By Nick Diunte
It never mattered when I walked in the door, the response was always the same: Whatever he was doing, he would stop, get up, and give me a thousand-dollar smile and a warm hug, folding me into his 6-foot-4 frame.
It didn’t matter to him that I usually came unannounced, or only a few times a year. What did matter was how long I was staying. And he would always ask the question, “When are we going to see you again?”
Each time we parted, I would tell him that I would be back during the next break from teaching, and the response was always, “We’ll be expecting you.”
That was the spirit of Paulino “Paul” Casanova, who was born in Perico, Cuba, and died Saturday in Miami at 75 of cardiorespiratory complications.
I first met “Cazzie” in 2009 through a mutual friend, Gonzalo “Cholly” Naranjo, a former major league pitcher also from Cuba who knew I was a baseball fan. Casanova, a former catcher with the Washington Senators and Atlanta Braves from 1965 to 1974, ran a baseball academy out of his Florida backyard.
We hit it off. Casanova was impressed with my knowledge of the game’s past greats, particularly the Latino ones. His home was a shrine to the lives and careers of these men. He had photos, hundreds of them, lining the walls of his house, giving it the feel of a small but orderly museum. He even decorated the walls behind the batting cages out back with photos, including one of his Hall of Fame teammate in Atlanta, Henry “Hank” Aaron. Each hopeful slugger who entered, from Little League to major league, did so under the gaze of the greats.
During that first visit, I noticed a remarkable-looking man in a Panama hat and sunglasses sitting on one of the chairs.
“Nick, this is my friend Mike Cuéllar,” Casanova said.
I exchanged pleasantries with the Cuban left-hander — and first Latino to win the Cy Young Award — and then made like a fly on the wall while everyone got busy catching up. Cuéllar would be the first of many baseball greats I would meet in my return travels to Paul’s casa. As I was leaving, Casanova promised me a hitting lesson when I returned. A week later, four autographed photos and a note were waiting for me in my mailbox.
As the weather turned in New York, I couldn’t wait to get back. I flew down for a visit the following February and, as promised, he immediately put me to work. Over the next few days, I learned more about my swing than I did playing four years of college ball.
It didn’t matter that one day I was joined in the cages by then-current major leaguers Marco Scútaro and Juan Rivera; he treated me with the same attention. The baseball player in me wished I had met him much sooner. He had such an easy way of picking up the nuances in a swing and explaining them. I could see why so many talented young ballplayers flocked to his tutelage.
I quickly learned Paul’s house was a reunion hall of sorts for his former teammates and Cuban countrymen. The next day, I arrived to find Tony Oliva and Orlando Peña sitting in his backyard carrying on. Oliva later told me that he stopped there every year, just for the day, on his way to spring training with the Twins.
It didn’t stop with those two. Naranjo, Jackie Hernández and José Tartabull were mainstays as they worked alongside Casanova at his academy.
When the annual Joe DiMaggio Legends Game came to Fort Lauderdale every January, long nights were spent playing dominoes at his home by the likes of Bert Campaneris, José Cardenal, Rico Carty, Minnie Miñoso and Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda. The event became just as much about those evenings as it was about the game. Bonds that formed when they were all young and strong continued to flourish with every opportunity they had to get together.
The more time I spent there, the clearer it became to me that Paul was the glue that held together a generation of baseball players. If he wasn’t entertaining a visitor, he was on the phone with a former teammate. One day it would be Dusty Baker, today the manager of the Nationals, the team that replaced the Senators in Washington. The next, it would be Hank Allen.
“We were very close,” Allen recently told La Vida Baseball. “He was just such a wonderful human being. We met in the minor leagues and instantly were drawn to each other, and it just never changed. He was such a warm person. We walked up to each other and exchanged pleasantries and it stayed that way forever. When we got to the big leagues, we roomed together.
“We considered each other brothers and family,” Allen said. “It was just wonderful.”
Linked to the Present
But Casanova wasn’t just about the past. Look at the game of today, and Casanova’s fingerprints are all over it. Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder J.D. Martínez, a Cuban-American born in Miami, was a prized student who began working out at the academy as a teenager. Photos of the 29-year-old Martínez, known at Cazzie’s house as Flaco or “skinny,” are sprinkled throughout, a living photo album marking the progress of a high school boy growing into a major league slugger.
I happened to be at Paul’s home the night of August 3, 2011 when Martínez hit his first major league home run. We had been watching MLB Network to see if there were any updates about his protégé. After Martínez connected off of the Reds’ Dontrelle Willis in the first inning and highlights flashed across the screen, everyone stopped.
“Flaco did it! He hit his first home run!” Casanova exclaimed.
His paternal emotion was evident. Martínez had made his arrival known in the big leagues just four days after his July 30 debut. Casanova couldn’t have been any prouder.
“He’s been coming here since he was a kid,” he said. “We are just happy to see him do it.”
Martínez had so much reverence for Casanova that he brought Miguel Cabrera to work out with him following Cabrera’s 2012 Triple Crown season.
