- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 22, 2009

HAGERSTOWN, Md.

Among the snapshots from his colorful life as a ballplayer, Matt LeCroy scared his manager witless with a phony broken hand, ate a bug for money and brought tears to the eyes of one of the game’s noted tough guys.

“I think he had the perfect temperament to be a real good manager,” Washington Nationals assistant general manager Bob Boone said, perhaps not referring specifically to such episodes.

It might have been easy to peg LeCroy simply as an affable clubhouse cutup and good ol’ Southern boy when he played. Baseball people knew better. During his eight-year career, he demonstrated a keen awareness of the game and how it should be played. The Nationals, Boone especially, were so impressed from his one season with Washington that he twice was offered managing jobs. In November, LeCroy was hired to manage the club’s Hagerstown Suns minor league affiliate. He didn’t even have to be a coach first.

“I just liked the way he played,” said Boone, an ex-big league manager who shares membership with LeCroy in the fraternity of former catchers. “I liked his personality, his knowledge. I thought he’d be great with kids. He’s just a really good guy that players are gonna gravitate to.”

Light years from the major leagues, LeCroy now toils at ancient Municipal Stadium. Built in 1930, it’s the third-oldest ballpark in the minors and looks it, even after two renovations. Still, the park has an old-timey charm, known as the site of Willie Mays’ first minor league game in 1950 and the ugliness that accompanied it. Some of the fans hurled racial epithets at Mays, who was forced to stay in lodgings separate from his Trenton Giants teammates. A few years ago, he returned (for a fee), and the city apologized and made peace.

The old yard remains a starting point for teenagers, early 20-somethings and a former beefy, cheery backup catcher who is now a beefy, cheery 33-year-old rookie manager starting a new career. The Suns are the lower of the Nationals’ two Class A affiliates, a step above rookie ball. They are 8-17 in the second half of their South Atlantic League season following a 31-36 first half, but Boone said the organization is pleased with LeCroy’s efforts.

“He doesn’t have as much talent as some of our other clubs,” Boone said.

“I had to learn everybody because I didn’t really know any of the young players here,” LeCroy drawled from behind a wooden desk, revealing his South Carolina roots in every syllable (among his nicknames were “Country” and “BG” - short for biscuits and gravy). “But I’ve enjoyed it here. These guys, they love to hear some stories. … I’ve got a few of ‘em. They love to take in everything we can tell ‘em here. To me, that’s the fun thing about this job, watching these kids learn and improve on a daily basis.”

His spartan office adjacent to a tiny clubhouse includes a couple of laptops and a flat-panel TV, a nod to modern times. There is a couch, a few knicknacks and a corkboard displaying some family artwork. LeCroy and his wife, Holly, have three young children, two of whom are adopted. LeCroy’s goatee is gone, a reluctant concession to the Nationals’ no-facial-hair-in-the-minors policy (“I miss it, he said. “I have a fat, round face”), and he is going gray faster than he would like. But he looks as if he could still play, though his shoulder and knees said otherwise.

LeCroy’s players might be young, but so is he, just two years removed from his big league career.

“He knows how we feel,” pitcher Chris Lugo said. “He knows what it’s like to grind it out every day.”

LeCroy said he was told he would be tested early.

“And my thing was this: People expect these kids to fail,” he said. “And people expect them to fail because they’re young. And I don’t believe in that. I think these kids can get it done at this age. Be able to do the right things. The bunting. Be able to put the ball in play. But you have to be focused on it.”

Although he played just one season with Washington after six with the Minnesota Twins, LeCroy is forever etched in team history, though not in a good way. During a game in May 2006, the Houston Astros stole seven bases in six-plus innings with LeCroy behind the plate. Not only was it embarrassing, but the Nationals also nearly blew a big lead. Then-manager Frank Robinson had no choice but to take LeCroy out in the top of the seventh while the Astros were still batting. Afterward, Robinson choked up and cried while discussing the move.

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