Former East Carolina skipper Keith LeCiair's legacy still runs through the Pirate Nation
April 16, 2012
Reprint permission was granted by SEBaseball.com - originally published by on April 13, 2012
By Bruce Winkworth
SEBaseball.com Staff Writer
GREENVILLE, N.C. - Nicknames are generally terms of affection. At East Carolina, the coaches refer to senior second baseman Tim Younger as Timmy Baseball, a nickname bestowed with genuine affection.
Generously listed at 5-11 and 160 pounds on the ECU roster, Younger is an old-school baseball player, having an old-school baseball season. Through games of April 11, heading into a three-game Conference USA series at Memphis, Younger leads the Pirates with a .361 average and a .457 on-base percentage, the latter the result of leading the team in both batting and walks (16 to just 11 strikeouts). He also has six doubles and 18 RBIs, and has scored 23 runs. In addition, he's been the defensive glue that's held a strong, veteran infield together.
At 23-9-1 and flirting with the national rankings most of the season, East Carolina has plenty of players who fit the traditional physical profile of a team batting leader. Younger is not that guy. When you see the team getting off the bus before a game, he's the guy who looks like the star player's kid brother.
"He's not the most physical guy," ECU coach Billy Godwin said. "He's 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds soaking wet, but the guy comes to play the game the right way every day, and he has the right attitude whether things are going good or bad for him."
Generally speaking, of course, things have gone well for Younger in 2012. He began preseason practice locked in a battle with Bryan Bass to be the Pirates' starting second baseman, won the job outright to the surprise of some, and then began the season with a seven-game hitting streak, batting .550 (11-for-20).
There is little in Younger's past to indicate such a season was in the offing. As a first-year player for the Pirates a year ago, a transfer from St. Petersburg (Fla.) College, Younger started just 29 games and struggled to stay in the lineup. He certainly never approached this level of production, batting .250 with five doubles and 10 RBIs. Even during his best season at St. Petersburg, as a sophomore in 2010, he batted .335, hit eight doubles and a triple, and drove in 23 runs. As a freshman in 2009, he batted .268.
The difference from then to now, Younger said, is mostly from the neck up.
"It's just confidence, I guess, a better mental side of the game," Younger said. "Last year I was a little flustered at times, but this year I'm ready to go. I'm ready to win, teammates beside me. And the competition makes us all better. The harder I work, the better it makes Bryan Bass. The harder he works, the better it makes me."
Baseball players have gotten bigger and stronger and faster over the years. Much bigger and stronger and faster. East Carolina has 16 players on the roster who stand 6-foot-2 or taller, and 17 who tip the scales at 200 pounds or more. Unlike most sports, especially football and basketball, baseball still has a place for the little guy, as long as the little guy remembers that he's the little guy.
Tim Younger never has a problem with that. He's the smallest guy on the team and he knows it. He's never tried to hit a home run, at least not in a long time. He earns his playing time by tending to baseball's detail work instead.
"Usually I focus on all the routine things, the little things, defense, ground balls, moving runners, things like that," Younger said. "I'm the smallest guy out there so I have to do that kind of stuff. I can't go out there and hit home runs. We have guys who have middle-of-the-order power. I'm supposed to get on base and set the table for them."
There's another factor at work here, an intangible that's virtually impossible to quantify, but ask anyone associated with the ECU program and they'll tell you without hesitation that Keith LeClair has a hand in Younger's success this season. LeClair coached the Pirates from 1998-2002, when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS for short, Lou Gehrig's Disease.
In five years as head coach at East Carolina, LeClair compiled a 212-96-1 record, making him the third-winningest coach in Pirates history despite his short tenure. He coached ECU to four conference championships (three in the Colonial Athletic Association and one in Conference USA) and four NCAA Tournament appearances, including the Super Regionals in 2001. He also inspired everyone who came into his sphere of influence. His legacy is embraced everywhere in Greenville, from the stadium that bears his name to the tournament played each February in his honor to the way the school chose to honor his uniform.
