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23 in 23: The Legacy of Keith LeClair

Many people unfamiliar with the ECU baseball program and its history often question why the number 23 is so special to the program. ECU has special merch solely dedicated to the number, special jerseys that feature the number, and more. The importance of 23 is well-known among fans, players, and staff, but to those outside the program, it’s widely unknown. Before we get into the number, we must first learn about the guy who wore it: Keith LeClair.

His college ball career began as a walk-on at Western Carolina in 1985, where he helped lead the Catamounts to 4 consecutive Southern Conference Championships, ranking among the top players in the nation in several categories, including stolen bases and batting average. In 1988, he was named Southern Conference Tournament MVP and set multiple different school records in hits and batting average. He would later sign as a free agent in the Atlanta Braves organization, playing for Idaho Falls in 1988. In 1989, he spent spring training with the San Francisco Giants organization. After that, he returned to WCU as an assistant coach, holding that position for three seasons. In 1992, he became one of the youngest head coaches in the nation - taking the helm of the WCU program at the age of 25. He then led the Catamounts to the SoCon regular season and tournament championships, as well as the NCAA Tournament. As head coach, he broke and set many new school records. In his 6 years with the program, he led WCU to 4 NCAA Tournament berths and earned the title of SoCon Coach of the Year in 1992, 1994, and 1997.

In July of 1997, Keith LeClair was named the 13th head baseball coach at East Carolina University. He would go on to become the second-winningest coach in ECU program history (currently fourth) where, in five seasons, he compiled a record of 212-96-1. He led the Pirates to 4 straight NCAA regional appearances, 3 Colonial Athletic Association championships, and 1 Conference USA title. In 2001, Coach LeClair was diagnosed with ALS - otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. In June of 2002, LeClair officially resigned as head coach - only 2 weeks after leading the Pirates to their 4th consecutive NCAA Regional appearance. After resigning, he remained involved with ECU athletics as an assistant to the director of athletics. On July 17th, 2006, Coach LeClair passed away at the age of 40, after battling the disease for 5 years.

ECU baseball simply would not be the same without Coach LeClair, his work, and the legacy he left behind. He played an integral role in fundraising and constructing the new (at the time) baseball stadium - which would come to be known as Clark-LeClair Stadium - partially named after him. He was inducted into both the ECU and WCU Hall of Fame, and his number was retired at WCU- the first time the school would retire the number of a baseball player. He was also honored as the first-ever recipient of the Conference USA Student-Athlete Advisory Committee’s Coaches Choice Award. Later, the Conference USA Baseball Coach-of-the-Year Award would be named after him.

Coach LeClair was an inspiration to everyone linked to this program. Clemson head coach Erik Bakich and assistant head coach Nick Schnabel both played for LeClair, as did current ECU head coach Cliff Godwin. Former Pirates head coach Billy Godwin once stated that “Coach LeClair is special to East Carolina baseball. He was a winner on and off the field, which is evident by the many lives he touched. His legacy in ECU baseball history will live forever. … We are all better people for having known Clark LeClair.” Former ECU Chancellor Dr. Steve Ballard once said that Keith LeClair represented the true spirit of ECU athletics - and most would say that still rings true today. He brought passion and determination to the program, and his ultimate goal was to make it to Omaha. That’s a goal that is still carried on by Cliff Godwin.

ECU baseball now participates every year in an event known as Mustache March- a charity event in which the players and staff grow facial hair to continue raising money for ALS research. This year, ECU is teaming up with the Pitt Community College and Clemson baseball programs to help “strike out” ALS with a goal of $10,000. PCC head coach Tommy Eason coached under LeClair from 1998-2005, and Clemson Head Coach Erik Bakich and Assistant Head Coach Nick Schnabel both played for LeClair. Over the last four years, the team has raised over $48,000, and with additional support from the campus’ student stores, the total comes to over $71,000 in donations. For anyone who wishes to donate or find more information, click here. All donations go towards funding, supporting affected families, and researching ALS.

In addition, the series played on the first weekend of March is now known as the Keith LeClair classic and ECU wears special ‘23’ jerseys in his honor. This year is the 20th annual Keith LeClair Classic, and ECU will face off against Indiana, Long Beach State, and Georgetown, starting at 4:30 on Friday. ECU has won 12 of 19 Keith-LeClair Classics thus far, with an overall record of 43-14.

So, as you now know, 23 is a very special number within ECU baseball. In fact, for a long time after his death, it was made an honor to wear the 23 jersey. The program chose to let one player wear his number every year - the player who best manifested LeClair’s qualities. In 2014, Cliff Godwin became the 16th head coach of the program. He now wears that jersey.

There is no doubt in my mind that his jersey will one day be retired by ECU. And when ECU finally makes it to Omaha, he will be in the hearts and minds of every single player, fan, and staff member. Keith LeClair is the embodiment of what it means to be a Pirate, and his spirit can still be felt within the walls of Clark-LeClair.

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