07/19/06 — Opinion - They needed another angel

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Opinion - They needed another angel

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on July 19, 2006 2:23 PM

The baseball Gods needed another angel.

Keith LeClair -- a friend, teacher and coach -- passed away Monday after nearly a five-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The loss certainly saddened the East Carolina University community and his collegiate baseball comrades.

An excellent ambassador to the game, LeClair brought class to ECU and transformed the program into a dominating power by the turn of the century. The Pirates posted 200-plus wins, claimed four conference titles, made four appearances in the NCAA Tournament and came close -- twice -- to reaching the mecca of college baseball, Omaha.

LeClair certainly left his mark at ECU.

The most-touching memory occurred after East Carolina seized its first-ever CUSA tournament championship in 2002. Resigned to a ventilator to help him breathe, LeClair watched from a van in right field as the Pirates played a phenomenal game and upended Houston 4-0.

When the players received the trophy, they marched over to LeClair and held it proudly for him to see. Each player shook hands with the coach and many choked back tears as they returned to the locker room. A standing-room-only crowd of mostly purple-and-gold clad fans cheered "ECU!, ECU!, ECU!" and wept openly that afternoon in historic Grainger Stadium.

Modest in his success, LeClair had created a legacy.

But it wasn't about wins and losses that LeClair and his players shared on many a sunny afternoon on the diamond. It was about family, comradery, respect and trusting in each other. The teams from 1998 to 2002 epitomized LeClair's passion and desire for the game, much like he coached before the debilitating disease forced him from the dugout to behind the scenes as a special consultant to the ECU athletic department.

While the disease slowly robbed LeClair of his life, it didn't steal his verve and will to live. One of the most-successful coaches in college baseball, LeClair continued to communicate with the baseball team and provided inspiration -- physically and spiritually -- to every player who wore an ECU uniform.

A replica of his No. 23 jersey is sold in many styles at home games in the sparkling new stadium named after him. One baseball player who most emulates LeClair is selected to wear No. 23 each season.

Conference USA officials renamed their baseball coach of the year award in honor of LeClair.

"His legacy in Pirate athletics is unmatched, and his good counsel will be sorely missed in our daily lives," said ECU athletics director Terry Holland of LeClair's passing. "His dignified approach to whatever life brought him provides a model for every human being and particularly those of us who work with the young men and women who are this nation's future.

"He has enriched ECU athletics in many significant ways but most importantly by bringing (wife) Lynn, (and children) J.D. and Audrey into the Pirate family."

LeClair never wavered as to why God selected him to bear the disease that has crippled so many others and painstakingly taken them away from their families. He taught his players to take each game one pitch at a time. Meanwhile, he took life as one breath and one day at a time.

LeClair gave a fitting explanation about his life when inducted into ECU's Hall of Fame in 2002, barely a year after learning he had ALS.

"I believe God called me here to Greenville to coach, which I did to the best of my ability," LeClair said. "A year ago, I believed he called me out of coaching to be a witness for him."

And now he's an angel.