When LeClair stepped down as head coach in 2004 - he died on July 17, 2006 - the coaches and athletics administration at East Carolina decided that rather than just retiring LeClair's uniform number, they would award that number each year to the player on the team who best embodies the many positive attributes LeClair personified as coach.
Wearing uniform number 23 matters to the Pirates. It matters like you wouldn't believe. And Younger is the 2011 recipient of uniform number 23.
"Wearing that jersey stands for more than just winning or being a good player," Godwin said. "It stands for character and perseverance, and wanting to achieve at a high level. I've worked very hard to make sure that part of [LeClair's] legacy never diminishes. And Tim Younger embodies everything that number means to this program."
"Honored," Younger said when asked his reaction to being awarded uniform 23. "I was surprised. There are lots of guys on the team who could have gotten it. I was just honored to be picked."
Tradition is so important to the fabric of baseball, be it something as universal as the seventh-inning stretch or something as narrowly defined as a team wearing a certain uniform combination on Sundays. Every school has its traditions. Every player and coach knows those elements of his school's history. In most cases, however, the coaches and players have little or no first-hand knowledge of a tradition's origins. And the traditions matter just the same.
Tim Younger was 12 years old when LeClair stepped down as coach in 2002. He was 16 when LeClair died in 2006. His knowledge of LeClair is all second- and third-hand, yet when asked about wearing number 23, the honor is written on his face, even as he says the words.
"Number 23 is a true honor," Younger said. "Coach LeClair, from what Austin Homan and the guys and the coaches tell me, he was a great man. He had great sportsmanship, he was a great leader, he had great faith in the Lord. He had a great work ethic. I'm truly honored to wear his number."
Homan, who is Younger's roommate, was the LeClair uniform recipient in 2010 and 2011. His career with the Pirates ended a year ago. He currently is serving as director of baseball operations for Godwin and is working on his master's degree in recreation and park management. He's been on both sides of number 23, as a recipient and as a staff member helping to decide who the 2012 recipient would be.
"Wearing that number makes you part of an elite group of guys in the East Carolina program," Homan said. "I came here and I'd never met Coach LeClair, but I learned about him from hearing people talk about him. And we still have guys coming into this program every year who learn about Coach LeClair and want to strive to be the kind of person he was and the kind of player he would have wanted to coach."
One other thing about wearing LeClair's number: Virtually every player who wears that number has responded with a standout season. Homan was injured almost all of 2011, but as a junior in 2010, he batted .313 with seven doubles and 28 RBIs, both career highs.
In 2009, Brandon Henderson batted .330 with 12 doubles, 13 home runs and 57 RBIs. The year before that, Drew Scheiber hit .319 with seven doubles and two home runs.
Adam Witter batted .286, bashed 12 doubles and 14 homers, and drove in 42 runs in 2006. Brian Cavanaugh hit .382 with 12 doubles, four triples, seven home runs, 36 RBIs and 14 steals in 2005. And so it goes.
Younger is just the latest to put on number 23 and have a career year. He's certainly not the first. He's not likely to be the last.
"There's a lot more to wearing that number than most people realize," Homan said. "It's not so much pressure as the realization that when you wear 23 you'll be held to a little higher standard. You hold yourself to a higher standard. You're expected to execute the fundamentals. You're expected to be consistent and be a leader, so even when you don't feel 100 percent, you get up and get to the park on time and have a good attitude and grind it out for nine innings. You're expected to be a positive example. And Tim Younger is playing that out to a T."
"I think that him getting the jersey is the reason he's playing every day," Godwin added, "the reason he's playing so well, because of what he embodies. He started out last year as the starter [at second base] for us, hit a tough spell and didn't play a lot at the end of the year. But he never gave up. He never quit competing. He never quit wanting to get better. He never pointed the finger. He always pointed the thumb. 'It's me. I've got to do this. I've got to get better.'"
And this year, he's been more than better. He's even been more than Timmy Baseball. This year, Tim Younger is number 23.