As a space-system operator at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Geoffrey LeClaire's job is to defend the country from potential missile threats coming from all over the world. The mysterious giant golf-ball-like structures scattered across the compound, called radomes, house high-tech satellites; it's LeClaire's duty to make sure they're working.
When he's not staving off World War III at the air base, the 28-year-old LeClaire finds solace on the baseball diamond, where he's been playing the game he loves since his high-school days in suburban Illinois. Last fall LeClaire played four exhibition games in the National Adult Baseball Association, Denver's largest adult baseball league, and it left him wanting more. His competitive nature, a product of playing junior-college ball in St. Louis and a career in the military, bristled against the somewhat lax culture of the league, where he says coaches played favorites instead of trying to win games at any cost.
LeClaire thought he could do better, so he decided to build his own team to compete in the 2017 season. On January 12, his Aurora Afterburners were granted entry into the eighteen-plus wood-bat league of the NABA. “I want to play the best players,” LeClaire says. “If that means me sitting on the bench while I tell everybody where to go, I'm perfectly happy with that. That was a problem I've seen before: In these kinds of leagues, you generally play yourself, but I want to hop straight into this thing being a competitive team.”
The team name was born after LeClaire spent a night chatting with his younger brother, who works as a web designer. After some brainstorming, they came up with the idea for an Afterburner logo for a hypothetical team: an image of a jet blasting into space with a baseball for backdrop. Once LeClaire saw the actual logo, he knew he had to follow through with the plan. “He came up with the Afterburner logo," he recalls. "That was the moment I'm like, okay, let's do this. The logo's too cool to pass up.”
He had one supporter right off the bat in fellow airman Erik Larsen, who signed on to be the team's treasurer and secretary. “He played in travel leagues in Nebraska and missed playing the game,” LeClaire says. “We would discuss baseball constantly at work and would joke about making a team.... It's now becoming a reality.”
LeClaire started recruiting players on Craigslist and Facebook and connected with local lawyer Patrick Carey, a former Brown University baseball player who agreed to become vice president of the team. With Carey's assistance, LeClaire incorporated the Afterburners as a nonprofit charitable organization, enabling the team to receive money from sponsors to help defray the costs of equipment and league fees. “We're having to go out and pound the pavement and try and find sponsors, because I can't personally afford to pay for a baseball team,” LeClaire explains. “With that comes some more community responsibilities.”
While the team is still looking for sponsors, it's already partnered with the Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado and will donate helmets to local Little League teams to spread concussion awareness. “You don't see it very much in baseball, but it does happen in baseball, especially with catchers," LeClaire says. "We want to make sure that future kids wanting to play are well protected.”
LeClaire is also planning youth baseball clinics around Denver. “We can have some kids come out, teach them some fundamentals with former Division 1 athletes, former guys who were drafted," he explains. "We feel like we need a way to give back to the community and show these kids that baseball's more than just a sport: It's a lifestyle, and personally, it's taught me a lot.”
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The Afterburners, whose Aurora prefix could change if the team picks up a corporate sponsor, held its inaugural practice at Bible Park on a recent chilly afternoon. Fourteen players showed up as the team figured out positions and scrimmaged against each other. LeClaire can already see a winning chemistry forming with his players, who range from 21 to 55 years old. If they can prove themselves in their first season with wood bats, they'll be eligible to make the jump to the AAA division — and LeClaire can't wait to get there.
"I have a little introduction speech that I give to all the new players who show up," he says. "I always say that the goal of this team is to have fun — but to me, winning is fun."