I remember it like it was yesterday, sitting in Chris Russo's house during a pre-season, player's only barbecue. It was 1990, and the Miami Herald was saying that the Killian Cougars were the team to beat in Dade County. All of us had grown up in the area, either playing together or against each other in the Khory Leagues of Miami. Now, was our time to shine in the High School Ranks and we used this barbecue as a way to bond and discuss any issues we had before the season started. After we ate, we all convened in the living room, where each player stood up, one by one, and said something. It was a very powerful afternoon, where a bunch of young men came together and formed a TEAM.
We had some talent on this club, no doubt. Our short stop, Alex Gonzalez, played 12 or so years in the big leagues with the Blue Jays, Cubs, Devil Rays, and Phillies. He had a cannon from short, and he had some pop in his bat. But, his best asset was an intangible. He was a gamer and played to kick someone's butt every time he stepped on the field. Our second baseman, Robbie Hayduk was probably the most hated player in Dade County back then. If you played against Robbie, you couldn't stand him. He was cocky and wasn't afraid to talk some smack. But when he was on your side, you loved him like a brother. He and Alex turned some amazing double plays, and to this day, were the best double play combination in Killian baseball history. Yours truly played first base and hit second. Chris Russo was our leadoff hitter and center fielder. Roose could go get it in the outfield and had a good arm. He was a streaky hitter but when he was hot, he could carry a team. And at the time, he was the fastest white dude I had ever seen. Geno Saunders was behind the plate. A solid catch and throw guy with some pop and a gamer all-around. Danny Smith, an outstanding outfielder, played left. Matt Marzullo, who's pop was legendary growing up, played right. Billy Turso was our third baseman and Jeff Sacks was the DH. Both of them were solid high school players. On the mound, was our ace, Rick Detoto. A 6'0" right-hander with a slider that no one could touch. He threw strikes, attacked hitters and was a very good athlete on the mound. Then there was Scotty (the Scooter) Hickox. Another right hander who could throw his FB, curve and change all for strikes, and had ice in his veins. John Patterson was another solid starter and flame throwing Ivan Montane gave us depth in the bullpen. Scott Cosgrove, Joe Cilli, Buster Duman, Scott Eisert, Jared Fletcher, Miguel Perez, Chad Weissman and Craig Whitehead provided us with a quality bench. Each of those guys contributed in some fashion to the success of our team. Fletcher hit a walk off homerun in extra innings to beat district rival Southwest High and provided one of the most memorable games of the year. A good number of our players went on to play college and professional baseball. But at the time, we were not focused on anything but winning, and win we did.
There so many memorable games that season. There was the comeback win at Southridge, under the lights. The Spartans were led by sophomore center fielder, Shannon Stewart, and senior third baseman, Chris Pearce. Those guys could play. We scored three in the top of the seventh to win that night. There was the famous "Double Blatch" play that ended the Palmetto game at Suniland Park. Palmetto had a hot shot 10th grade, 3rd baseman, named Doug Mientkiewicz. Our 30-year friendship started that night, when he hit a double and I trailed him to second base. I remember sharing with him how weak I thought his double was and we popped off back and forth for a bit. The Cougars weren't afraid to let you know how they felt, if you get my drift. Dougy and I ended up being teammates on some legendary Cutler Ridge Legion teams. As a matter of fact, most of the Palmetto players were our buddies, but when we were wearing different uniforms, it was a battle.
Palmetto had the bases loaded in the bottom of the 7th with one out, Killian up by two. Brett Blatcher, our legion teammate, was on second. Ground ball to Billy Turso at third, he steps on the bag and throws across the diamond to try and complete the double play and secure the victory when, yours truly whiffed on catching the ball! Don't ever start to celebrate until the game is over! Lesson learned! Thank goodness the fences at Suniland were close to the field. I was able to get the ball quickly; I looked up, and fired home to nail Blatcher at the plate. Game over. No one immediately knew what was going on, except our coach, the fiery, Pete Hertler. As we met after the game, he told us to get in our cars right away, and leave the park as soon as possible. As we started to break for the parking lot, the Palmetto team erupted! They had realized, that Blatcher was out at third when Turso touched the base. Therefore, he could not be out at the plate as well. Their players started putting on helmets and running back to the bases, as we headed for the parking lot. The umpires were already there, undressing. They said it was too late and the game was over, hence, the "Double Blatch."
