On October 5, 2011, Alan Stein, president and CEO of the Lexington Legends announced his retirement.
BY BRIAN GARDNER
“I’m 36 years old. I love my family. I love baseball and I’m about to become a farmer. But until I heard the voice, I’d never done a crazy thing in my whole life.” Thus begins the story of Ray Kinsella and the construction of his baseball shrine in an Iowa corn field as detailed in the movie FIELD OF DEAMS. ‘The voice’ tells him, “if you build it, He will come.” Kinsella’s story is one of hope, love, obsession and baseball.
Alan Stein might have channeled Ray Kinsella as he endeavored to bring professional baseball to Lexington. Though his odyssey did not involve plowing up a corn field or talking to ghosts, it did involve some big dreams and long odds. To appreciate the audacity of the undertaking we have to look back at the 1990s. At the time, Lexington, for whatever reason, was the largest city in America without professional baseball of any level. Many efforts had been made by loyal Lexingtonians to lure the national pastime to the Bluegrass. But these efforts and their backers were shut out.
|Alan Stein with wife Kathy, by Forrest Payne (archives 2002)
Unfortunately, public financing for a stadium was not to be found. The governmental well for such projects had run dry. Stein and his team would have to find private funding in order to build a stadium. It should be noted that there are about as many privately funded sports stadiums in this country as there are orange jerseys at Big Blue Madness. So….. with a decades long history of no professional baseball in Lexington and no public financing of a stadium, Stein must have thought it would be easier to lure ghosts to roam the fields of Lexington than a minor league baseball team.
While Ray Kinsella had to raze his cash crop to build his dream, Stein had to raise cash to construct his.
But using his powers of persuasion, diligence and hard work, Stein overcame the long odds and privately financed the construction of a stadium. The next step was to lure the Houston Astros Single A level affiliate to town and join the Minor Leagues. The Lexington Legends became a member of the historic South Atlantic League and it was soon time to “play ball”!
The Sally League, as it is affectionately known, is the home to some of the oldest and most storied franchises in all of professional baseball. The Savannah entry has been playing on the same field for over 100 years at a stadium originally constructed to hold football fans. Asheville’s McCormick Field has undergone several renovations through the years but untouched are the towering evergreens that form the outfield perimeter. These trees form beautiful setting and a natural green backdrop for a batter to study a spinning white baseball as it approaches the plate. It’s said that Shoeless Joe Jackson sought secret refuge in the League after he was banned from the Major Leagues following the Black Sox scandal in 1919.
When it came to fitting into the Sally League, the Legends were a natural. Winning the League title in their first year of existence, Lexington was a perfect match for the charm, history and tradition of the historic League. With the finest facility in the Sally League and one of the best in all of Minor League Baseball, the Legends hosted the League’s ALL Star Game in 2003. Ultimately, Stein was elected to the League’s Board of Directors and held Leadership positions in Minor League Baseball through his tenure. Not only had Stein and the Legends arrived….they belonged!
On the field, fans have witnessed some great moments in the 11-year history of the team. Roger Clemens made his much ballyhooed return to baseball with the Legends after his short lived retirement. Kentucky’s own Josh Anderson stole five bases in one game and kept on running to the Major Leagues. Bryce Harper hit his first professional homer over the Legends’ left field wall (if you don’t yet know who he is- you will!). Every Opening Day has been packed with patrons full of promise and optimism. Each year Alan Stein would guarantee a Legends opening day victory lest he have to dress in silly clothing or shave his signature mustache. This helped fuel the kind of optimism that only baseball can provide with its springtime renewal. As sure as spring returns each year to melt winter’s snow and drive away the cold, baseball continually renews us, restores us and wakes us from our hibernation.
But perhaps Stein’s greatest contribution to Lexington’s landscape wasn’t on the field of play but in the surrounding stands. Think of all the families able to enjoy a great summer evening of bonding time at the ball park without spending a week’s wages. Imagine all the wonderful memories of kids running on the field while watching their heroes. The friends re-connecting while discussing the strategies of the game and arguing over who’s the greatest player of all time. Young dating couples learning the rules of the game while learning — the rules of the game. Stein’s greatest gifts are the untold number of stories that begin with “remember that time at the Legends game….” Stories that will bind families together for generations and bridge gaps of time, age and distance. Long after the stadium’s lights have dimmed, the created memories will burn bright.
As Ray Kinsella contemplates whether or not to keep his fantasy field, he is told this: “people will come, Ray. They’ll come for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll arrive as innocent as children, longing for the past. It’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The one constant through the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, erased and built again. But baseball has marked the time. This game, this field, it reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again. People will most definitely come.”
Because of the vision, courage and dedication of Alan Stein, we all have had a chance to dip in ‘magic waters’ and regain the innocence of children.
He built it ….and we came.
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