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Insights and Observations

Henry's Highlights
Thursday, June 3, 2004

By Henry Hinton
Broadcaster & Owner of Greenville Cable 7

The vow that won't be forgotten


There are many great memories for those of us who have followed East Carolina athletics over the years. There are also some moments that stick out and tend to evoke extra special emotions.

This weekend’s regional match-up in Kinston is bringing back vivid memories of one such moment for me.

When you think of it, the irony is overwhelming. The reversal of fortunes for some involved is uncanny.

I am speaking about the fact that Tennessee, one of this weekend’s opponents, ended the hopes of the 2001 ECU team. Now, we are headed back to the very scene where that took place. No matter what you hear, the Pirates have payback on their minds.

Pirate head coach Randy Mazey was in the other dugout for that affair. Speaking of irony, it must have been strange for him to watch some of the very players he had recruited to ECU taking on his Volunteers.

Mazey was the pitching coach on the UT staff but, before that, he was part of Keith LeClair’s first Pirate staff and a huge part of what has been an upgrade of talent in Greenville. LeClair gave Mazey a lot of credit for recruiting the “California Connection,” the three players from the west coast that ignited the Pirate program in the early 2000’s.

In addition to Nick Schnabel, James Molinari and Erik Bakich, Mazey also had gone to Canada to pick up a shortstop named Lee Delfino. Oh, and the kid from Charlotte? That would be Chad Tracy. Mazey was instrumental in Tracey’s recruitment to ECU as well.

I remember talking with Mazey before the games began that week in Kinston. He was surprised at how much bigger these players were than when he recruited them from junior college and high school. He made a particular comment about how much bigger Tracy looked from the last time he had seen him.

That Super Regional weekend against the Volunteers was something special. I was honored to call the games on radio with former Pirate pitching great Jake Jacobs.

The weekend was full of great pitching and exciting offense. In the end, ECU came up a little short and Tennessee advanced to the College World Series. Doing the play by play for that series is something I will always remember.

The action was spectacular but it was that post game interview that still shakes me to the core even today when I think back.

The game ended that Sunday and the teams shook hands in the infield. UT was understandably celebrating but still showing the Pirates the great respect they had earned. Then the teams broke and the Pirate team went deep into the right field corner for a post game chat, a ritual LeClair had started three years earlier when he took over the program.

Unlike the regular season, the media is always supposed to wait for coaches and players to enter a designated interview area before asking for interviews. As you might imagine, the meeting in right field after this season-ending game went longer than normal.

Instead of heading to the media tent, Jake had taken our wireless microphone fieldside in anticipation that the post-game meeting might run longer than normal. The NCAA dictates how post game interviews are supposed to be done when you get to this point of the season. Regardless of relationships with hometown reporters, everyone is suppose to wait for the interviews inside the designated area.

Sensing this was a special occasion, however, Jake went straight to right field and waited for LeClair to finish his meeting with the players. I was talking with him live on the air getting updates of when we all might be able to hear the head coach’s final comments of the season.

The meeting finally ended and LeClair went straight to Jake and our microphone. Tears were already streaming down his face as he approached. Sports Information personnel and members of the NCAA committee were also awaiting Coach LeClair to escort him to the media tent.

LeClair went to Jake instead. It was obvious he had something he wanted to say to the ECU fans he knew were still listening to the broadcast of arguably the biggest baseball game in ECU history.

This is what I remember. Just as Jake was about to ask Coach LeClair the normal post-game questions, I could hear in my headphones that this was not going to be just another coach’s interview.

LeClair’s voice was broken. He did not try to hide it. “I am so proud of these guys. And we’re going to get to Omaha. We WILL get to Omaha.”

That was it.

LeClair was being ushered away by officials to the media tent. For a time, Jake and I went silent trying to absorb the moment. What just happened? That was not like Keith at all, we thought.

The comments were genuine. Very emotional. Appropriate. But there was something else. Something that was hard to interpret.

For the next few moments, as we were signing off, I remember our discussion focusing on the unusually emotional tone that LeClair had taken in his last comments of the year.

We did not know what Keith LeClair knew.

Just weeks before, he had begun to have symptoms. There had been no firm diagnosis at that time but I have always thought that Coach LeClair must have known of what potentially was ahead for him.

None of us knew that the Tennessee series would be the last time Coach LeClair would be able to be in the dugout making decisions as the ECU head coach. Perhaps he did not know either. Then again, maybe he was wondering if these symptoms might be serious.

A family history of ALS and a period of time watching his friend, former Western Carolina football coach Bob Waters, fighting the disease may have been in the back of his mind.

That interview will forever be a precious part of Pirate lore for me personally and probably for many people who heard it.

Will this be the team that makes it to Omaha? Still to be determined of course.

Baseball games are won more on execution than emotion. Coach LeClair continues to be an inspiration to this team and everyone in the ECU family.

The words from that interview, “We WILL get to Omaha,” will be on everyone’s mind this weekend.

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02/23/2007 10:13:39 AM

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