East Carolina fell short of is first ever trip to baseball’s College World Series when it was swept by Louisville in an NCAA Super Regional last month.
But that doesn’t mean the Pirates weren’t represented in Omaha.
Michigan coach Erik Bakich and his assistant Nick Schnabel both played for ECU in 1999 and 2000, and although their current uniforms are maize and blue, they wore their purple and gold hearts on their respective sleeves as they led the Wolverines to within a game of the national championship.
It wasn’t actually on their sleeves, of course. Rather, their connection to their alma mater was prominently displayed on their chests in the No. 23 they both wear as a tribute to their late coach Keith LeClair — whose career and life were cut short by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“I got into coaching because I made a promise to Coach LeClair that myself and my teammates, we would continue his inspiration and continue his legacy and get to Omaha for him,” Bakich said after his team qualified for the CWS by upsetting top-seeded UCLA in the Super Regionals. “Because he never got to go.”
Inspired by LeClair’s influence, which Bakich said he feels “every day,” the underdog Wolverines (50-22) powered through the winner’s bracket by beating Texas Tech, Florida State and Texas Tech again to earn a spot in the best-of-three national championship series at TD Ameritrade Stadium.
They then beat Vanderbilt in Game 1 to move tantalizingly close to what Bakich described as “a dogpile moment.” But that’s where their underdog run through the postseason ran out of gas. The Commodores bounced back to win the next two games to deny Michigan the title.
It was a disappointing ending that didn’t diminish the sense of accomplishment Bakich felt for his players in getting as far as they did after barely sneaking into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 3 regional seed.
“There’s only one happy team at the end of this,” Bakich said in his postgame remarks following Vanderbilt’s 8-2 win in the final game. “Even though we’re not the national champion and we are the national runner-up, I know what it’s going to do for these guys for the rest of their lives, And that’s awesome.”
Bakich came to ECU from San Jose City College in California and played two seasons an outfielder for the Pirates, hitting .315 with 14 homers and 85 RBI for his career. Schnabel played second base and was named the Colonial Athletic Association’s Defensive Player of the Year his junior year.
Among their teammates on those two teams, both of which won 46 games and advanced to NCAA Regionals, was current ECU coach Cliff Godwin and UCLA hitting coach Bryant Ward.
All of them wear No. 23, same as their former coach and mentor LeClair. It’s a common bond that often produces confused double-takes when Bakich and Schnabel step out of the Michigan dugout at the same time.
“There’s no other number we would want to wear,” Bakich said. “We want to do it because we just want to continue his inspiration and continue his legacy.”
LeClair’s legacy includes 212 wins, four NCAA Tournament appearances and one Super Regional in five seasons at ECU, making him the second-winningest coach in program history. He was well on his way toward accomplishing his goal of getting the Pirates to Omaha when his progressively debilitating disease forced him to step down in 2000.
It’s a crusade his former players that are now coaches vowed to continue when LeClair died at the age of 40 in 2006.
“I am thrilled that Erik and Nick get to wear 23 in Omaha honoring our former coach Keith LeClair,” ECU’s Godwin said. “Erik and Nick are two of my best friends, and I could not be happier for them to be able to carry on Coach LeClair’s legacy in Omaha.”
The only thing that could make LeClair happier is if the Pirates someday make it to the CWS or one of his proteges goes on to win the national championship.
“I hope we all get there — Cliff Godwin at East Carolina and Bryant Ward at UCLA, and Nick and I. And I hope we all get there at the same time,” Bakich said. “Nothing would be better than seeing the four of us there.”