Lexington Legends

Manager of Legends' only champions makes comeback for caravan

Lexington Legends manager J.J. Cannon at the team's first practice at Applebee's Park on April 2,2002 in Lexington, Ky.
Lexington Legends manager J.J. Cannon at the team's first practice at Applebee's Park on April 2,2002 in Lexington, Ky. LEXINGTON HERALD LEADER

Whitaker Bank Ballpark might be buried in snow, but it's time to talk Lexington Legends baseball.

The Legends are in the midst of their annual pre-season caravan, which will make a stop at the ballpark's Kentucky Ale Taproom on Monday, from 5:30 to 7 p.m.

Making guest appearances will be former big-league pitchers Matt Ginter and Jeff Parrett, along with former Legends manager J.J. Cannon.

To warm the stove for Monday's caravan stop, the Herald-Leader caught up with Cannon on Tuesday.

Cannon, who played in the major leagues with Houston and Toronto, managed the Legends in their first two seasons, 2001 and '02. In all, he was a manager for 11 seasons in the Toronto, Atlanta and Houston organizations.

Today, he works in Versailles at the Kentucky Methodist Group Home, where he mentors boys ages 13-17.

"I'm kind of excited about it," Cannon said of his caravan appearance. "It's been a long time."

Cannon managed the Legends to their only championship in their inaugural season, 2001. Lexington won the first half of the season with a 50-20 record, placed second in the second half at 42-28 for a 92-48 overall mark. Then they breezed through the playoffs that were cut short by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"I think about that all the time," Cannon said. "Sept. 11 was a big, big memorable moment for us. We were at the verge of going undefeated through the whole playoffs and were stopped short. But the other team (Asheville) conceded because surely we did have a dominating team. It's unfortunate that all that happened."

The Legends dominated in 2001. They set South Atlantic League records for extra-base hits in a season (493), doubles (297), total bases (2,163) and strikeouts (1,235).

"What I remember about it is I had a really good group of guys," Cannon said. "And being the first year, we just had a really good support system with (president/CEO) Alan Stein and the whole cast of people that organized the baseball in Lexington. So what I really enjoyed the most about it was the group of guys we had. It was a special group of guys who played well together. They got along good together, so it made the season very easy.

"What makes any championship season special, to me, is when you come together as a family, you get to know each other, you're close-knitted. Everybody was in the same routine. They supported each other, looked after each other and there were no particular guys, but there were outstanding individuals on the team — Jon Topolski, (Ramon) German, John Buck. Just so many good players that had talent. But most of all, their personalities and their demeanor, their attitudes — it made a big difference on the team."

Topolski led the SAL in hits and RBI, and was fifth in homers. German finished second in RBI and third in doubles.

Others among the league leaders included: Tommy Whiteman, second in average; Felix Escalona, No. 1 in doubles and third in hits; Rodrigo Rosario, second in ERA and fifth in wins; and Mike Nannini, first in innings pitched, second in wins and second in complete games.

The team leaders?

"Ooh. There were quite a few. I can't remember all the guys on the team now," Cannon said. "But John Buck stands out. We had Ramon German, Felix Escalona. We just had so many guys that were good, even younger guys, 18-year-old guys like (Anthony) Pluta. Those guys, they made a big difference in the team. They set good examples. Their work habits, their work ethic. Some of the guys came out of college and you could see they were more mature, they handled themselves well. ... An easy group of guys to manage and handle."

■ The Legends, Class A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals, will open the season at home Thursday night, April 16, against the West Virginia Power, an affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. For more information, call (859) 422-7867 or see Lexingtonlegends.com.