Showing posts with label Paul Casanova. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Paul Casanova. Show all posts

Friday, October 5, 2018

Ron Locke shares wild tales of Casey Stengel during the Mets first year at Shea Stadium

Ron Locke was a 22-year-old rookie with the 1964 New York Mets, looking to make a name for himself as the Mets moved from the Polo Grounds to their new digs at Shea Stadium. Before he could break through from minor league anonymity with the fans, he first had to do so with his manager, Casey Stengel. It was a tougher task than he anticipated.

“To me, [Stengel] was a wacko,” Locke said during a phone interview from his Florida home in 2013. “I don’t know if he didn’t like me or didn’t know my name. I never knew what he was going to do. He’d send left-handers up against left-handed pitchers.”

Ron Locke / Author's Collection
While Locke was never sure if Stengel could identify him in a police lineup, he did have the attention of their Hall of Fame coach, Yogi Berra. Watching Locke closely with his keen catcher’s eye, Berra saw similarities with a former MVP teammate who was also a tough little left-handed pitcher.

“Yogi Berra thought I was like Bobby Shantz,” he said. “He would come over and say, ‘Ronnie, if I was managing here, you’d be pitching every four days until you prove you couldn’t pitch.’ That’s what I wanted to hear, but that’s not the way it worked out.”

Locke grew up in Rhode Island playing fast pitch softball as a left-handed third baseman and became an All-State baseball player in South Kingston. It was there where he caught the attention of Len Zanke, a Cincinnati Reds scout. At his urging, he auditioned in 1961 for their club in Jersey City.

“He said, ‘Go to Jersey City, Dave Stenhouse (another Rhode Island native) is down there. Just go and try it,’” Locke shared. “I pitched to their catcher on the side and he said, ‘You’ve got a good fastball; that thing really moves.’ So I go up in the stands and I’m talking to the head guy there and he asks, ‘How big are you?’ I said, ‘Maybe 5’9”-5’10”, 158 lbs.’ Well he said, ‘We don’t sign anybody here under six feet.’ So I left.”

Most amateurs would have tucked their gloves away after hearing that kind of a rejection from a top scout and moved on with their careers. Luckily for Locke, he had an angel in Zanke who urged him to give professional baseball another shot when the expansion Mets hired him the next year as a scout. After throwing in front of the Mets brass, he impressed enough that they asked him to pitch against their minor league team in Auburn.

“The Auburn team was going for the championship,” Locke recalled. “They said, ‘Go out and throw against those guys, see how you do.’ Man, they could not even touch me. The more I threw, the more confidence I got. They signed me that year. This was 1962.”

Locke joined Auburn in 1963 and set the league on fire. His 18-8 record with 249 strikeouts in 217 innings earned him a New York-Penn League first-team selection, alongside future major leaguers such as Tony Conigliaro, George “Boomer” Scott, and Paul Casanova. Little did he know that with only one year in the minors under his belt that his next season would be in the major leagues.

“I was always a small guy, I was never a big guy you know,” he said. “I just got there, looked at the field and said, ‘What am I doing here?’ I am looking at all these tall pitchers and saying, ‘My god.’ In this day and age, they probably would not have looked at me.”

Locke appeared primarily as a reliever in 1964, posting a 1-2 record with a 3.48 ERA, with his only win coming in one of his three starts. The adjustment going from pitching consistently as a starter the previous year, to not knowing if he had Stengel’s trust, increased the difficulty of his jump to the major leagues.

“They just didn’t pitch me enough,” he said. “When you go from Class A to the major leagues, that was a huge difference. You could not get your confidence. I thought I had my confidence, but he [Stengel] didn’t [have it].”

One incident that shook Locke’s confidence came when Stengel pulled him from a game in the middle of an at-bat. While box scores online do not show that he was removed mid at-bat, one account from the New York Times indicates that during the Mets first night game at Shea Stadium, Locke pitched to two batters, but only recorded a plate appearance for one of them.

“We were playing against Cincinnati … we’re losing four, or five-nothing, and he gets me up,” Locke said. “Deron Johnson was the next guy up; I threw two fastballs right by him on the outside corner. I looked over [to the dugout], and here comes Casey. I said, ‘I hope he’s not taking me out of the game. … He is walking across waving his hand to bring the pitcher in. He taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘Good job boy. We’re going to bring in a right hander.’ I wanted to bury him right there. I had two strikes on him and he took me out in the middle of the at-bat. I just left the game, but I was some ticked off!”

