Baseball

The key players on Coral Park's 1978 championship team

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

In July, the 1978 Coral Park Rams baseball team will meet in Tampa to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their state title. No other Rams baseball team — before or since — made it as far as a state semifinal.

Here’s a closer look at the key members of that ’78 Rams squad, which boasted a 1.13 team ERA while hitting .269.

Coach Steve Hertz, now 73 and retired after a long and distinguished coaching career at Miami Dade College, was only 33 when he led the Rams to state. He played pro ball for six years as an infielder and reached the majors for five games in 1964.

He arrived at Coral Park armed with everything he learned as a pro player. He trained the kids tirelessly, hitting countless ground balls to the infielders and throwing every pitch during batting practice.

In addition, he brought in a hypnotist to work with the players on visualization, a concept that would’ve been way ahead of its time in 1978.

Catcher Jorge Diaz, a team leader, hit .343 that year with three homers. He is now the athletic director at Miami Southwest High. By the way, his wife, Annie, was a bat girl on that ’78 Coral Park team.

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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

First baseman Orestes Destrade went on to become the most famous player on this team, but he hit just .227 with one homer that year. The explanation is that he was just a sophomore at the time, the youngest starter on the team.

Destrade, who described himself recently as “this big, brown Cuban” while talking to the Herald, made his debut in the majors with the 1987 New York Yankees and led Japan’s Pacific League in homers three straight years. In 1993, he was a starter on the Marlins’ inaugural season, producing 20 homers and 87 RBIs.

He is now a broadcaster for the Tampa Bay Rays. “I’m a dual son of Miami and Tampa,” Destrade said.

Second baseman Jose “Manny” Fernandez hit just .167 with no extra-base hits, but he was known for his stellar defensive ability. After his playing days, he coached high school baseball for nearly 30 years. When he got married, Jorge Diaz served as his best man.

Shortstop Ramon Iturrioz hit .167 — just like Fernandez — but earned his spot due to his defense.

Third baseman Camilo Pascual Jr., whose father was a major-league pitcher and a seven-time All-Star, hit .281 with 10 extra-base hits and 10 steals. He also was the team’s No. 3 pitcher, going 3-1 with a .227 ERA. He had a nasty “fall off the table” curveball.

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

Left fielder Mike Febles led the team with a .424 batting average.

Center fielder Francisco “Paco” Contreras hit .348 and led the Rams in homers (four) and steals (16 in 17 attempts). He hit a big home run against Lake Worth in the state semifinals.

Right fielder Jose “Pepe” Maso hit just .158 but was very fast.

DH Rafael Codinach hit .254. He is now a chiropractor.

Pitcher Eddie Escribano dominated that season, going 14-1 with a 0.96 ERA, earning the Miami Herald’s designation as the county’s Baseball Player of the Year. He also struck out 112 batters in 102 innings.

“He had pinpoint accuracy,” Destrade said. Added Diaz: “He was a strike machine.”

Escribano, who won a national title with the University of Miami in 1982, was not a hard thrower, but he rarely fell behind in the count.

After college, Escribano signed a pro contract as an undrafted free agent but never got past Class-A ball, and his career ended due to an elbow injury. His son, Eddie Escribano Jr., plays for St. Thomas University, where he is — of course — a pitcher.

Pitcher Don Sphar was a hard thrower and a terrific athlete, ranking second on the team with a .359 batting average. He played the outfield when he wasn’t pitching. On the mound, he was 9-0 with a 1.13 ERA.

Sphar also played middle linebacker for Coral Park’s football team, and he brought that aggressive mentality to baseball. Whenever he was removed from a game, it was a battle between him and Hertz. “Don was a Kirk Gibson type that you didn’t mess with,” Destrade said.

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