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By Ron Ferrell
Pirates' Chest Editor

Baseball Stadium Dream Inspires Pirate Club

İ2002 Pirates' Chest

Click to Zoom In for Close-up View.

Artist's Rendering of East Carolina's
Proposed New Baseball Stadium.
[Illustration İ2002 ECU Pirate Club]

East Carolina Director of Athletics Mike Hamrick recalls vividly a breakfast he had with Jim Ward in Baton Rouge, LA, in the spring of 1999. The two marveled at the excitement they saw as 8,000 people packed an NCAA Tournament Regional.

The problem was that ECU was the number one seed and they were playing on the road in Louisiana.

"It was like being at a Super Bowl or Final Four," Hamrick said. "It was big time. We were asking, 'Why canıt this happen in Greenville?'

"The next year we won more than 40 games again and I am sitting in the press box in Lafayette, Louisiana — burning up and being eaten up by mosquitoes. We are the number one seed again and we are playing on the road.

"I went to our chancellor, then Dr. (Richard) Eakin, and said we have got to have a new baseball stadium. At that point I was convinced we could consistently be a top 25 baseball program."

From that point, the initial plans were put into place for a facility to take East Carolina into the 21st century. Hamrick and baseball coach Keith LeClair wanted a baseball facility that could match any college venue in the country.

Attendance at Harrington Field has grown by leaps and bounds over the last three years as LeClairıs squads have claimed three CAA crowns and made three regional appearances, advancing to the Super Regional last spring.

Hamrick said he had promised LeClair after the second-straight trip to Louisiana that a number-one seed Pirate squad would not have to take to the road for a regional again.

East Carolina hosted the Regional round in Wilson last year and the Super Regional in Kinston. It was a big boost for the Pirates as ECU faithful packed both sites, but it was just a taste of what could be.

"The whole idea behind that was to show our people how much fun a Regional and Super Regional could be if you have your own stadium," Hamrick said. "We hoped that would motivate and accelerate our fundraising campaign, which it has. We sold out the Super Regional with 4,000 seats in an hour and 18 minutes.

"Wilson was great and Kinston was great. They are great people, but it is not like playing it on your own campus, which is what we want to do."

Since last spring, the university has come up with a design and the Pirate Club has gone to work trying to raise the $6 million needed for construction.

The state-of-the-art facility will have 3,000 permanent seats with the ability to expand seating by another 1,500 to 2,000 for special events. It will feature all of the press and concession facilities needed to host a first-class regional even.

Fundraising began last year and has gone over the midway point thanks to the efforts of the Pirate Club and fundraising committee co-chairs Jim Ward and Walter Williams. With strong support already in place, the Pirate Club is now going public with the campaign to secure the remainder of the funding needed.

"Baseball has, over the years, been our most successful program with winning seasons in 48 of the last 50 years," said Pirate Club Executive Director Dennis Young. "For too long we have had a facility that has not kept pace with the winning tradition we have. It is not fan friendly or player friendly. We want to get our team to the College World Series in Omaha and this is the last piece of the puzzle needed."

Young says the timing for such an expansion could not be better as Pirate baseball has become one of the hottest tickets in town.

"The last three seasons in particular have stirred a lot of interest in baseball. Our average attendance is going up. Our season ticket numbers are increasing each year," he said. "It is becoming a kind of a football-weekend type experience with a lot of tailgating. It only takes one trip to Harrington Field to realize that that stadium is outdated and not suitable for a first class college baseball program."

LeClair, now into his fifth season at ECU with a 169-76 record, has seen the way big home crowds can enhance his clubıs home field advantage and he believes such a new facility will do nothing but improve the product on the field.

"When you look at the programs across the country that year in, year out, are successful, they all have great fan attendance," he said. "I think that has been a big part of our success here. I really think that it has elevated our program to the point where it helps our players on the field."

Everyone looks forward to the recruiting boost a new facility can bring, but LeClair knows such a boost will take time and most recruits will be influenced more when they can actually see the new park.

"You know, we can talk about it all we want, but an 18-year old kid wants to actually see it," he said. "Though I think it has helped spark interest within the program, I donıt think any program has really been helped until the facility is in place. When that happens, I think thatıs when youıll see even more improvement in our program. Weıre halfway there in our financial campaign, but we need to finish the deal."