Locke made an impressive bid during 1965 spring training to return up north with the big league club, but a late decision by Warren Spahn to hyphenate his coach title to player-coach, forced Stengel to make a move.

“I was there for most of 1965 [spring training],” he said. “Then Warren Spahn came over and was going to be our pitching coach. That was fine with me; it was going to be Tug McGraw and me in the bullpen. All of a sudden, Spahn decides he wants to be pitcher and pitching coach, so one of us had to take a hike, so I unfortunately got the call.”

Locke persisted in the minors through 1970, but could not break through the Mets developing rotation that eventually built their 1969 World Series championship team. His dampened second chance at a return to the majors never lessened his love for the game. Now, in his 70s, Locke continues to play both competitive baseball and softball.

“I play for a good team, the Florida Legends,” he said. “We have 98 national championships. We play in Las Vegas, Reno, all over the place, anywhere there is a national tournament. I started in the 60s [age bracket], now we are in the 70s. For a 70-and-over team, we have a very good team. We played on 330-foot fences and one of the guys hit the ball out of the ballpark. He is 72 years old! We have four or five guys that can hit them out 300 foot. I play the outfield. I hit and run like heck! … It was hard for me at first because I was used to that 90 MPH fastball down around my knees. All of a sudden it was unlimited arc; what a difference that was! You have to get used to hitting that.”

He feeds his baseball appetite by working for the Boston Red Sox in Fort Myers and pitching annually in Roy Hobbs baseball tournaments. He even tried to audition as their batting practice pitcher.

“I work for the Red Sox at Jet Blue Park,” he said. “I’m a ticket taker, but I wanted to be an usher. I asked them to be a batting practice pitcher, but they have guys to take that job. I still throw pretty decent. I do not throw 90 MPH, but I throw decent. I play in the Roy Hobbs baseball tournament every year. They have different age groups. It’s fun.”

Despite his lone season in the big leagues, Locke continues to receive fan mail from all over the world. Some fans try to send him money to sign their items, but he feels an old school sense of responsibility to sign their items while returning their attempts at compensation.

“I get them all the time,” he said. “Sometimes it is 4-5 per day. It makes me feel good [to get the mail]. For somebody that has been out of baseball for a long time, I am glad at least the fans remember my name. Some people send me money, but I write them a note back saying that I don’t take money for autographs; I am an old timer.”

Friday, August 29, 2014

Tony Oliva takes the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Tony Oliva
Minnesota Twins legend, the 76-year old Tony Oliva, showed that you aren't too young to take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

The 1964 American League Rookie of the Year cheerfully took a dip in ice water in support of ALS research.

He calls out Hall of Famers Rod Carew, Orlando Cepeda, and my good friend Paul Casanova to take the corresponding plunge.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

My Cuban Florida baseball experience - Part One - Paul Casanova's baseball academy

Last week marked my semi-annual pilgrimage to South Florida to spend one last week in the sun and soak up the rich baseball culture in the area.

A favorite destination of mine is the baseball academy of ten-year major league veteran Paul Casanova, who delivers his instruction in the backyard of his house.
T-Shirt from Paul Casanova's Baseball Academy

I previously wrote about my 2010 visit, and every time I return, I pick up something new, whether it is an adjustment on my swing, an anecdote from his playing day, or meeting the next up-and-coming prospect out of the Hialeah area.
One of the many Walls of Fame

His students praise his ability to instruct and build their confidence, using his watchful eye from his over fifty years of professional baseball experience to keep their swings on-track.

Hank Aaron wall
His home also serves as a mini Hall of Fame of Cuban baseball history, the walls lined with photos of his Cuban contemporaries in the major leagues, as well as the legendary winter league teams prior to Fidel Castro closing off the league to professionals in 1961.

One one wall facing the batting cage, he pays tribute two of the biggest baseball legends he was associated with during his career, Hank Aaron and Ted Williams.

Casanova spent three seasons with Aaron on the Atlanta Braves from 1972-74, and was one of the first teammates to greet Aaron as he crossed the plate for his 715th home run. He refers to Aaron as, "the best," and often references Aaron's strong wrists when instructing the young hitters. Displayed on the wall are photos and articles on the wall about his Hall of Fame teammate.

