Tuesday, February 28, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — Matt LeCroy had four nicknames while playing for the Minnesota Twins. Two of them he wouldn’t reveal. The others were “Country” — he was born and raised in a small town in South Carolina — and “BG,” which stands for biscuits and gravy.

It’s hard to believe no one has suggested this one: Roach Motel.

Yes, one of LeCroy’s claims to fame is that roaches check in, but they don’t check out.

“One time, back in 2004, our team was going through a rut,” LeCroy said. “We had been struggling for about two weeks. I was just trying to pick everyone up. There was a roach that crawled across the floor,” LeCroy said. “Brad Radke saw it and said to me, ‘Why don’t you eat that?’

“I said, ‘You give me some money, and I’ll eat it.’

“He said $100, and I thought, heck, this was a guy who was making $9million,” LeCroy said. “Give me a little more money, around $300, and I’ll do it. He got together $500, and I said I would eat it. So they got the video camera out and filmed me eating it. It had to be live, and it had to be moving in my mouth, and I ate it.

“Sure enough, we won about seven in a row after that,” LeCroy said.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome your new favorite Washington Nationals player: Matthew Hanks LeCroy.

LeCroy was signed in the offseason for $850,000, plus another $250,000 in incentives, to be the backup first baseman and a right-handed pinch hitter who could catch in an emergency. And depending on whether the club can find a decent defensive backup catcher before Opening Day, he will split the backup catching job with right-handed hitter Robert Fick, who also can play first base and the outfield.

The combination may not be ideal for a backup catcher — LeCroy caught just one game last year for Minnesota, and his appearances behind the plate have declined over his six major league seasons as he played more at first base and at designated hitter. However, he said he enjoys catching the most.

“I would love to catch more,” LeCroy said. “I love catching, and that is where I am most comfortable. Working with [former major leaguer] Bob Boone here in spring training has helped me out a little bit.”

Still, the most valuable role for the 6-foot-2, 230-pound LeCroy might be as a pinch hitter and backup for left-handed and oft-injured first baseman Nick Johnson.

“I have been accustomed to a backup role almost my whole career,” he said. “I am just here trying to give the team a chance to win, give some guys breaks, pinch hit, whatever, they need me to do.”

LeCroy has been good in that role with 43 home runs and 153 RBI in 913 at-bats over the last three years and certainly would give the Nationals far more offense from the right side of the plate than last year. He also was good for the Twins as a clubhouse presence. When general manager Terry Ryan said Minnesota would not re-sign LeCroy, he also noted, “Matt is one of the good guys in the game.”

LeCroy is still not sure why the Twins were willing to let him go.

“I never caused any problems,” he said. “I was all about the team. I guess they wanted to go in another direction. They got rid of a few other guys who were there for a while, probably to free up some money. That is baseball.

“I liked all the guys over there. But I am looking for a fresh start here. I had a good offseason, preparing myself for this opportunity.”

LeCroy asked about the fans in Washington — a question almost unheard of from a player. He is one of you — an everyman, a likeable 30-year-old guy with salt-and-pepper hair and a physique that makes him look like he could be one of your softball teammates. It’s no surprise he was a favorite of Twins fans.

“I tried to play as hard as I could,” LeCroy said. “I’m not a fast runner, and I think a lot of people could relate to a bigger guy trying to play. I tried to treat people with respect and play the game the right way.”

He may be unpretentious, but he is not predictable. Though LeCroy grew up in South Carolina, he is not necessarily a good ol’ boy. His love growing up was tennis, not stock car racing.

“I was a state champion tennis player,” LeCroy said. “I don’t play anymore. I liked it, but it interfered with baseball, so I quit playing it.

“The town I live in [Belton] is real small, but it is the tennis capital of South Carolina. That is where the [state’s] Tennis Hall of Fame is. All my friends played tennis, so I started playing it. I borrowed a racket and got pretty good at it. When I was in middle school, I played on the high school varsity tennis team. I started playing baseball, so I quit. But in my junior year in high school, the tennis coach put me on the roster and asked me if I would play when baseball was over. After baseball was over, I went over to play for the tennis team and ended up winning the state championship.”

So that is where the next great American tennis star went. Breakfast at Wimbledon could have taken on a whole new meaning with Matt LeCroy, who likely won’t have to eat any insects to win the hearts of Nationals fans.

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