After Georgia State Patrol officer Chad LeCroy, 38, was fatally shot during a traffic stop Dec. 27, his young half-brother, Jake, wanted to honor him like a major leaguer.
Jake, 11, plays for the Sandy Plains Wildcats, one of the elite travel teams in Cobb County’s deep pool of baseball talent.
He asked his coach if he could wear his dead brother’s badge number -- 744 -- on his uniform.
“You can’t do that by yourself,” Wildcats coach Brian Smith told him. “The whole team has to do it with you.”
Jake’s mission to honor his brother spread to his team, their families and, Friday night, to their community. A big crowd, including former Gov. Roy Barnes and state troopers, showed up at Harrison Park in Marietta to watch the Wildcats dedicate their season to Chad LeCroy.
These boys, ages 10 and 11, have learned along with Jake, a sixth grader at McCleskey Middle School, how a loss can make you grow up fast.
“I thought it was great,” Jake said of his coach’s challenge to persuade his teammates. “The whole team can honor him now. ... His badge meant everything to my brother.”
In a game sparked by Jake's early home run, the Wildcats' tribute also connected the boys to the fraternity of state troopers, who like baseball players and their jerseys, etch their identity into special numbers.
“You take that number anywhere you go,” Georgia State Patrol Lt. Paul Cosper (badge number: 66) said. “Regular troopers on the road are assigned a three-digit badge from 100 to 999. Numbers below 100 are for captains and lieutenants. Our colonel [Bill Hitchens] is No. 1.
“If you get killed in the line of duty, that badge number is retired, and the only way it would be issued again is if the family authorized it -- if the [slain] officer’s son became an officer and wanted that.”
The Wildcats wore hats stitched with 744, a number that also appeared on stickers on their batting helmets. Hitchens authorized the State Patrol patches that were stitched onto the Wildcats’ sleeves, Cosper said. A jersey with the number 744 will hang in the Wildcats' dugout this season.
Chad LeCroy’s widow, Keisha, took the mound for the ceremonial first pitch in Friday's game, one thrown by the couple's 10-year-old son, Chase.
Wildcats parents also organized a concert and online silent auction to benefit the LeCroy family. Spectators also could sign a petition asking state legislators to pass “Chad’s Law,” which would prohibit probation violators -- such as Gregory Favors, who is accused of shooting Chad LeCroy -- from bonding out.
For Jake, his brother’s number keeps his memory alive. The two share the same father, Bill LeCroy, who like them grew up playing on Cobb’s baseball diamonds, even pitching a no-hitter at age 8 at Sewell Park.
Bill LeCroy’s three marriages produced four sons. Chad, the oldest and 6 feet 3 inches tall, showed Jake, the youngest but already 6-1, how to strengthen his arms by practicing with a weighted bat. Chad narrowed Jake's batting stance and taught him to turn, instead of step, into a pitch for more power.
Jake spent a lot of time with his brother, whose son, Chase, is almost exactly a year younger than Jake.
“When my brother died, I thought there was a piece of my life done,” Jake said.
Chad LeCroy’s influence on the Wildcats reaches beyond the badge number. Bill LeCroy, an assistant coach, regularly instructs the players how to behave using stories of his oldest son’s public service and character.
In one, Chad LeCroy broke his arm while riding a bull the full eight seconds. The next morning, he reported to work in a cast. Each day, he trimmed the cast until it was gone.
“Can you give 100 percent like that?” Bill LeCroy said he asked the team. "They agreed they could."
This season, 60 boys tried out for 12 Wildcats spots. Those chosen pay $750 to $1,000 for a season of “travel ball,” against other elite teams. The season ends in the summer with a tournament in Florida.
“As you try to teach them from boys to men, these are some serious stories [from Chad’s life], and change is happening quicker for them because of it,” said Smith, who has coached most of the Wildcats players since age 4.
Had Chad LeCroy’s murder never happened, he said, “I don’t know if we’d already be at the ‘yes sir, no sir’ point, but every single one of these boys is there.”