Ted Williams wall
From my 2010 visit
The other side of the wall is dedicated to his manager Ted Williams, whom he played three seasons for as a member of the Washington Senators. His face lights up when speaking about the Splendid Splinter and how enamored he was with him. He felt very fortunate to visit Williams at his home shortly before he passed away. He proudly displays the photo of him with Williams on the wall of his facility.

Everything about the facility screams baseball, from the bats outside of the house, the games playing on the television, the constant crack of balls being battered, the endless baseball chatter and the photos that line the walls everywhere you walk.

As for what keeps the 71-year-old Casanova going, he says the game is a part of him.

"Baseball is in my blood. It's what I do."


Casanova's career in pictures
Batting Cages

Soft Toss Stations
Another Wall of Fame
Historical Cuban Baseball Photos
Historical Cuban Baseball Photos
Historical Cuban Baseball Photos

Baseball Bobble Heads


Sunday, January 27, 2013

End of an era: Joe DiMaggio Legends Game ends after 25 years

All good things must come to an end. Sadly, the Joe DiMaggio Legends Game held in Fort Lauderdale to benefit the Children’s Hospital that bears his name, had its 25th and final contest Saturday afternoon. The announcement was made Friday evening by Frank Sacco, CEO of the Memorial Healthcare System, during the player reception and charity auction at the Signature Grand in Davie to a packed crowd of over 500 supporters. The news came as a surprise to not only the crowd, who let out an audible sigh when they were informed, but also many of the players who looked visibly shocked hearing it for the first time while they were on stage.

Orlando Cepeda, Rico Carty, Paul Casanova and Jose Cardenal / N. Diunte 

The event dates back to 1989 when it was an exhibition before a spring training game at Dolphins Stadium. For the next quarter of a century, it would remain a fixture in South Florida, reuniting teammates for another moment in the sun while raising tremendous amounts of money for the hospital. For many, it was an annual pilgrimage they looked forward to making.

“I’ve been coming here for four years, and it’s really something to give back to the fans and keep the legend of Joe DiMaggio and what he did for the hospital,” said New York Mets bullpen coach Ricky Bones. “For me, being one of the youngest [here] around the legends of baseball, it’s a pleasure for me to be a part of it.”

Bill “Spaceman” Lee, the affable left-hander formerly of the Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos, provided a more vivid description of what brought him to Fort Lauderdale.

“Bermuda grass, green Bermuda grass," Lee said. "The wind blowing in, slightly off the ocean, 78 degrees, it just doesn’t get any better than this. You’re raising money for a good cause, and you’re playing baseball; that’s the meaning of life.”

While Lee, never shy about pontificating about one’s existence, (signing autographs at the game with the tag of “Earth 2013”) was disappointed about the close of the event.

“It’s tragic," he said. "You can’t quit playing baseball. You know we’ve gotta find sponsors and stuff. It’s a game about time. It’s a great anti-cancer cure for children, teaching them to play baseball.”

Beyond the ghosts of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris in Fort Lauderdale Stadium, which was the spring training home of the New York Yankees for over 30 years, stepping on the field rekindled fond memories of yesteryear for Lee.

“I had my last baseball card ever in a Red Sox uniform made here, and then I was traded to Montreal. I couldn’t believe it!” he said. “My greatest memory is [of the Legends Game], seven RBIs in one inning here my first year. I came in late, batted last, got a bases-loaded double, and then hit a grand slam. Seven RBIs in one inning, that’s a career for most pitchers.”

The event transcended baseball, attracting celebrities and athletes from outside of the baseball world, including five-time NBA champion Ron Harper of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. Harper took some mighty hacks at the plate and even spent an inning on the mound at the end of the game. Stepping on the field with players he grew up watching from his youth in Ohio was a thrilling experience for Harper.

“It’s a great event," Harper said. "It’s about my third or fourth time here. I look forward to playing with some of the greatest players ever to play the game when I was growing up. I admired them, and it’s a fun event for a great cause. I played this game when I was a small kid too. My first love is hoops, but I really love this game too.”

Even though event organizers were definite in their tone about this being the final exhibition, Bones remained optimistic that event would persist, hoping that the players will organize to keep it going.

