Keith Raisanen knows the sting of life telling him no. That bitter answer came in the form of a 97 mph fastball that ended his promising baseball career, right after he signed a Triple-A contract.
Thanks to the Sunny King Charity Classic and good friends in that circle, the 49-year-old Saks native got a joyful yes on a tee box Sunday, next to Anniston Country Club’s “19th Hole” restaurant.
Raisanen paused his final-round play on No. 17 to tee up a wiffle-style kids golf ball, which was cut in half with a ring inside and tied together with a red ribbon through the holes. He placed the ball with the very hand doctors surgically repaired 24 years ago.
As family and friends surrounded them, he dropped to a knee and proposed to girlfriend and Anniston lawyer Lori Brown James. She said yes.
The Sunny King rightfully gets credit for bringing folks together. Brothers, fathers and sons and friends that live many miles apart come together for Anniston area’s signature, 36-year-old tournament. George Calkins comes all the way from Penn Valley, Calif., to play with son Clay, who lives in Jacksonville.
The Sunny King also brought Raisanen, 49, and James, 47, together and set them on the path toward what promises to be the second marriage for both.
Raisanen, a welding associate for Honda, has played in the Sunny King for four years. He’s friends with fellow Saks product Gary Wigington, one of the tourney’s top players.
Wigington and Freeman Fite entered Sunday’s final round with a two-stroke lead. Wigington also won the Sunny King five times with former playing partner Randy Reaves.
So, Wigington has a knack for bringing the right people together, especially at the Sunny King, and he introduced Raisanen to James during the Sunny King two years ago at ACC.
Raisanen and James grew up just a few miles apart, him and Saks and her in Weaver.
“I never knew her,” Raisanen said. “I had seen her at this event a couple of times, but I didn’t know she was single. ‘Twig’ introduced us. He said, ‘Hey, I’ve got somebody you should meet’.”
The couple has dated since, and “it’s been great,” Raisanen said. James called it “kind of a match made in Heaven. It’s unbelievable.”
Raisanen said he knew quickly.
“After the first kiss, I said this girl would be something special,” he said, “and she certainly is.”
Raisanen was something special in baseball, too, and things looked good early in his professional career. He was All-State at Saks and did well enough at Birmingham Southern to be drafted in the 25th round by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1987.
He had his best professional season in 1989, hitting 15 home runs and driving in 92 runs with the Single-A Augusta Pirates. He made the all-star game and won the home run derby.
He was up with High-A Salem of the Carolina League in 1990 when, in his 19th game and 50th at bat, he saw a fastball coming toward his face. He reflexively jerked his head back, but his hands elevated.
The ball hit Raisanen’s right palm, toward the base of his thumb, and the hit on his hand did considerable damage. He needed surgery.
“It did nerve, tendon, the whole nine yards,” he said. “They actually cut that muscle loose from my hand and did all of the repairs with the nerves and the tendons under that then put that (muscle) back in there.
“They run all of the nerves in my hand up on top, so that I could possibly hit again. Didn’t happen.”
Memories of the moment put Raisanen back into the emotions associated with a baseball career ended too soon.
“I just enjoyed every moment of it,” he said. “I loved it. It just killed me that I couldn’t play anymore.”
After a pause, he said, “That was a bad deal.”
Sunday was a good deal. A very, very good deal.
Raisanen chose the 17th tee for his proposal because the tee box sits next to the clubhouse, where friends and family would be waiting. Friend Braxton Harris, the Sunny King’s co-chairman, made sure James was around the tee box at the right time.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” James said. “His parents were here to watch him, which I thought was unusual, but really not. Then a couple of our other friends showed up, which is not unusual because we kind of all gather together.
“And then I never knew my mother was here, and she was standing behind me (during the proposal). And by brother came.”
Raisanen had purchased plastic kids golf balls with a plan to cut one open with a knife. He said it took him five tries to cut one just right, down the center.
He put the ring inside the ball and surrounded it with cotton. When the moment of truth arrived Sunday, he set the stuffed toy ball on the tee.
“I thought, ‘Well, that’s kind of odd’,” James said.
Playing partner Greg Harrelson was in on the act. He pointed out that the ball on the tee belonged to James.
Then Raisanen picked it up off the tee and walked it over to James. She opened it and saw what she called “an amazing ring” inside.
“So, my heart melted,” she said.
Then Raisanen dropped to one knee.
“He said, ‘You make me so happy. Would you please marry me?’” James said. “I said, ‘Of course!’”
After getting a yes, Raisanen exhaled hard then put a real golf ball on the tee and hit his shot. It went right, toward trees lining the fairway, but who could blame him for being a little off in that moment?
He and Harrelson finished off a 1-under-par 69 for the day and finished the tournament at 17-under 197. They finished tied for ninth in the First-Acura MDX Flight, but hey.
Raisanen finished first on James’ leaderboard.