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Pirate Notebook No. 273
Friday, July 21, 2006

By Denny O'Brien

LeClair legacy puts faith into focus


Keith LeClair rounded third on Monday. I can only imagine the greeting when the Hall-of-Fame East Carolina baseball coach sprinted home.

My guess is it was a reception of heavenly high-fives, a headfirst slide through the pearly gates, and a glorious home-run trot across streets of gold. But that had to pale in comparison to that face-to-face meeting with the Head Coach he followed so faithfully before and during his five-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

The conversation between Maker and His new masterpiece no doubt was a joyous one. The reward was one that beat any lucrative Major League deal — an eternal contract with a no-cut guarantee and home field that puts any baseball cathedral to shame.

This is the prize when you stand in life's batter's box and take signs from the same Coach that LeClair followed. And when you face the nastiest pitches of a broken world without wavering, a sparkling cap of jewels becomes your badge.

That's why today should be one in which the celebration overshadows any trophy presentation or ticker tape parade. Because Monday was a day of ultimate triumph, despite the fact that we had to experience a loss.

This week has been one in which we all reflected on our most indelible memories about the legacy LeClair leaves at East Carolina. Those include the unrivaled accomplishments of his teams on the diamond, as well as the courageous battle he waged against ALS and the strong faith in God that fueled his fight.

On the field, LeClair proved that success at East Carolina didn’t have to be contained by a ceiling, or by the parameters in which the Pirates were placed by outside forces. Despite the stiff challenges everyone acknowledges, excuses never were used as a crutch for his team’s failure to achieve.

That’s because ECU won under LeClair. It won big. And it won despite the fact that its venue hardly compared to the local Babe Ruth facility on which many of the players he recruited once trained.

An inadequate Harrington Field meant any series against other baseball bullies would be staged on unfriendly turf. It also meant that two No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament would displace the Pirates in the Bayou, while another would temporarily relocate them in Wilson and Kinston.

LeClair took an East Carolina program that already was respectable and made it a national contender. He did it in a conference that, while solid, hardly received any regional recognition, let alone on a national scale.

He leaped over the geographic disadvantage that many labeled too high to hurdle. The Pirates not only matched up to the in-state contingent from the ACC, they surpassed them to the point that LeClair became the face of college baseball in North Carolina.

So much so that the supply of tickets to ECU home games often couldn’t meet the demand. Not to mention the fact that the overflow herd of fans that grazed the Jungle created a hostile environment for opposing teams that was rivaled by few.

LeClair also became the lasting thread that gave East Carolina’s constituency a common bond at a time when an internal power struggle nearly severed the ranks completely. Though many within the tightly knit fan base were forced to choose sides in the fall during that tense period, the spring provided a cease fire during which it could again unite.

East Carolina's baseball program overcame these deficiencies because LeClair had a vision that belied the clichés that most in his scenario almost certainly would have embraced.

This wasn’t about winning records or postseason appearances. ECU’s mission from day one was a destination that few previously considered.

East Carolina has made it to the doorsteps of the College World Series twice because LeClair dared to dream. He dared to envision ECU as a national power that called one of the nation’s finest baseball palaces home.

LeClair taught East Carolina that it can succeed at a level that many have long insisted it can’t. He also taught its constituents to have faith through even the most difficult of circumstances.

That is just one of the many gifts LeClair so generously gave us during his 40 years. But it's not the greatest. That distinction would be the living example that he provided, one in which his talk was backed firmly by his walk.

LeClair didn't carve the perfect path for us to take through life's twisting journey. What he did was provide an incredible reminder of the right one to follow.

Take it, and there's no question about where it leads. That's what LeClair would have you remember the most.

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02/23/2007 02:03:11 AM

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