is no cure. It's the same disease that inflicted Hall of Fame slugger Lou Gehrig, with whose name the illness is most commonly associated.

The possibility also remains that the 35-year old coach has contracted Lyme Disease, which possesses many of the same traits. The good news with Lyme is that it is treatable, though the process can be a trying, uphill climb.

It's a climb the Walpole, New Hampshire, native is willing to make as he strives to return to the physical form to reassume the on-the-field duties he so dearly relishes.

"I believe that I will defeat this," LeClair said. "I believe that I will persevere. I believe one day I will hit fungos and throw BP, and coach like I did before this happened."

Given the circumstances, you could hardly blame LeClair for howling about how he has been forsaken. After all, he was on top of the world last June, just outs away from a trip to the CWS.

When you consider the accomplishments — the seven conference championships, the seven regional appearances — the situation seems especially cruel. That goes without mentioning his seven coach of the year honors to go along with MVP hardware from his playing days in Cullowhee.

You won't catch LeClair being spiteful, however, and you certainly won't find him questioning God. Instead, you're likely to find him praising the Lord he worships, accompanying it with verses of scripture.

"Sometimes we don't exercise our faith like we should, until our backs are against the wall, and we have to surrender," LeClair said. "I've been through that the last seven months.

"I feel that the Lord has given me this time to witness and to help others. I think people are more open, and have open ears when somebody is going through trials and tribulations in life, versus somebody that is experiencing great success."

Perhaps nobody can speak those words with more clarity than LeClair, who has been on both ends of the spectrum in less than a year. With that in mind, the former Catamount has begun a new mission of late, one not measurable by wins and losses.

This one, he says, won't afford him earthly rewards like the ones on his mantle, instead bringing forth countless treasures in Heaven. Yes, the Pirates' baseball coach is on a mission for God, and the unknown illness has become his platform.

"He's shown me how this is a time to glorify him," he said. "I feel like, right now, he wants me to show others how important he is in my life and how important he can be to them, if they will just be open to him and receive him."

Yet, given the choice, LeClair would undoubtedly prefer to be free of the disease that has progressed rapidly over the past several months. That is out of his hands, though, something with which he has come to grips.

LeClair has taken on numbing adversity and transformed it into an opportunity. He even feels blessed by his current set of limitations.

"This has really been a rewarding time," he said. "It hasn't been a miserable seven months. I have more peace than I've ever had in my life."

Spend an hour with one of the nation's most successful coaches, and you'll certainly understand why.

Leading the Quest

The more things change around the ECU baseball office, the more they stay the same. While LeClair is physically unable to perform many of the physical duties of a college head coach, his mind remains razor-sharp.

And the fire burning in his deep-blue eyes is brighter than ever as the Pirates ready themselves to deliver on their ultimate quest — a national championship.

Moments after falling just outs shy of a College World Series berth last season, LeClair proclaimed the Pirates would soon find their way to the Nebraska heartland. He said it without a doubt.

"What has taken place here is that we expect to get to Omaha," LeClair said. "We expect to host a Super Regional. Last year we did that, but we just fell a little bit short."

For the clearly stated objective to materialize this year, the Pirates must retool a formidable lineup, one that launched 85 home runs during last year's 47-13 run.

Gone are Chad Tracy, John Williamson, Lee Delfino, Joseph Hastings and Cliff Godwin, all of whom went on to professional ball. Between the five, they launched 63 of those 85 blasts, while each batted well over .300.

LeClair and his staff are confident in their replacements, though, and have the balance of the pitching staff returning. That's reason enough for third-year assistant Kevin McMullan to focus on taking the next step, something he started preaching when the Pirates returned to the practice field last month.

"From the first meeting we had on January 7, to the day of the College World Series is, I believe, 25 weeks," McMullan said. "We have 25 weeks to prove why we belong in the national championship game.

"You look around our office, and on my computer screen, it's Omaha. In our locker room, we talk about going to Omaha. That is our goal. Obviously there is a journey and process involved with it, and our guys are in that process right now."

Make no mistake, that process continues to be fueled by LeClair, whose inspirational battle could become the ultimate symbol of a team on college baseball's ultimate mission.

Inspirational Leader

McMullan has experienced his share of tragedy in life, starting with the death of his mother when he was three. At 18, he lost his sister. During his first year of coaching, he said goodbye to his father.

Having thrice faced the loss of a loved one, you would think that McMullan, the Pirates' hitting instructor and recruiting coordinator, is well-equipped to handle the emotional difficulties facing this program. But McMullan admits LeClair's illness is uncharted waters.

"I've been through some of these types of things," McMullan said. "But I've never been through anything like this from a coaching standpoint — being involved with another guy on your staff.

"Coach (LeClair) is going through some tremendous challenges. He's head-to-head with it — he's battling his tail off."

That personal battle has put things into perspective for both McMullan and the Pirates, while serving as a source of motivation. Nobody half-heartedly goes through the motions at Harrington Field, as the Pirates consistently give their all throughout pre-season drills.

"He's been an inspiration to us," McMullan said. "There are physical limitations, but his mental game is as sharp as it's ever been. It's really motivated our players on a daily basis.

"It's a great experience for our players to go through, that they can share with their teammates, and people outside of their team for the rest of their lives. Every day you think you're having a bad day, just look over in that corner at that guy, and he's fighting his tail off to get to Omaha. Our goals have not changed."

For LeClair, though, the goals have multiplied over the past year while the difficulty has increased. The odds would be stacked against just about anybody gunning for Omaha, not to mention defeating what could be a fatal disease.

When you really think about it, though, we're not talking about just anybody here. We're talking about Keith LeClair.

If there's one thing he knows, it's how to win. That, after all, is the expectation these days.

Send an e-mail message to Denny O'Brien.

Click here to dig into Denny O'Brien's Bonesville archives.

02/23/2007 01:45:43 AM

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