“It’s kind of sad," Bones said. "Hopefully, something happens that we can keep doing it because I think the fans appreciate it and what we do for the kids and the hospital. I think that if someone can keep doing it, it’s the players. The players can keep it alive.”

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Astros J.D. Martinez first home run riles up his hometown supporters

Moments after J.D. Martinez hit his first major league home run, the action at Casanova's Baseball Academy in Hialeah came to a screeching halt. His first-inning blast off of Dontrelle Willis had the phone ringing off the hook. Former major leaguer Paul Casanova picked up the call and excitedly shouted, “Flaco did it! He hit his first home run!” All of the players working out stopped and cheered for the hometown rookie.

“Flaco” is the nickname which most of the people at the baseball academy call Martinez. Trained under the watchful eyes of major league veterans Casanova and Jackie Hernandez, Martinez built his legend right in Casanova's backyard, literally.

Casanova runs a training facility out of the backyard of his home, complete with pitching machines, batting cages and video recording equipment. Martinez has been faithfully attending sessions at the academy since he was a budding superstar at Miami's Flanagan High School. He was called up less than a week ago to replace Hunter Pence after his trade to the Philadelphia Phillies.


Both ex-major leaguers had ear-to-ear grins as the calls poured in and the highlights flashed on the MLB Network.

“He's been coming here since he was a kid," Casanova said. "Everyone down here knows he was working with us and we are just happy to see him do it.”

As Martinez topped off the rest of the game with two doubles, one of which narrowly missed being a home run, Hernandez confidently asserted that this will be a normal occurrence for Martinez. “He's been doing this everywhere he's been. Every level, he's hit. We will see him in left field for many years to come, just watch.”

While the cheers in Houston may have been plentiful for Martinez, they were just as loud in Hialeah, as the hopefuls watched one of their own begin to build his legacy in the majors.

“All of Hialeah is pulling for him.” Casanova said.

Monday, July 12, 2010

2010 All-Star Game revives players’ memories of 1967 extra inning epic

As Major League Baseball finishes the first half of the regular season, fans and baseball's elite will descend upon Angel Stadium as it hosts its third All-Star Game. Anaheim's previous contests are of tremendous significance when it comes to the history of the midsummer classic.

The first contest in Anaheim on July 11, 1967 went 15 innings with the 2-1 National League victory being decided by a 15th inning home run courtesy of Tony Perez. Ironically, each of the three third basemen playing in the game provided the scoring via home run. The 1967 game marked the record for the longest game in All-Star Game history, which lasted for 41 years when the 2008 game also spanned 15 innings.   

Freehan catches all 15 innings

As foreign as it sounds today in an All-Star Game, ten of the sixteen position players who started the game played the game in its entirety. American League catcher Bill Freehan of the Detroit Tigers was behind the dish for the whole game and recounted some of his experiences of that epic contest during a recent interview.

"If you look back to that All-Star Game, it reads like a who's who of the Hall of Fame," Freehan said from his Michigan home.

Manager Hank Bauer elected to keep Freehan in the game when he had two other catchers ready to go in.

"I was surprised," he said. "He came to me and asked, 'Are you okay? Are you okay? Can you keep going?' He was afraid that I was going to be worn out. In the papers, the next day Mayo Smith jokingly said that Bauer was trying to wear me out for the pennant race. I replied to Bauer, 'Heck yeah! [I can keep going.] We're trying to win this thing.' Unfortunately we didn't. It was fun to do it though, and that game is still a record. The other two catchers [Paul Casanova and Andy Etchebarren] were good players, but I think that it had something to do with me having prior All-Star experience that factored into Bauer sticking with me during a tight game."

A close view from the dugout

Freehan's iron man status left first-time All-Star Casanova on the outside looking in. That was Casanova's clearest memory of the game.

"They played 15 innings and I never got in the game," said Casanova via telephone. "You don't let a guy go to the All-Star Game and catch 15 innings. The only reason he [Bauer] never played me is because he didn't want Andy Etchebarren to feel bad about it. I was picked as the number two catcher. He brought Etchebarren on his own. He didn't want to play me ahead of Etchebarren. That's the only reason he did it."

