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Ex-Nat LeCroy has Sunny disposition

- 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.

The Nationals cut LeCroy after the season, but everybody, including Robinson, liked his potential as a manager, and he was offered the Hagerstown job. LeCroy wanted to keep playing. He returned to the Twins for a year, got cut by Oakland and played in an independent league last summer before calling it quits.

"My body shut down," he said.

Then he said yes to a second job offer.

"He's a student of the game," Nationals director of player development Bobby Williams said. "He's got a fun personality, and he's easy to get along with. And he listens. He is not a guy that has all the answers. He wants to learn and improve as a manager. We not only want to develop players, but we also want to develop managers, and he is a guy that we feel has a bright future."

LeCroy might be well-versed in the game's various components, but as a player he was one-dimensional. Defense never was his specialty, and Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said LeCroy sliding into a base was "more entertaining than baseball itself."

He had 1,539 plate appearances and zero steals. But he batted a respectable .260 during his career and twice hit 17 homers as a part-timer.

"I was a hitter, and I had to hit or I wasn't gonna play," he said. "I wish I'd been a little better defensively, but I played as hard as I could, I worked as hard as I could and it worked out."

LeCroy was Minnesota's No. 1 draft pick in 1997, but his limitations turned him into a self-described grinder and consummate role player (he also was a designated hitter and played first base and the outfield) who contributed to three Twins playoff teams.

"I had to work as hard as I could," he said.

Hagerstown catcher Derek Norris, a top prospect, said his high school coach loved LeCroy as a player.

"He's kind of like the underdog," Norris said. "He's not one of the big-name guys. He's a great guy to be around. He was a great guy in the clubhouse. When he was out there, he gave his best."

LeCroy provided a loosey-goosey presence to his teams, given to sudden bursts of dancing and generally keeping things relaxed during a long season. Once, while the Twins were playing poorly, a cockroach scurried across the clubhouse floor. Pitcher Brad Radke, who knew LeCroy well, suggested he eat it. Sure, LeCroy said, if you pay me. Radke took up a collection and raised $550.

Chomp, chomp.

"You know, we'd lost something like eight games in a row, and it was just something to do," he said. "But I probably should have gotten a little more."

Another time, LeCroy was hit on the hand and had to leave the game. The Twins had several players on the disabled list, and Gardenhire couldn't afford to lose another. The hand was only bruised, but LeCroy managed to get an X-ray from the hospital across the street that showed someone else's badly broken hand. He showed it to Gardenhire.

"He just started cussing," LeCroy said. "He couldn't believe it. Then I started laughing."

Payback came a few weeks later when Gardenhire got some pictures of LeCroy playing tennis as a kid (he was pretty good), wearing those short shorts, and had them shown on the Metrodome's JumboTron. The place cracked up.

"He told me, 'Don't ever do that to me again,' " LeCroy said, relishing the tale.

Not so funny was the Houston game. With starting catcher Brian Schneider and backup Wiki Gonzalez both hurt, Robinson had no choice but to use LeCroy even though he was suffering from a recently aggravated bone spur in his right elbow. But he always was willing to take one for the team.

Before 24,733 at RFK Stadium, the Astros ran wild. LeCroy committed two throwing errors. Nationals pitchers, inept at holding runners, didn't help. Four batters into the seventh inning, Robinson took out LeCroy for emergency catcher Robert Fick. Clearly, this was an emergency. The Nationals, who once led 7-1, held on to win 8-5.

Afterward, Robinson, one of the fiercest competitors the game has ever seen and a no-nonsense manager, nearly broke down while he talked about what he did.

"I wasn't trying to embarrass him in any way," Robinson said then, his voice cracking. "It was just a move at the time, at that moment. I just felt like I had to do it... for the good of the ballclub."

LeCroy, meanwhile, was fine with it. A team official summoned him from the weight room to his locker, where he patiently answered every question and defended Robinson's move.

"He came up to me and told me he wasn't trying to embarrass me," LeCroy said. "I said, 'Trust me, I would have done the same thing.' "

Some of the Hagerstown players have heard the story. "The day Mr. Robinson cried," Lugo said. LeCroy said that during a game in which the Suns stole a bunch of bases on another hapless catcher, a player asked, "Hey, didn't someone steal, like, seven or eight bags on you?"

"Yeah. But we won the game," LeCroy replied.

He still keeps things loose and light - to a point. On a few occasions, he has benched players for not hustling.

"I'm a serious guy when I cross the lines," he said. "I'm all about winning the ballgame. I was that way as a player. Everybody I played with knew that. But I tried to have fun because I knew I wouldn't play forever."

Said Lugo: "Matt has a great personality. He's very loose with the guys, but he's also strict. Kindness but not weakness. He comes out every day and works hard with us and wants to win ballgames."

LeCroy said he learned a lot from Gardenhire and his first manager with the Twins, Tom Kelly - especially the art of drawing the line.

"[Kelly] was a serious manager, but he had fun," he said. "Gardy, he was a loose manager, but he didn't put up with not doing the right thing on the field, and that's the way I carry myself here.

"We have fun, we work hard. Once that game goes [under way], we're gonna play as hard as we can and play the right way. And if you don't want to do it, I'll sit 'em down on the bench. ... I'm a lot sterner than what people probably think."