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LeCroy looking forward to leading Rochester into new baseball era

scottteaser-215x160-1-300x160-300x160Matt LeCroy looks back on his one season in Rochester with fondness. And regret. By that summer of 2007, the injuries had mounted and his skills had declined. He was holding on for dear life — an aged (by-baseball-standards) 31-year-old trying mightily to squeeze a few more seasons out of his banged-up body. LeCroy entertained faint hopes of returning to the big leagues, but after batting just .194 in 80 games for the Red Wings, the Minnesota Twins released him.

That summer, though, wouldn’t be a total loss. Despite his struggles, he thoroughly enjoyed his time in the Flower City. General Manager Dan Mason and the rest of the Wings staff treated him and his teammates like big-leaguers. First class. And he was struck by the passion and knowledge of the fans. They knew the game. And cared about it.

So when the Washington Nationals told LeCroy three months ago they were promoting him to manage their new Triple-A affiliate in Rochester, he could barely contain his enthusiasm.

As this new era of Wings baseball commences this week after a pandemic pause of more than 600 days without a minor-league game in Rochester, LeCroy looks forward to new beginnings in an old haunt.

“I didn’t do it up here as a player,” he said in a recent video conference call from Frontier Field. “So, hopefully, I can do it as a manager.”

As the 46th skipper in Wings history — and the 17th to have previously played for the team — LeCroy brings a wealth of experience to the job. The South Carolina native has crammed a lot of baseball into his 45 years. Over the course of roughly 2,700 games as a player, coach and manager, he’s experienced the highest highs and lowest lows. And that should serve him well as he helps these current Wings take flight.

LeCroy (pronounced LEE-croy) played 476 games in the majors, smacking 68 doubles and 60 homers, while batting .260. He had 17-homer seasons in 2003 and 2005. His Everest moment occurred on May 19, 2004 when the former Clemson University standout crushed a ninth-inning, pinch-hit grand slam in Toronto’s SkyDome to propel the Twins to a 6-5 victory.

Two years and six days later, LeCroy would hit rock bottom in a game neither he nor late Nationals and Wings manager Frank Robinson would ever forget. Injuries left Robinson with no choice but to start third-string catcher LeCroy in a game against the Houston Astros — this despite the fact LeCroy, too, was hurting and hadn’t caught for a while. Devoted player that he was, he willingly took one for the team, and it didn’t work out well. The Astros stole seven bases against him, and he made two throwing errors. After three batters in the seventh inning, with the tying run on base courtesy of a LeCroy miscue, Robinson replaced him with emergency catcher Robert Fick. It was an embarrassing move, but a necessary one. LeCroy understood completely, saying afterward: “If my daddy was managing this team, I’m sure he would have done the same thing.”

Robinson, who was known for his saltiness and ferocity as a Hall of Fame player and manager, broke down and cried in the post-game press conference. He loved the game and appreciated LeCroy’s selflessness and willingness to sacrifice for the team.

“Last thing I ever want to do is embarrass a professional, especially someone who’s giving it his all,” Robinson said later. “I really appreciate people like Matt LeCroy. I really do. They play hard even when they aren’t at their best. They respect the game.”

LeCroy’s respect, knowledge and love for the game would prompt the Nationals to hire him to manage their minor league team in Hagerstown, Md. in 2009. Since that time, he’s guided three of their farm clubs, and also spent two seasons as the Nationals bullpen coach.

And, now, he finds himself back in Rochester, overseeing a 33-man roster featuring highly touted prospects such as 20-year-old shortstop Luis Garcia, third baseman Carter Kieboom and pitchers Steven Fuentes and Jefry Rodriguez. More than a dozen of the 2021 Wings have big-league experience, including outfielder Gerardo Parra, a Venezuelan outfielder who endeared himself to National fans during their 2018 World Series run with his “Baby Shark” walk-up song that the entire team adopted. The squad also includes some former Wings, most prominently left-handed slugger Daniel Palka, who spent parts of two seasons in Rochester, clubbing 24 homers in 138 games. Interestingly, under the new agreement between the majors and minors, big-league players will be required to play their injury-rehab games in Triple-A, meaning Rochester fans could one day see the likes of Stephen Strasburg or Juan Soto in a Wings uniform.

Many current Wings have not played in official games since 2019 because COIVID shut down the minors last season. Absence definitely has made their hearts grow fonder.

“They’ve been out of the game for a while,” LeCroy said. “It was taken away from them and now they got a chance to ramp it up and hopefully get a chance to play at the highest level, the big leagues. I’m looking forward to it. I really am.”

LeCroy will be able to call upon his experiences playing for Robinson, Tom Kelly and Ron Gardenhire in the big leagues. They taught him how to stay even-keeled, and how every player on the roster, even the scrubs, is vital to team success. He learned early on that slumps are a part of baseball. As are superstitions. After going hitless for several days with the Twins, he devoured a banana and mayonnaise sandwich before a game and went out and smacked a few hits. A gastronomical favorite from his home state had helped him snap out of it.

LeCroy hopes he won’t have to break out the mayo, bananas and bread this season. He’d rather feast on some winning streaks. Better for the standings and the waist line. But dire circumstances occasionally call for dire actions. Of course, he could always pinch-hit with some Rochester fare. A garbage plate just might be an appropriate substitute.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.          

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