Austin Kearns part of South Lexington ‘reunion’
BY MIKE FIELDS
Austin Kearns was throwing batting practice in one of the cages at the South Lexington baseball complex in Shillito Park on a rainy evening last week, and nobody took a second glance at the former major league outfielder working with a group of 9- to 12-year-olds.
Kearns was just another South Lexington alum back home again.
Shillito Park was where Kearns’ baseball talent first took root. He helped South Lexington win the Cal Ripken World Series in 1992. He went on to star at Lafayette a few years later, earning Kentucky’s Mr. Baseball honors in 1998 and getting drafted in the first round by the Cincinnati Reds.
Kearns spent 12 years in the majors with five teams before retiring in 2013.
He’s been back at Shillito the past two years, helping coach the South Lexington Astros, for whom his son Aubrey, 10, is a smooth-swinging left-handed hitter.
“When I stopped playing and came back up here, it was pretty amazing how many people I’d see that were here when I was a kid,” Kearns said. “It’s unique and cool that so many people who taught me how to do things the right way are still here.
“It’s like a big family. It’s like a reunion every night.”
Keith Gadd, the Astros’ head coach, is part of South Lexington’s family.
Gadd’s father played in South Lexington Little League in the 1950s. Keith played here in the early 1980s, and was on Lafayette’s back-to-back state championship teams in 1988 and ’89. After college, Gadd started coaching at South Lexington, and his first Babe Ruth team, in 1994, included a budding star named Austin Kearns.
“And now, more than 20 years later, his son is on my team and Austin’s helping me,” said Gadd, whose son Tyler also plays for him. “It’s kind of like a generational cycle. It’s really kind of neat.”
You hear that sentiment a lot around Shillito Park’s baseball fields, two of which are named after Donnie Warner and Carl Peel, who are in their fourth decade of coaching the Cardinals and White Sox, respectively.
“So many people around here were parents of kids who played here, and now their grandkids are playing here,” Warner said. “It’s awesome that they still take interest in it.”
J.R. Stephens, a South Lexington alum who was Kearns’ teammate at Lafayette, coaches his son in rookie ball. Andy Foster, a starter on Lexington Catholic’s 1999 state title team, is an assistant in the majors with the Pirates, for whom his son plays. Steve Deaton, who played at Paul Laurence Dunbar, coaches his son in tee-ball.
Sunday afternoon at Shillito, the Royals played the Braves in a major league division game that had strong family ties to South Lexington’s past.
Vish Talwalkar and his brother Janak, both orthopedic surgeons, are South Lexington alums. Vish coaches the Royals and his son Bennett. Janak is an assistant with the Braves and helps coach his son Sam.
Vish, who focused on football in high school and was a first-team all-state quarterback at Lafayette in 1984, said South Lexington baseball “is like a big extended family. Not only do you know the kids that are playing, you know their parents and you may even know their grandparents. It’s sort of reminiscent of small-town America.”
“It’s like we never left here,” said Janak, who was on Lafayette’s 1992 title team and went on to pitch at Kentucky. “It hasn’t changed that much except there are more fields. You still see Donnie (Warner) and Carl (Peel) and a lot of other people who were here when we were kids.”
Kevin Payne, in his first year as South Lexington president, is, of course, an alum. He went on to play for Lexington Catholic’s 1999 state champions. He oversees the league, which has more than 600 kids involved with more than 50 teams on six levels.
Payne understands why the league has such strong roots.
“Once you get involved, it’s ingrained in you and you don’t want to leave it,” he said. “It’s easy for me to sell South Lexington. People get it.”
Seven South Lexington teams have played in the Cal Ripken World Series, and three have won it (1992, 2001, 2007). But championships aren’t what bring people back to Shillito.
“It’s great to see so many people that you really respect, not because of what they did as players, but because they’re really good with the kids,” said Vish Talwalkar. “They’re good coaches and good role models.”
Gadd said his attitude has softened over the years. “When you’re younger, the big thing is you want to win. But now for me it’s not as much about winning and losing than it is about the kids playing the game the right way.”
Kearns confessed that he has to occasionally rein in his competitive spirit, “but the biggest thing we want the kids to do is play the game the right way.
“If you teach the fundamentals and the kids enjoy it and take to it, you’re going to win anyway. That’s the way it’s always been at South Lexington. And it’s kind of funny how it’s all circled back around.”
Follow these topics: FieldsColumn