Coral Park High baseball vets recall 1978, the year everything went right

Jorge Diaz, who was Coral Park's catcher in 1978, and Manny Fernandez, the school's second baseman.
Jorge Diaz, who was Coral Park's catcher in 1978, and Manny Fernandez, the school's second baseman. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

There was the sophomore first baseman, Orestes Destrade, who wasn’t a star quite yet but went on to a noteworthy career in the major leagues.

There was the rubber-armed senior pitcher, Eddie Escribano, who put the team on his back again and again.

And there was Steve Hertz, the young head coach — only 33 at the time — who prepared his team tirelessly and with little assistance.

Those were just three of the characters who helped Miami’s Coral Park High School win the 1978 state title in baseball. That championship — which was won in Tampa — still stands as the only one in the history of Rams baseball.

And, on July 10-11, nearly the entire team is expected to gather for the first time in 40 years — right back in Tampa, where they created a memory that has lasted a lifetime.

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Orestes Destrade, Coral Park's first baseman in 1978 and a member of the Florida Marlins 1993 inaugural season, acknowledges an appreciative crowd attending the 24th annual Joe DiMaggio Legends Game in 2012. Marsha Halper Miami Herald File

Destrade, now a broadcaster for the Tampa Bay Rays, will serve as the reunion’s host. He has arranged for the now 50-something Rams to share a luxury box at the July 11 major-league game between the Rays and Detroit Tigers.

What else happens during the Rams’ return to Tampa remains to be seen, but it’s unlikely the reunion will be as raucous as the state-title celebration in ’78.

“We were staying at a Holiday Inn in Tampa,” recalled Manny Fernandez, who was Coral Park’s second baseman that year. “After we won state, we got back to our hotel, and we threw Coach Hertz in the pool.

“[Hertz] was a guy we all respected — a fatherly figure. He reminded me of my dad in that I never saw him do anything wrong.”

That’s how the ’78 Rams team was, too. They didn’t score many runs, but they rarely made mistakes, relying on great pitching and defense to cruise to a 30-2 record.

Ten of those wins were by two runs or less, and once the Rams got a lead, it was over.

Escribano did a lot of the heavy lifting.

“Eddie was one of the best high school pitchers I’ve ever seen,” said Jorge Diaz, his catcher. “He didn’t have nasty stuff, but he command of his pitches, and he rarely fell behind in the count.”

Destrade said that Rams team was significant because it was full of the sons of one of the first waves of Cuban exiles to reach Miami.

“I loved that era, and that team was special,” Destrade said. “There’s a song called 'Glory Days' for a reason. Life was beautiful back then, and then you become an adult.”

Famous students

There have been some famous students who passed through the hallways of Coral Park, located at 8865 SW 16th St. in the neighborhood known as Westchester.

  • Rocky Echevarria went to Coral Park before changing his name to Steven Bauer and playing Manny “Manolo” Ribera in the film "Scarface."

  • Armando Christian Perez went to Coral Park before changing his name to Pitbull, gaining international fame as a rapper with self-anointed nicknames such as “Mr. 305” and “Mr. Worldwide.”

  • Jose Canseco went to Coral Park before becoming a six-time All-Star, a two-time World Series champion and the 1988 American League MVP. He never changed his name, but they did take down the “Jose Canseco Street” near Coral Park after he was involved in several scandals, included admitted steroid use.

Other Coral Park grads have also achieved success in sports, acting and other fields.

Manny Fernandez, who was Coral Park’s second baseman in 1978, and Jorge Diaz, the school's catcher. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

But no Coral Park team — dating back to the school’s first days in 1963 — can match what Escribano, Destrade and company accomplished in ’78.

Ironically, the 1977 Rams team was considered more talented, but they fell short of a state title.

Due to rainouts, Coral Park’s ’77 team had to play Columbus and a rested Hialeah-Miami Lakes team in the same day during the single-elimination playoffs. The Rams beat Columbus but lost 1-0 to HML, which went on to win state.

“It had rained for five days in a row,” Escribano said. “When it finally stopped raining, we beat Columbus at noon and had to play [HML] at 5 p.m.

Fernandez said a first-inning error allowed the game’s only run to score, and a tired Rams team couldn’t get on the board.

Added Fernandez: “We got the raw end of that deal.”

Ram tough

Coral Park’s players returned in ’78 as a determined group. Hertz laid out expectations, talking to his players about winning state before the first game of the season was even played.

Back in those days, there were far fewer high schools in Miami — just 19. The baseball talent wasn’t as spread out as it is now, and every team in Miami seemed to have at least one star. Carol City, for example, had two future major-league standouts in Danny Tartabull and Nick Esasky. Miami Springs had John Cangelosi and Frank Castro.

Fernandez remembers one game at Carol City in which Coral Park escaped with a narrow victory on the final play, which was a close call by the first-base umpire.

“It was a night game with a predominant Carol City crowd,” Fernandez said. “I remember leaving that game with rocks flying at our bus.”

The only games Coral Park lost all year were two lopsided contests against Miami Southridge, a school that was less than four years old at that time.

But the Rams got revenge in their opening playoff game, eliminating Southridge 3-1 in eight innings.

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Coral Park's baseball team in the late 1970s. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

These days, pitchers work only after at least four days of rest between starts. But, in ’78, Escribano started and got the win against Southridge and came back three days later to beat Fort Lauderdale Stranahan, 1-0, also in eight innings.

In the state semifinal, Escribano started again as the Rams beat Lake Worth, 5-1.

Two days later, Coral Park won state by beating Riverview East Bay, 3-1. Don Sphar started, but Escribano earned the win, pitching the final three innings in relief.

“Back then, nothing bothered me,” said Escribano, who pitched three complete games during that stretch and also had the one relief outing for a total of 26 innings. “I felt good.”

Still, there were several precarious moments during that four-game, do-or-die stretch.

Coral Park nearly lost the game against Southridge in the bottom of the seventh inning with a runner on third, two outs and a 1-1 score. Escribano picked up a dribbler and threw high to Destrade at first.

“Somehow,” Fernandez said, “Orestes stretches out and catches the ball while keeping his foot on the bag. Without that play, we don’t win state.”

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A late 1970s news clip featuring Coral Park catcher Jorge Diaz. Provided to the Miami Herald

Added Destrade: “One of the greatest things is my life is that I was 6-foot-4 by the time I was 15 that year. I was the tallest person in my family, and I used every inch of my height to make that play.”

The next inning, Coral Park’s offense came alive, winning the game with big hits by Diaz, Paco Contreras and Mike Febles.

Destrade came up with another big play in the state final. His two-run single to center was the game-winning hit.

“Their pitcher had thrown two fastballs by him,” Hertz said. “But with two strikes and two outs, he got a hanging curveball and hit a hard, two-hopper that went off the glove of their second baseman.”

Added Fernandez: “That hit ate up their second baseman, who tried to backhand the ball.”

Another big moment came in the final inning as East Bay loaded the bases with two outs. But Escribano induced a foul popup, and Diaz — the catcher — made the grab for the final out.

“He hit it straight up and behind me, and I’ve seen big-league catchers miss that play because of all the spin on the ball,” Diaz said. “That was in the back of my mind, but I told myself, ‘Nice and easy.’ When I caught the ball, it was jubilation.”

As soon as the game ended, Coral Park fans — who had been forced by the umpire to remove their bongos from the stadium — ran back to their cars, grabbed their musical instruments and joined the party on the field.

“We had great camaraderie on that team and with the community,” Hertz said. “It was a good team, and we were fairly lucky. It was like Murphy’s law in reverse. Everything that could go right for us did go right.”

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