catamountATHLETICS

COACHING THIRD

Keith LeClair’s legacy is the subject of a book scheduled for release in March
By TOM HALEY

Todd Raleigh ’91 MAEd ’94 and Jack Leggett were driving across North Carolina together, two Vermont natives thinking they were going to say good-bye to a close friend. It was April 2002, and East Carolina University baseball coach Keith LeClair ’89 had just returned home with his team from a baseball tournament in Charlotte when he collapsed and became unresponsive.

Keith LeClair ’89 signals a player from his
familiar post at third base.

LeClair had only been diagnosed in 2001 with Lou Gehrig’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive, fatal neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. His wife, Lynn, had to make a decision about whether to put him on a ventilator, a decision that came much sooner than she expected.

Raleigh, the Western Carolina baseball coach at the time, and Leggett, the former WCU coach who holds the reins of Clemson University’s baseball team, were pretty sure they were going to see their friend for the last time. But Keith and Lynn’s children were only 3 and 6 at the time and not ready to say good-bye. He was placed on the ventilator and lived until 2006 and the age of 40.

That’s one of the riveting stories in a book titled “Coaching Third: The Keith LeClair Story,” written by Bethany Bradsher. It will be released in early March to coincide with the Keith LeClair Classic, a tournament that will feature ECU, WCU, Illinois and West Virginia in March in Greenville.

The book’s title is a reference not only to the fact that LeClair always coached third base, but also to the fact that being stricken with the disease caused him to reorder his priorities and put God and his family first and second, and coaching baseball third. An intensely religious man, LeClair discovered that he had placed coaching No. 1 for a while, said Bradsher. She was familiar with LeClair and his story and thought his life would make an outstanding book.

After all, few people have touched as many lives and accomplished as much in 40 years as LeClair. The ECU Pirates play in Clark-LeClair Stadium, he has a tournament named for him, his No. 23 uniform has been retired at WCU, he is in halls of fame and his records are mind-boggling. LeClair’s won-lost mark at Western Carolina was 229-135-2. He was 212-96-1 at ECU, guiding the Pirates to three consecutive NCAA regional tournament appearances before stepping down.

Despite the amazing record on the baseball field, it is his battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease that is an important piece of his legacy and that promises to make the book a great read. “Even after he was unable to move or talk, he reached so many people. He e-mailed devotionals to hundreds of people,” Bradsher said.

LeClair’s relationships with Leggett and Raleigh were special. Bradsher said the emotion that came from Leggett was intense as he she sat in his Clemson office and interviewed him for the book. “He (Leggett) looked at him as a son,” she said. “Hearing his stories was gripping.”

After graduating from Fall Mountain Regional High School in Langdon, N.H., LeClair became one of Leggett’s top players at Western Carolina. After his college career, LeClair signed with the Atlanta Braves but chose not to report to the team’s minor league spring training, opting instead to work as an assistant coach with Leggett in 1989. When Leggett went to Clemson as an assistant in 1991, LeClair succeeded him as the head man at Western Carolina at the tender age of 25.

LeClair’s relationship with Raleigh was no less special. After LeClair was housebound with the disease, Raleigh made the six-hour drive across North Carolina from Cullowhee to Greenville every February to visit him.

Raleigh, now the head coach at the University of Tennessee, said even when the disease robbed LeClair of his ability to talk or move, it could not take his sense of humor. During one of Raleigh’s visits, the news broke about ECU’s new baseball venue being named Clark-LeClair Stadium. Raleigh told LeClair it should have been named LeClair-Clark Stadium. But the William H. Clark family of Greenville had donated $1.5 million toward the facility, and LeClair quickly typed on his computer screen, “Money is better than legacy.”

Those who knew Keith LeClair might argue otherwise, and it is his legacy that is captured in Bradsher’s manuscript.

Reprinted in edited format from the Rutland (Vt.) Herald.