90 Percent Mental

By Luke Rettig; Photography by Will Bentzel

A Day in the Life of Harrisburg Senators Manager Matt LeCroy

The day started with such hope.

On a spring afternoon in early May, just after 2 p.m., Harrisburg Senators Manager Matt LeCroy stood on the sunlit field of Metro Bank Park watching his players catch, pitch and throw. Inside the empty stadium, 25 athletic young men – boys, really – were practicing a game they loved while classic rock blasted over the public address system.

Eight hours later, LeCroy would be sitting in the dugout under a cold night sky, shouting in frustration as an umpire failed to give the Senators a double play on their way to an embarrassing loss. It was the top of the 9th inning, and the Senators were down 7-2. They hadn’t scored since the third inning – when a pitching mistake squandered their momentum – and the game was now clearly lost.

The music had stopped long ago and the costumed gorilla no longer paraded around the field between innings. Most of the 6,300 fans had left or were leaving. LeCroy’s players sat in the dugout on folding chairs, chewing gum, watching the final inning as though it were a funeral. The average Senator is just 23 years old, but losing has a way of making men, even young men, look like boys.

It’s a phrase LeCroy said repeatedly throughout our day together.

“Baseball is a game of failure.”

“This game is 90 percent mental,” he continued. “And the guys who are mentally strong have a chance to make it to the big leagues.”

The weak-minded, he implied, do not. Because every dropped ball, strike out and lapse in judgment will make a player question himself.

“And when you mess up in the pros, you’ll have five reporters asking you what happened after the game. You’ll be thinking about that, you’re next at bat and your hands will be shaking. It only gets tougher,” says LeCroy.

In today’s game, where every statistic is recorded and analyzed within a larger performance framework, there is nowhere to hide. Which means baseball is not just a game of failure, but a contest in which highly competitive human beings test their resilience within an atmosphere where failure is inevitable.

LeCroy was a player once. He was in eighth grade, watching his older brother play, when he knew he wanted to be a professional ballplayer. Something clicked, and LeCroy was uncommonly driven. In high school, he hit 500 balls off a tee every morning before he went to class. His work ethic, fueled in part by those who didn’t believe he could make the big leagues, led to LeCroy getting drafted out of high school.

Instead he went to Clemson University, where he met his wife. After three years of college baseball, he was drafted again. This time LeCroy went, playing catcher for the Minnesota Twins and spending seven glorious seasons in Major League Baseball. But entering his early 30s, he felt his body breaking down. His managers saw it too, it brought them to tears.

LeCroy was sent to the minors, where he played before his aging body failed yet again. His dream career over, LeCroy turned to managing, using the same work ethic he brought to his playing. In 2009, at the age of 33, LeCroy got his first job managing the Hagerstown Suns, the low Class A affiliate of the Washington Nationals.

LeCroy managed two seasons in Maryland before moving up to the Potomac Nationals, an advanced Class A affiliate. And when Harrisburg Senators Manager Tony Beasley was promoted in 2011, LeCroy moved up to replace him.Accustomed to the win-at-all-costs big leagues, LeCroy gradually adjusted to the minors, where developing young players outranks the importance of winning games. LeCroy also realized his ambitions were now secondary to the players he managed, each of whom dreamed of the big leagues.

“It’s an everyday grind.”

The Harrisburg Senators will play 142 games in just five months. In May alone, they’ll play a baseball game every day but one. Managing a coaching staff and 25 players over a schedule of such length and volume is LeCroy’s ultimate test, both physically and mentally. With unexpected injuries and constantly changing circumstances, it’s his job to keep everyone on their developmental track.

For 7 p.m. game days, LeCroy arrives at the stadium around 11:30 a.m. Inside, he’ll navigate a maze of narrow, white cinderblock walls before entering his office: a small, windowless cell with a desk, laptop computer and two pieces of green, artificial leather furniture.

After turning on the television, which is tuned permanently to ESPN or MASN – a station owned jointly by the Washington Nationals – LeCroy will print three copies of the night’s lineup: one for himself, the opposing manager and the umpires.

LeCroy keeps a three-day schedule posted to the locker room wall at all times, which he updates religiously and reposts every night, so every coach and player knows exactly what they’ll be doing. Today, LeCroy will work in his office for several hours before heading onto the field to watch the players’ “early work,” where they’ll focus on game situations.

Fellow coaches stop by LeCroy’s office as they arrive. On developmental teams like the Senators, there are coaches for everything – hitting, pitching, strength and nutrition. There’s even a team psychologist at the Nationals’ training facility in Florida. LeCroy and his staff talk about their players, discuss the previous night’s performance and trade baseball stories from glory days past.