When the Houston Astros played at Cincinnati recently, outfielder Hunter Pence welcomed visitors from Lexington to the locker room. They remembered his embryonic professional baseball days with the Lexington Legends and wanted to say hello.
“You don’t get that in a lot of places,” Astros assistant general manager Ricky Bennett said on Friday. “And that’s special.”
Bennett spoke from a lectern at Applebee’s Park, where he helped announce the Astros signing a four-year extension of their working relationship with the Legends.
“It’s a perfect fit,” Bennett said of the Astros’ relationship with their Class A minor-league affiliate here.
Bennett called extending the relationship, which began in 2001, an “absolute no-brainer.”
The new deal will keep the Legends affiliated with the Astros through the 2012 season.
“The fan support, the ballpark, the atmosphere are second to none,” Bennett said. “Our players will be well taken care of.”
Legends President Alan Stein noted how the Astros met his organization’s desires of a parent entity:
■ Providing quality players who can win.
■ Sending players of good character to Lexington.
■ Living up to its business commitments.
Through its first seven seasons, the Legends and Astros enjoyed a smooth ride.
Stein noted that 29 former Legends players had advanced to the major leagues.
And in those seasons, the Legends’ cumulative record would be 271/2 games better than its closest competitor in the South Atlantic League.
However, the joy ride ended this year. The Legends had a record of 21-48 record in the first half of the season. That translated to last place, 81/2 games behind the seventh-place team.
So far in the second half, the Legends had a 21-38 record going into Friday night’s game against the Hickory Crawdads.
Although Stein noted that attendance (people in seats) was down by only 3.5 percent, and that the Legends’ research indicated that only about 15 percent of fans care about winning, he made a point of speaking about a return to championship contention some day.
When asked why he made an issue of winning if the fans don’t care, Stein smiled and said, “Because I care.”
Bennett linked the downturn to a poor 2007 draft. The Astros did not have a first- or second-round pick. Its first signee was taken in the fifth round.
A new scouting director, who had Houston’s first full complement of picks in four years to work with, can fuel a Legends revival, Stein and Bennett said.
“It’ll only get better in this organization,” Bennett said. “Hopefully, our won-loss record will reflect that.”
Stein suggested a change brought by a better draft could happen fast.
“Lexington will be the first place the impact will show up,” he said. “We’re not expecting to wait for years — like at the Triple-A level — to see a change take place.”