When I asked Casanova if he offered Cabrera any advice at the plate, he let out a quick laugh.
“What can I tell Cabrera?” he said. “He doesn’t need my help. I just watch him hit.”
When La Vida Baseball caught up with Casanova during the 2017 All-Star Game in Miami last month, it was obvious he was the center of attention. His appearance during the All-Star FanFest Clubhouse panels was a showstopper, an impromptu family reunion. When Casanova showed up at Cepeda’s session, Cepeda laid eyes upon Cazzie and bellowed in his deep baritone voice: “¡Casanova!”
A panel featuring Cardenal and Bobby Ramos came to a complete halt as Tartabull wheeled Cazzie to the front row. All decorum was broken as Cardenal and Ramos, fellow Cubans, came off the stage to greet their friend.
The reception he received perplexed many attendees. Who is this guy that literally draws everything to a halt, getting shout-outs from Hall of Famers? Then came the stories. Casanova had long been the guy who brought them together, explained Ramos.
Casanova made these connections during a life in baseball that spanned well over 50 years. The Cuban native’s baseball career took him throughout the Americas, including significant time in Venezuela and the United States.
His career was a case study in persistence. Still a teenager when he left Cuba in 1960, he was twice released by the Cleveland Indians and spent 1961 playing with the Indianapolis Clowns, a one-time Negro League team that barnstormed throughout the U.S. In 1963, Casanova finally caught on after a minor league tryout with the Senators organization.
He made his major league debut on September 18, 1965. However, “it was in Venezuela,” he told those gathered at FanFest, “where I became a ballplayer, because I played against [Luis] Aparicio, all those guys. … I owe it to Venezuela that I made it to the major leagues.”
Casanova was so comfortable in Venezuela that for years during winter league, and after his big league career, he operated a restaurant called La Pelota in the Venezuelan port city of La Guaira. Even back then, Cazzie had been a social catalyst, just as he would be again with the baseball academy in his Miami backyard.
Highlights and memories
And there were the career highlights — like being a member of the 1967 American League All-Star team and seeing Mickey Mantle walk into the locker room at Anaheim Stadium:
“When he walked into that locker room, it looked like God walked in,” Casanova shared at FanFest.
Like being the starting catcher that same summer for a June 12 extra-inning game against the Chicago White Sox. Casanova worked behind the plate the whole night, and although he only got one hit in nine at-bats, it came in the bottom of the 22nd inning, driving in the winning run.
And six seasons later, catching knuckleballer Phil Niekro’s lone no-hitter of his Hall of Fame career.
“The knuckleball was dancing so much, nobody could hit it, so you knew I had trouble catching it. From the sixth inning on, you didn’t call for anything else,” Casanova said. “After the game, I raised him up [on my shoulder]. We drank a 12-pack of beer. And [Phil] gave me $1,000.”
Despite playing three seasons with the Senators under the tutelage of manager Ted Williams, Casanova was a lifetime .225 hitter. But he had a cannon for an arm, throwing out 37 runners in 1967 and 51 percent of would-be base-stealers in 1970. He was so revered for his catching skills that even the umpires loved to work behind him.
“[He] gave me the best look at the plate of any catcher I worked behind,” umpire Bill Kinnamon said in Larry Gerlach’s book, The Men in Blue. “He absolutely laid on the ground. He would give the signal and then disappear; you wondered where in the hell he went, that’s how low he stayed. … Umpires used to check to see who was pitching the Senators, hoping they’d get Casanova.”
As the weekend went on, Casanova’s health became a topic of discussion among the Latino legends that had gathered at the All-Star Game. His recent hospital visits had many of them worried and concerned. While he was able to muster the strength to appear at All-Star festivities to be around his friends once again, the effort took a toll. He was hospitalized that evening with respiratory problems.
On the day of the All-Star Game, a few retired players arranged to visit Casanova at his house, as he had been released the day before. I arrived with Cholly Naranjo in the early afternoon, but Casanova lamented that he wasn’t up to having visitors that day.
When I got the call a few days ago that his situation had turned grave, so many thoughts and memories from the last eight years came to me. I thought of his big heart and his generosity in sharing so much of his knowledge and his love. Allen managed to speak with Casanova a few weeks ago, and Casanova admitted his condition had worsened. They shared the same goodbyes they always did, a nod to the brotherly love that has persisted for half a century.
“I spoke to him about two weeks ago and he told me he wasn’t doing well,” Allen said. “It was just a shock. I promised that I would stay in touch with him often. There was a saying we would end with, and it didn’t matter, when we talked over the years, he always ended with, ‘I love you, brother,’ and it stayed that way.”
This is how I remember Paul Casanova. A spirit so expansive and full that it attracted friends far and wide — with the strength to keep them together as the forces of time, age and distance tried to exert their will.
He was our hermano, everyone’s brother, and will be missed dearly.
Featured Image: Louis Requena / MLB Photos / Getty Images
Inset Images: Nick Diunte / Michael Pancier Photography