Sports

2009 Legends: Full-court press, baseball-style

Soap TV has The Young and the Restless.

The Lexington Legends? The Young and the Lawless.

And that's a good thing.

Lawless is the name of the manager, not a lifestyle.

Former big-league infielder Tom Lawless is the seventh manager in the Legends' nine-season history.

After back-to-back last-place finishes under Gregg Langbehn, the Legends are off to a flying start under Lawless. Lexington, with what may be its youngest club yet, comes into Monday's home opener fresh off a three-game sweep at West Virginia.

Can you say "Lawless, as in flawless?"

A four-game series against Kannapolis opens what will be a nine-game homestand for the Legends. Lexington didn't win four in a row last season until topping Columbus 7-4 on July 21.

"I like movement. I like bodies moving," Lawless said before last week's road trip. "If you get on base, we're gonna be moving. We're gonna steal. We're gonna hit-and-run. We're gonna take extra bases. We're gonna put pressure on the defense.

"The more you do that, the reputation around the league knows that 'if you bobble that ball, we're gonna take the extra base.' We're gonna get thrown out — that comes with the territory. But we're gonna be more successful trying to do it that way than waiting around trying to hit home runs. ... I like the home run, but I don't think you wait around for it. You create opportunities and then try to score the runs."

Lawless, 52 and a native of Erie, Pa., was selected by the Cincinnati Reds in the 17th round of the 1978 draft, out of Penn State.

He went on to play 343 big-league games over eight seasons with the Reds, Montreal Expos, St. Louis Cardinals and Toronto Blue Jays. A career .207 hitter, he homered three times. The most noteworthy came with St. Louis, off of Minnesota's Frank Viola, a three-run shot in the fourth game of the 1987 World Series to spark a 7-2 win.

Primarily a second baseman, Lawless also saw significant action at third base and played 26 games in the outfield. He had one game at first base and one behind the plate. He also stole 53 bases in 66 attempts.

In 1984, the Reds traded him to Montreal, even up, for hits king Pete Rose, who became Cincinnati's player-manager.

Lawless has managed in all or part of seven seasons in the Angels, Cardinals, Padres and Orioles organization. He also coached three seasons for the Mets' Triple-A club and served as a roving instructor in the Orioles organization.

He has coached in the Australian winter leagues (1994-95) and, last summer, served as coach of the Chinese Olympic team.

"Great guy. Awesome," Legends outfielder Brandon Barnes said of Lawless. "I was down with him in spring the last couple weeks and just an awesome guy. Real inspirational. Keeps us going. So we're ready for this year, definitely."

Barnes' teammates agree.

"He's got a unique style, and I like it. Everything's good," relief pitcher Patrick Urckfitz said. "He's just a good guy. He'll joke around, but then when it's time to be serious, we're serious."

Said infielder Kyle Miller: "Tom — great guy, laid back. He's going to be a good guy to play for."

As Legends fans know, minor-league ball isn't about being a good guy. It's about developing prospects for the big-league club.

Sometimes that can handcuff a manager. If the big-league club dictates that game-situation bunts need to be addressed, a manager can be obligated to have his players do so as early as the first inning.

However, Lawless says the parent-club Houston Astros are not so strict.

"We are free to manage the game the way we see fit," he said. "We will manage the game to win, most of the time. You develop winning players that way. You win.

"The problem with a lot of organizations now is they want to develop their three prospects, per se. But their team loses 95 games every year. So when that kid gets to the big leagues, if he gets to the big leagues, what does he know? He only knows how to lose. He doesn't know how to win. ... That's our main goal this year is to create that attitude of 'how do you win baseball games' from the first pitch to the last out.

"How do you win a baseball game? Defense. Stealing a base. Making a pitch when I've got to make a pitch. If you harp on the little things and they understand and they buy into the program, then you're gonna see a lot of games won because you've done the little things."

It's no secret that the Astros are high on the young Legends pitching staff.

"These guys have an unbelievably high ceiling," said Andy Shea, general manager of the Legends. "It'll be fun to see how they do out of the gates. But again the ceiling on these guys for 18 and 19-year-olds, with the bodies that they have, it's pretty impressive."

The starting rotation of Jordan Lyles, Ross Seaton, Brad Dydalewicz, Robert Bono and Kyle Greenwalt ranges in age from 18 to 20. Four of the five were drafted in the 11th round or higher, topped by first-round supplemental pick Lyles.

"We've got a lot of high expectations for the pitching," Lawless said. "We will see. They're young kids. You've got to be patient with them. But they should throw strikes. They should attack the strike zone."

Just as Lawless expects his players to attack other "little things" necessary to win.

"It doesn't matter if you're in the big leagues or here. If you don't do the little things, you lose," Lawless said. "Big-league teams don't do the little things, they lose. That's why you have so many bad big-league teams. Because all they want to do is hit, hit, hit, hit. You can't outslug 'em every day. ... So we are going to try to instill that in these young boys' brains, that you've got to learn how to play the baseball game.

"If you don't know how to learn how to play, how to win, you won't move up in this organization. We're going to teach that. We're going to get them to understand that. You may hit .330 here and not know how to play the baseball game, and you'll watch a guy hitting .250 go up to the next level because he knows how to play the game. And that's what we want to create. If we can do that and they buy into the program, then we've got a chance to do a lot of good things in this organization."

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