The Legends’ minor league baseball team has served many purposes since its debut in Lexington in 2001.
The Legends have helped launch numerous prospects to major league stardom, including Jose Altuve, J.D. Martinez, Hunter Pence and Ben Zobrist.
The Legends have entertained millions of fans with fireworks and food and every promotion known to man, from Roger Clemens to the “Human Cannonball.”
What the Legends have rarely done is win.
This year is different.
As Lexington enters the home stretch of the 2018 South Atlantic League season, the Legends have a chance to play for something more than batting averages, ERAs and Thirsty Thursday crowds.
After sweeping a doubleheader at Asheville on Wednesday night for their seventh and eighth consecutive victories, the Legends are engaged in an honest-to-goodness pennant race.
This is news because this is not what the Legends do.
The affiliate of Major League Baseball’s Kansas City Royals (and before that, the Houston Astros) makes no secret of the fact that winning games is not the highest priority.
“Developing has to come first,” former Legends pitching coach Carlos Reyes told the Herald-Leader in 2015. “And the winning comes second.”
Of course, that philosophy is no secret to anyone who works in the minors. Job one is, and will always be, preparing talent for the next level.
Still, as “Bull Durham” character Nuke LaLoosh said in that 1980s minor league baseball movie, “Man, I love winning! It’s, like, better than losing.”
And the Legends have done more than their share of losing.
Lexington has not finished a season above .500 since going 71-68 in 2010 — one of only six winning seasons in the franchise’s 17 previous years. Five of those winning seasons, and the team’s only South Atlantic League title, came in the team’s first six seasons.
Even the Legends’ only championship was less than perfect. In the team’s inaugural season of 2001, Lexington shared the SAL title with Asheville when their championship series was canceled in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The Legends have made only two appearances in the playoffs since then (2003 and 2006).
In recent seasons, Lexington has rarely been in playoff contention — even in a league that divides its season into two halves. The division winners in each half of the season earn playoff berths. You can even get in by finishing a half in second place — if the first place team also won the division in the first half of the season.
Bottom line: Should it be this hard?
Lexington’s overall league finishes since its most recent playoff appearance in 2006 have been 12th, 14th, 12th, 11th, eighth, seventh, 12th, sixth, ninth, 16th and 13th.
This year, the Legends are supplying something to root for beyond 25 Cent Hot Dog Tuesdays.
Lexington went 37-31 in the season’s first half, tying for second place with Augusta in the SAL’s Southern Division, 2 ½ games behind Rome.
The Legends are again in contention in the second half. At 17-14, they were a half-game behind first-place Greenville (18-14) entering Thursday’s games. Lexington’s overall record of 54-45 was the best in the division.
There’s a lot of work to do before a pennant flies in Lexington. Thirty-five games remain between Friday and the end of the regular season on Labor Day. Eighteen of those will be played at Whitaker Bank Ballpark, beginning Friday night when the Legends open a three-game series at home against Rome.
Legends’ success is rooted in power. Lexington was second in the South Atlantic League in home runs with 103, led by 19-year-old outfielder Seuly Matias – with 27 through Thursday – whose next home run would break the Legends’ franchise record for a single season. Catcher MJ Melendez has 14 home runs.
Lexington led the SAL with 496 runs scored.
Legends outfielder Michael Gigliotti, who entered the season as the No. 5 prospect in the Royals’ organization but has been limited by injuries, saw this coming. Lexington opened the season with six of the first 10 players chosen by Kansas City in last year’s Major League Baseball Draft.
“We’ve got a lot of big bats and that’s pretty exciting,” he said before opening day. “So if we all play together as a team and keep in mind what we need to do as a team to win, your numbers are gonna be there at the end of the year.”
Rome Braves at Lexington Legends
What: Opener of a three-game series
Where: Whitaker Bank Ballpark
When: 7:05 p.m.