Sunday, March 28, 2010

Baseball lives in Paul's backyard

February spring break afforded me the opportunity to visit Paul Casanova's baseball academy which exists in literally his backyard. For a baseball diehard such as myself, the experience was gratifying, especially while there was a foot of snow back home.

The crack of the bat can be heard at hours when most people have relegated themselves to watching their favorite sitcoms and the evening news. On a February evening In Carol City, Florida, under the glow of bright lights that illuminate the outdoor batting cage, one would never know that it is after 10 o'clock and the hits are still coming.

Wrapping up sessions that started at 3 PM, former major league veterans Paul Casanova and Jackie Hernandez exude the same vibrance they exhibited when they made their major league debuts 45 years earlier. Affectionately entitled "Paul's Backyard", Casanova's professional baseball academy resides literally in his backyard. The enclave serves as part museum and part training center. Surrounding the hundreds of baseballs, batting cages, video cameras and soft-toss stations are photos that pay homage to the greats of both Latin and American baseball. Autographed and historical photos line the entire area, creating a virtual museum with a focus on the Cuban legends who represent Casanova and Hernandez's home country.

At ages 68 and 69, Casanova and Hernandez run around with the vigor of the players that they coach. Their constant chatter serves as a sweet accompaniment to the sound of baseball's being struck for hours. Their love for the game is quickly evident as they get into their routines with the players that
come there to hone their skills. The backyard entertains baseball players from all levels little league to professional. Part of the lure of the place is the family atmosphere. I had visited during the previous summer with Gonzalo "Cholly" Naranjo, a legendary pitcher for the Almendares club of Cuba and the Pittsburgh Pirates. After a six month absence, upon my return to visit, I was greeted by both men like I had never left the place. Little did I know I would be in for a day full of surprises, laughs and baseball.

The day started with my arrival accompanied by Naranjo. About 30 minutes later, entered former Rookie of the Year and perennial All-Star Tony Oliva, who was in town for a clinic and stopped by to chop it up with his former countrymen. Oliva was later followed by Orlando Peña, a veteran of 14 major league seasons and a teammate of Naranjo with Almendares. An hour later, two active major leaguers came in to sharpen their bats before they went off to spring training. Marco Scutaro of the Boston Red Sox and Juan Rivera of the Los Angeles Angels hit under the watchful eyes of Casanova and Hernandez. The pros exhibited a degree of diligence and humility that goes overlooked in today's coverage of current players. Both were focused on getting their work in, but seemed to easily fit in with the others who were there, cracking jokes and making small talk in between turns in the cage.

What followed next was some top-notch batting instruction from the tag team of Casanova and Hernandez. Treated to some rounds of soft toss, fastballs, curveballs and live batting practice, both men began to shape my swing with their keen eyes from over 50 years of playing and coaching the game. Not only were they quick with their tips, they delivered the instruction in a manner that was relaxing and encouraging. I watched them work with the other dozen players that were there that evening and I saw their efforts manifest fast results over the course of the evening. All of the players training there spoke with the utmost praise for their instructors. They too cited the familial element that draws them to the backyard. I could only imagine if I had access to their talents while playing in college, that my batting average would have risen greatly above its .250 mark.

Upon leaving after 10 p.m., Hernandez - sweaty from throwing a few hundred batting practice pitches - and Casanova - tired from a full day of baseball - sent me off with a grand embrace, a few souvenirs and an invite to return anytime that I am in town. Best believe that when I return to South Florida, I will be there. While I am up north, I can rest soundly knowing that the future of baseball rests safely in the hands of Casanova and Hernandez in Paul's Backyard.

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