Saturday, April 07, 2001

Minor-league park ready for action

Lexington Legends come home Monday

The Associated Press

        LEXINGTON — For nearly a decade, Alan Stein has worked tirelessly to bring professional baseball to the Bluegrass.

        His work will pay off Monday when the Lexington Legends, a Class A minor-league affiliate of the Houston Astros, play their first home game in a new $13.5 million stadium only a deep fly ball from downtown Lexington.

[photo] Workers prepare the Lexington Legends' new baseball field this week. The team, a minor-league affiliate of the Houston Astros, opens its season Monday.
(Associated Press photo)
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        “It's everything I've always hoped it would be and more,” said Mr. Stein, the Legends' president and chief executive officer. “It's gratifying and more than just a little bit humbling that something that took so much time, effort and support finally is coming to fruition.

        “There's only one thing left to do — play ball.”

        The Legends players arrived in Lexington from spring training in Florida on Sunday and had only three practices as a team before heading out Thursday on their first road trip of the season — a four-game stand in Charleston, W.Va., one of 16 South Atlantic League cities.

        The players, mostly youngsters on the first steps of careers that could lead to the majors, spent most of their time either on the field or in their hotel before getting on a bus and hitting the road early Thursday morning. Most did, however, have the chance to peek at their new home stadium.

        “It's absolutely beautiful,” said John Buck, a 20-year-old catcher from Taylorsville, Utah. “It's not even done and it's already impressive.

        “The first time I saw it, I couldn't believe we we're going to be lucky enough to play half of our games there,” he said.

        The 6,000-seat ballpark, designed to blend in with its surroundings with a facade that resembles a horse farm, features 24 luxury suites, each with 24 exterior seats; a picnic area and a play area for children; a JumboTron scoreboard; and an eight- to 10-person hot tub in the right-field corner that will be given away at the end of the season.

        Another distinguishing feature sits beyond the center field wall: the Maker's Mark bourbon ball — a 25-foot-tall bat with a giant baseball dipped in wax mounted on top. Should a Legends player hit the tower with a home run, the bourbon maker has pledged a $100,000 donation to charity.

        Tickets range from $7 for a box seat to only $1 for the few seats in the left field “Bleacher Bum” area. The team also plans several special promotions during each homestand to give fans more entertainment for their money.

        “We feel like the people who come to enjoy a game at this stadium can expect a good time, great baseball, affordable prices and a staff that will do anything it can do to make their night at the ballpark a good one,” Mr. Stein said. “We really fell like we're going to offer the finest minor-league baseball experience in America.”

        Ticket sales have been brisk. Lexington resident Mark Reese spent two days camped out in front of the box office to buy single-game tickets, which went on sale March 31. By the time tickets went on sale at 9 a.m., more than 1,500 others had joined him.

        “My wife wasn't too happy about it and I know a lot of people probably think I'm crazy, but I've been waiting so long for professional baseball to come to my hometown that I was willing to do anything to make sure I got into the home opener,” said Mr. Reese, who came equipped with a tent, lawn chair, sleeping bag, food, books, his baseball glove and a ball.

        University of Kentucky student David Cottingham camped out for a week before season tickets went on sale several months earlier. He was awarded a free lifetime pass to all Legends home games for his effort.

        “The response from the community has been overwhelming,” Legends manager J.J. Cannon said. “I don't think anybody can know exactly what we're in for because I don't think any other minor-league team has been embraced by a city like Lexington has embraced us.”

        For the first few weeks, however, Mr. Reese, Mr. Cottingham and thousands of other fans will have to put up with some minor inconveniences as work on the ballpark is completed. A Kentucky baseball hall of fame, administrative offices and the outdoor whirlpool spa will not be up and running by opening night.

        “We're asking everybody to be a little patient the first few weeks as we finish things up,” Legends general manager Ralph Coldiron said. “We've had people working from sunup to sundown trying to get everything ready, but it's taking a little longer than we expected.

        “But we will have all the important items ready to go ... the field, the seats, the concessions, the restrooms — everything needed for a ballgame.”

        Mr. Stein said Monday's first pitch will be an emotional moment for him and many others involved in the project from its early stages.

        “In the very beginning, the ball was in our court — we had to prove that we could make this thing happen,” he said. “So we did our homework, raised our money and started building our stadium. Then we said, "OK public, you've been saying you want this. Now it's up to you. Respond.' And they did. In a big way.

        “Now they've given it back to us and said "Put up or shut up. Now let's see you execute.' And that's the way it ought to be. Now it's our turn to show just how enjoyable an experience this can be, and we feel like we're up to that challenge.”


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