Of course, there was The Sarasota County Classic tournament, where we beat future big leaguer, Marc Valdes and Tampa Jesuit. We topped eventual national champion, Jason Varitek's Altamonte Springs Lake Brantley. Rick Detoto threw a one-hit, shut out against state power Bradenton Manatee. We ran the tournament and we lost in the final game to arch rival Coral Gables. After that week in Sarasota, we believed that we could beat anyone in the state. We jelled on and off the field and continued to build the chemistry of a champion.
We ended up losing to Coral Gables, three times that season. One of which was a no-hitter at Gables, by Jose Prado, who was the best pitcher in Dade County in 1990. Boy, did we get aired out after that one. Coach Hertler did not like to lose. Especially the way we lost that one. Prado stuck it to us and we were intimidated and laid down. We faced him again at home. He and Detoto matched up and both pitched jems. I believe they both went 7 innings, but we lost a heart breaker in extras. Those three losses set up a district final showdown vs. Gables at Mark Light Stadium (Home of Miami Hurricane Baseball). Prado and Detoto had pitched the semifinals respectively, so both teams were going with the number 2 starter. Gables featured current Toronto Blue Jays General Manager, Ross Atkins. We jumped on Ross in the 2nd and the damage was done before Gables went to Prado in relief. John Patterson was our starter. He threw three solid innings and then gave way to Scott Hickox who threw 4 scoreless to lead us to the district championship! We then beat Miami Springs at Mark Light in the regional final, and it was on the Sectionals at Coral Springs Taravella. What a game that was. Taravella had a crafty 10th grade lefty, named Scooby Morgan (FSU). Coach Hertler decided to go with the Scooter, who besides Detoto, was our best pitcher at the time. What a ball game it was. Scooter vs. Scooby. The Cougars took the lead 1-0 in the first on an Alex Gonzalez RBI double. The score would stay that way in a pitcher's dual for the ages. Scooter took his shutout and our trip to the State Championship to the bottom of the seventh. I don't exactly remember how, but the bases got loaded and there were two outs. I remember thinking, "base hit here, we lose, it's over." The tension you could cut with a knife. The count ran to 3-2. The Scooter and the Cougars prevailed as the Taravella hitter swung through a high fastball and sent us to Boardwalk in Baseball (Former Home of the Florida High School Baseball State Championship).
After watching Chipper Jones hit a double off the center field wall in Jacksonville Boles' semifinal game, we went back to the hotel to prepare for our showdown against Lake Brantley. We were confident going to into this ballgame. We had beaten these guys in Sarasota and felt good about our chances winning the state championship. But that night, a different Lake Brantley team showed up. Brad Rigby, a future big leaguer, who we missed in Sarasota, was a horse. They also had Varitek at third, 2nd rounder, Jerry Thurston behind the plate, and Greg Thomas at first, to name a few. Rigby dealt a complete game, one hit shutout, and sent us packing. We didn't have a chance, but we fought them as best we could. We ran into the best team in the country that night and our dream season was over.
There were many tears in the dugout that night. The game being over and losing was hard, but the fact that the season had ended and this wonderful ride was over, was heartbreaking. We have all gone our separate ways in the last 30 years. Most of us still keep in touch and to this day, reminisce of our magical 1990 season. It is amazing what can happen when a group of young men can come together and unite in purpose. The most important part of this team was not our talent, but our make-up. We all cared about each other and played to win every game.
Coach Hertler was an excellent motivator and leader. We all knew how much he cared about us, and for that, we would run through a wall for him. His passion for the game was relentless, as was his passion for winning. He always had our back, he lived and died with us, each pitch, each at bat. He taught us how to compete and how to win, and win we did.
20 plus years later, most of us gathered together for a reunion of sorts to celebrate Coach Hertler's retirement from the Dade County Public Schools. It as an amazing evening that I will never forget. Most of that crew hadn't seen each other in 20 years but it was like we hadn't missed a day. High School Baseball can be a life changing time if you let it. If you are focused on your brothers and locking arms with them on a daily basis to chase after a goal, it not only builds a team for that season, it builds teammates for the rest of your life.
To this day, over 30 years later, we still have a group chat that blows up from time to time. A few years ago, I was asked to speak to the Lake Brantley High School baseball team. I felt like I needed to let the group chat know, that years later, I was entering the house of the enemy that broke our hearts. Boy, they were pissed, my phone blew up the entire ride over there. They MF’d me from top to bottom, all in fun of course, yet I’m sure it struck a nerve for some. Heck, when I would go there to watch my son play against them in high school, it would bring back those feelings of loss & disappointment. 30 years later, a bunch of middle aged dudes still feel the heartbreak.
Thank you Coach Herter for teaching us so much about life & about the game. Your impact on all of us has lasted a life time.