Finishing the deal is the charge of Ward and Williams. Ward is a long-time Pirate Club member and supporter of baseball in the Greenville area. He is also the father of Pirate third baseman Bryant Ward. He believes that LeClair is on mission to make the Pirates a perennial factor in college baseball's national picture. To do that, though, he needs to have a facility that will allow ECU to compete with those already at the top.

"Keith LeClair has been given the charge to make this program a national contender," Ward noted. "The key to that is to have a facility that, number one, will allow you to host an NCAA regional and, number two, to have a facility that will be enticing to young recruits.

"It is really competitive out there and when we move up to that top level then we start recruiting against the top teams. In the past that hasnıt been the case.

"We havenıt been recruiting against teams like Florida State, Georgia Tech and Stanford. To try and move up into that top echelon like we have the last couple of years, weıre going to have to have the type of facility that these top flight players expect to play in.

"We built a quality facility back in (1971), but there have been a very limited number of changes to that stadium," Ward added. "It is almost like a starter home where newlyweds buy a home with two bedrooms and a bath — and before they know it their first child comes along and then a second and a third. They just outgrow that house and that is what we have done with this facility.

"If this program is going to get to where they want it to go, it is imperative that this facility become a reality."

Williams believes the ECU baseball program is capable of great things, but he insists that the Pirates have to have the right tools to contend for the school's first national title at the Division I level.

"I admire Coach LeClair and what he has accomplished in a short period of time. But most of all I admire the passion that he appears to have in what he does," Williams said. "So many of us in life go through a job situation and it is just a job. There are others whose job becomes their life, their passion. He impresses me because every time you are in a conversation with him it generally gets around to Omaha. You have to have goals in life and I admire and respect the fact that he has one and knows where he wants to go.

"You can only do so much unless you have the tools to work with. It is kind of hard for a carpenter with a hand saw to keep up with one that has a skill saw. The same principle applies with our facilities. For some kids the glory or glitter is that final thing that attracts them to a situation. We donıt have the glamour. If we can get some of that maybe we will get those kids to get us over the hump and get us to Omaha and possibly bring home a national championship.

"We may not ever have a national championship, but I personally believe we are closer today to having one in baseball than any other sport," Williams said. "As a Pirate, if you want to be in the top 10, if you want to be number one, then I donıt think it matters what sport it is. You have to try and give a little something extra to help us get there."

Williams speaks of an LSU baseball program that was similar to East Carolinaıs ten years ago. Now, he said, LSU sells 7,500 season tickets for baseball and raises a million dollars before the first ball is thrown out. It is a dream to some, but Williams believes you have to dream.

Pirate Club executive Young, himself an ECU alumnus, shares the dream.

"We have secured 41 of the 48 lead gifts for this campaign, and as a result we are past 50 percent in attaining our campaign goal, which enables us now to go public and seek broad-based support," Young said. "We need everybody who appreciates what baseball is doing for East Carolina University to step forward and make it happen."

Ward is confident the organization's membership will step forward to turn the dream into a reality.

"The Pirate Club family is such a great group of folks," Ward said. "During these last four or five months you could just take your pick of excuses as to why you shouldnıt financially support this campaign. East Carolina, though, is not about excuses and that is what I have found to be the case among the people I have talked to. Everybody is excited and they want to help in any way they can.

Williams echoes Ward's faith in the role Pirate Club members will play in underwriting the new stadium, and he notes that the economic bumps caused by a recent national tragedy might actually inspire a willingness to pitch in a little extra.

"Our core of good Pirates realizes what we are trying to do and it is not very hard to get them on the same page," Williams said. "They have contributed generously. September 11 hasnıt helped any of us financially, but it may have given all of us a little bit more compassion for our university, our fellow man and our community."

{For information on how to contribute to ECU's campaign for a new baseball stadium, contact the Pirate Club at 252-328-4540.)

Copyright İ2002 Pirates' Chest. Denny O'Brien of contributed to this story.

Send an e-mail message to Ron Ferrell of the PIRATES' CHEST.

02/23/2007 02:03:22 PM

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