77 Year-Old Oversees Park's Baseball Fields
STEVE VIED..Associated Press
Hawesville, KY. Sometimes Ray Keown still wonders whether he could have made it in the big leagues. It's been a long time, decades in fact, since Keown could fire a baseball across the plate so hard that hitters had a hard time getting wood on the ball, much less a hit.
The day after Keown returned home from overseas duty with the Army more than 50 years ago, he pitched against a team from Knottsville and promptly struck out the first six batters he faced.
Then there was the time he pitched against the Owensboro Oilers in an exhibition game at Miller Field.
"I had a good day and shut 'em out," Keown said. "A day or two later, they were knocking on my door. They offered me $150 a month. I refused. I'd been overseas for 30 months and just got home."
That wasn't Keown's only shot at playing professional baseball.
"I went to a Reds tryout, and they offered me $150 a month and a winter job, but they wouldn't say where," Keown said.
He turned the Reds down.
"My only regret is, I've always wondered if I could have made it," Keown said.
Keown is 77 now, long since retired from a Hancock County aluminum mill, hard of hearing and slow of pace. He spent nearly two months in the hospital this year recovering from a heart ailment. A half century ago, he toured Germany as a pitcher on an Army baseball team and didn't give up the game until he was in his 30s with a family and a full-time job.
Today, just walking across the outfield isn't an easy thing for Keown. But physical limitations have not stopped him from doing what he enjoys the most, taking loving care of the baseball diamonds at Vastwood Park near Hawesville. He has spent some part of just about every day there since the park opened in the summer of 1976.
"I'm a baseball man, and I've always been interested in baseball," Keown said on a chilly, overcast day in early November at the sprawling park off U.S. 60. "I coached Little League and Babe Ruth a lot of years, and I worked with pitchers a lot. I've still got a pitching mound at my house, and I still work with kids."
As he looked at the lush infield of the Little League diamond, Keown noted that it needed mowing one more time this year. Twenty-eight years ago, no mowing was required on any of the fields at Vastwood. The infields and outfields were bare dirt.
Vastwood Park opened July 4, 1976. It started at 100 acres and has since more than tripled in size to 340 rolling acres. It has become the county's pride and joy with its swimming and fishing lake, ball diamonds, walking trail, campground, playground, beach house, tennis courts and soccer fields.
Much of the credit for the condition of the baseball fields goes to Keown, who took it upon himself decades ago to keep them in top shape. He's an expert at lining up volunteer help and prepares the fields for games. He's even built a half-dozen squirrel feeders to boost the number of the critters in the park.
"The Little League field was sodded all in one night, all by volunteer workers," he said. "Same for the high school and Babe Ruth fields."
Hancock County Judge-Executive Jack McCaslin has a high opinion of Keown. In 1999 the Fiscal Court dedicated the Little League field to Keown, and the plaque is mounted a few feet from where Keown watches the games from his lawn chair in front of the red press box.
"We have a lot of volunteers but we don't have another Ray Keown who is here day in and day out," McCaslin said. "He is a pusher to get other people involved. Ray has been a blessing for us."
Keown is modest about his role.
"If I needed help, it would be there," Keown says. "All I do now is sight-see. I'm enjoying it and letting younger people take over."