Casanova recalled Senators manager Gil Hodges later approaching Bauer about Casanova's benching. His skipper wasn't happy about the affair.

"Gil [Hodges] got mad at him," he said. "When we went back to Washington, we played Baltimore at home. Gil called him to the side and said, 'If you would have played Casanova, you guys would have won the game because he hit good in Anaheim. (Casanova hit .432 at Anaheim Stadium that year with two home runs.) [Bauer] said, 'I don't want to him to feel bad about it because I don't want Andy to feel bad.'"

Another player who also watched from the bench was Indians pitcher Steve Hargan. A few of the pitchers didn't appear in the game because they had pitched the day before, but Hargan was the victim of a freak injury that prevented him from helping out the American League club.

"The last game with the Indians prior to the All-Star Game, I pulled a leg muscle rounding third," said Hargan speaking from his California home. "I got caught in the grass and pulled a hamstring, so I could hardly walk; that's the reason why I didn't pitch that day."

It dampened what was one of the highlights of Hargan's career. He agonized over the fact that an injury kept him from participating in the game.

"I felt bad about [the game] going that long and not being able to pitch," Hargan said. "Catfish [Hunter] pitched five innings. Here it was one of the most important games in my life, [and I was hurt]. That was my biggest recollection of not being able to participate because of pulling a muscle. I don't think I've ever pulled a muscle before in my life and haven't since."

Hargan shared Casanova's sentiments regarding playing time in the All-Star Game; if you're there, you should play.

"Everyone who makes the All-Star team should play if they're physically able."

The lone man at shortstop

National League shortstop Gene Alley was also another iron man going the distance, handling three errorless chances. The game exceeded his expectations in many ways.

"Well, I didn't expect it to go 15 innings," said Alley from his home in Glen Allen, Virginia. "I was ready to play nine. It was a thrill to play the whole game. I watched All-Star Games and they have at least two people at each position. I thought I might play five innings and someone else would play the rest. I don't know why they didn't substitute. The game was going along, there wasn't a lot of hitting in the game, so it went by pretty fast."

He didn't expect the Hall of Fame laden lineup to be silenced by the arms of the American League; not with Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, and Willie Mays in the lineup.

"There were a lot of great players," he said. "I'm not talking about myself; these guys who went into the Hall of Fame, they were great hitters and the pitching made everybody look bad."

Alley attributed the anemic offense Anaheim Stadium's ominous backdrop. The background only added to the difficult task of facing the top pitchers in the game.

"I remember the Angels said that at that time of the day [5pm] the ball would be hard to pick up," he said. "They were right, it was. The background wasn't that good that day. I think that had a lot to do with it. There were a lot of good hitters in that game and the pitching just dominated that game."

Perez gives the National League the winning run

Perez in the top of the 15th inning, hit a home run off of Catfish Hunter that led to the National League's victory. Alley said it sparked a great deal of emotion in their dugout.

"We were happy!" Alley said. "Here we can finally maybe get the game over with and win. At that time the National League really went in trying to win them."

A young Tom Seaver made his first of twelve All-Star appearances to close out the game. Alley went to the mound to offer the rookie some words of advice.

"I remember going up to talk to Tom Seaver and I told him, 'Look, just pitch the way you do against us and you'll be alright.'"

Seaver blanked the American League in the bottom of the inning to preserve the victory.

While these All-Stars are past their playing days, they will be eagerly tuned into the game. For Hargan and Alley, the game will rekindle the spirits of the inaugural game at Anaheim Stadium.

"I'm going to be watching the game," said Hargan. "It brought back some old memories. My first win was against the Angels when they were playing in Chavez Ravine. I enjoyed pitching there because it was one of the newer stadiums at the time. Most of the parks were older."

Alley is excited to see how the new park looks.

"I'm anxious to see this year's game," he said. "I don't remember too much about the stadium, but it doesn't look the same now as it did when I played there when I see it on TV."

The 81st annual MLB All-Star game will be televised July 13, 2010 8:00 PM EST on Fox.

More Info
1967 All-Star Game Box Score and Play by Play -
Anaheim ready to make more ASG memories -
1967 All-Star Game: A different world - Orange County Register
Casanova didn't get in the game - The Free Lance-Star
A chance for underdogs - St. Petersburg Times

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 who
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, I was greeted by both men upon my return like I 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.