Sky Sox coach LeBoeuf redefines 'baseball lifer'

After beating rare disease, longtime coach has big league dreams

Under hitting coach Al Leboeuf, Colorado Springs led the Pacific Coast League with a .291 average in 2017. (Mike Janes/Four Seam Images)

By Michael Leboff / MiLB.com | November 30, 2017 10:00 AM ET

Late in the 2012 season, Al LeBoeuf's son, Mac, wheeled him out of the Nashville Sounds clubhouse. After more than 30 years in professional baseball, he was unsure if he'd ever be back. 

In May of that year, while serving as the hitting coach for the Nashville Sounds (then Milwaukee's Triple-A team), LeBoeuf and manager Mike Guerrero took a trip to Huntsville, Alabama, to play golf with Darnell Coles, who was the managing the Brewers' Double-A affiliate, the Stars. 

As the round was winding down, LeBoeuf, who was 52 at the time, felt some cramping in his calves. He chalked it up to fatigue and thought nothing more of it. The next day, the Sounds traveled to Tucson, Arizona, for their next series and, after LeBoeuf threw batting practice, he noticed some swelling in his ankles. A few days later, the longtime Minor League coach knew something was seriously wrong when he had trouble staying on his feet as he walked off the mound following a BP session in Las Vegas.

At that point, he was sent back to Nashville for an MRI at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where doctors discovered a cancerous spot on his right hip that had produced a rare neurological disorder called POEMS (Polyneuropathy, Organomegaly, Endocrinopathy, Monoclonal protein, Skin changes) syndrome. At the time, doctors told LeBoeuf his was one of 200 known cases in the world. 

Oddly enough, LeBoeuf's condition was traced back to 1985 when he got hit on the hip by a fastball while playing for the Portland Beavers, the Phillies' Triple-A affiliate. While trying to heal, that spot on his hip produced so much protein that it harmed the antibodies in his system and gave him blood cancer, which led to POEMS syndrome.

LeBoeuf's condition worsened after his initial round of chemotherapy and he returned to his Tampa, Florida, home in August to undergo a stem cell transplant and a more intense round of chemo. At the time, he was in a wheelchair, unsure if he'd ever walk again. 

"Whenever anybody mentions the 'C-word,' it's devastating and life-changing," LeBoeuf said. "But after you get over the initial shock, you have two choices: you can pack it in and succumb to it or you can grind it out and realize you have a lot to live for. And I still have a lot to live for."

With the help of his wife, Laura, LeBoeuf improved and the Brewers allowed him to stay in the game by hiring him to serve in a player development role in Florida while he recovered during the 2013 season. By the following year, he was able to support himself on crutches and began a two-year run as hitting coach for the Rookie-level Arizona League Brewers. In 2016, LeBoeuf was able to get around without crutches and the Brewers moved him to Class A Wisconsin. A year later, he joined Colorado Springs as hitting coach. 

One of the reasons the Brewers promoted LeBoeuf to the Sky Sox is his ability to connect and form relationships with players, a trait that's only been strengthened through his bout with POEMS. And when one of his players is struggling or stewing over a recent slump or bad break, he's happy to be there to help work through the problem while reminding him that he's just playing a game. 

"They see me doing what I do and a lot of them hadn't seen me since I was barely moving around and needed crutches to get around," LeBoeuf said. "One thing is that I try to instill a sense of calm when it comes to the game. In the big picture, an 0-for-4 isn't that bad. Hey, you just need to look at me and what I've been through to remember that."

LeBoeuf isn't there just to provide inspiration -- he's got 37 years of Minor League experience. He started his professional career in 1981, playing first base for the Rookie-level Helena Phillies in the Pioneer League. He made it all the way to Triple-A, but by then, he began to feel his days as a player were numbered. 

"In 1985, I slid into the catcher and blew my knee out. I played a couple of years after that, and then in 1987, I got married and my priorities were changing," he said.

Instead of calling it quits, LeBoeuf got a rare opportunity in 1988 to serve as a player-coach with Double-A Reading under Bill Dancy, now the field coordinator for the Detroit Tigers. 

"As a player-coach, you didn't write up lineups or anything like that and you were still eligible to play, but basically what you'd do was sit in the manager's office and talk about the game," LeBoeuf explained. "So I would sit with [Dancy] and he would show me the reports. Back then, you had to type them out on a computer and call them in. And he showed me how to prioritize the things I'd do each particular day.

"It was a good way to get you in the manager's room and show you what it's really like because when you're playing, you worry about one guy -- and that's yourself. But when you're coaching or managing, you need to worry about 25 guys and getting them prepared to play each and every day."

While serving under Dancy, LeBoeuf experienced a moment that comes for every ballplayer. 

"When I was player-coaching, I got like 250 at-bats, but at this point I had just played seven games in a row and we were driving from Reading, Pennsylvania to Glens Falls, New York," he recalled. "I had my own room in the hotel and I woke up the next morning and it took me 45 minutes for me to walk from the bed to the bathroom. So I made the call on the rotary phone to my wife, Laura, and told her I don't think I could do this anymore." 

The Putnam, Connecticut, native wasn't out of the game for long. The Phillies gave him an offer he couldn't refuse. 

"That winter, the Phillies called me and told me they thought I'd be good at coaching and asked me if I wanted to do it. And 30 years later, here I am, still doing it," he said. 

During his long coaching career, LeBoeuf has seen the game change in myriad ways. Lately, the 57-year-old is doing his best to keep up with the new age approach to hitting. 

"Our hitting coordinator, Kenny Graham, has done a nice job instilling the new age of baseball among our players," LeBoeuf said. "Whether it be launch angle or sabermetrics and stuff like that, he does a good job of helping them so they can understand what to do and why they're doing it because the game is changing. Everybody to this day is still worried about batting average, but these days, batting average doesn't mean anything anymore. It's all about on-base percentage and OPS now."

Unlike some of his contemporaries, he's adapted and embraced the challenge of learning what sabermetrics, advanced statistics and modern coaching philosophies are all about. 

"A lot of older guys were reluctant, but me, personally, I was just naïve to it and didn't know a lot about it," he said. "And once I started to dabble and try to understand it and learn from the guys who knew about the advanced stats, it's been such an advantage and there's a lot of good that comes from it."

Even though he's spent his entire baseball career in the Minor Leagues, LeBoeuf is grateful for what the sport has given him, including his favorite part of the job. 

"Being in the Minor Leagues as long as I have, the greatest satisfaction I have is when I get a phone call and one of my guys is thanking me and telling me that he got the call to go the Majors," he said. 

LeBoeuf remains hopeful that he'll be on the receiving end of a similar call. 

"It doesn't matter who you are or how long you've been in the game, it would be nice to make it to the Major League level. It would be a dream come true," he said.

Michael Leboff is a contributor to MiLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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