With sour trip to GJ in his past, coach is at peace


Two outs, bottom of the ninth, leading 3-1. Miami Dade College was on the verge of winning its second game of the 2001 Alpine Bank Junior College World Series.

There’s both joy and torment in the voice of Steve Hertz as he recalls the dramatic memory of his lone trip to the JUCO World Series in Grand Junction.

“That second game is a vivid, vivid memory,” Hertz said.

Hertz coached the Miami Dade College baseball team for 26 years and will be inducted into the NJCAA Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame tonight at the pre-tournament banquet.

Hertz led the Sharks to 19 district tournaments and was chosen the Southern Conference Coach of the Year 10 times. He retired in 2010 with a career record of 945-325 (.750). He is one of 36 coaches in NJCAA history with 900 or more victories.

It was career packed full of accomplishments and accolades that made Hertz deserving of Hall of Fame recognition. But it’s that 2001 trip to Grand Junction that he still recalls like he’s viewing a movie in his head.

A 2-0 lead cut to 2-1. A 3-1 lead going in the ninth. Then two quick outs in the bottom of the ninth.

The hitter was Whitey Herzog’s grandson, Hertz said.

“Back then it was 304 feet down the left-field line,” Hertz said. “It was just a lazy fly ball — we were going to win. But it kept carrying.”

His left fielder reached over the fence in left-center and the ball ticked off his glove. “Four inches,” Hertz said.

About the length of a cell phone and the Sharks would have advanced. The next guy up hit another home run and Miami Dade eventually lost the game, then was eliminated in the next game to eventual JUCO champ, North Central Texas.

Hertz, 68, laughs about that trip now, confessing it was a haunting memory for many years.

“You always remember the big wins and the close losses,” he said. “That game was ours, but I finally let it go.”

He became know as “Steve Runner-up” to some because of his many second-place finishes. He led Miami Dade to five championship games in the Gulf District but came up short of the JUCO World Series on four occasions.

“Florida is so tough, it’s tough to get out of there,” he said of the Gulf District tourney.

But it’s not that one game or any game that overpowers the memories of thousands of players he coached over the years.

“It was a thrill to me,” he said about being inducted into the Hall of Fame. “It was the journey of coaching 41 years (high school and college).

“You think about so many of the great players I coached. If I had a small part in their success, that’s what makes it special. Just like they were a contributor to my success.”

Some of his former players went on to play Major League Baseball, but those other players who succeeded away from baseball shine just as bright.

The impact he had on the Miami Dade program wasn’t lost on college President Dr. Eduardo J. Padrón.

“While Coach Hertz did great things on the field, his off the field contributions are what truly stand out to me. He coached countless young men to success in life,” said Padrón, who has been at the college since 1995.

Baseball and life were co-themes to Hertz’s coaching philosophy.

“My whole theme in coaching was asking ‘What can I do to maximize their potential as a baseball player, as a student and in life in general?’ ” Hertz said.

Every player who took the field was different and needed to be handled differently, he said.

One former player Hertz mentioned was Placido Polanco,

“He’s a great story,” Hertz said about the current third baseman for the Miami Marlins. “He was a walk-on. He had great feet and was a magnet with the glove but as a hitter, he was just OK.

“He worked harder than any kid I ever had. He made himself a major leaguer,” Hertz said.

Hertz still follows his former players like Polanco and knows exactly how they are doing.

“His batting average with two strikes has led the major leagues for two years, and we emphasized that at Miami Dade,” Hertz said.

Then there was another hard-working overachiever named Andres Torres, who now plays outfield for the San Francisco Giants.

As a mediocre right-handed hitter, Torres needed help when he came to Miami Dade. Hertz had the talented player start working on hitting from the left side and now Torres is an effective switch-hitter.

Hertz had many players at Miami Dade like Polanco, who is from the Dominican Republic and Torres, who hails from Puerto Rico.

“That was very rewarding because some of those kids came from nothing and they got an education and got to play baseball, so that was really special,” he said.

The work and development that made average or mediocre players into special players will always resonate with Hertz.

Maybe that’s because he was cut of a similar mold.

Hertz made it to the majors for what is commonly known as the proverbial cup of coffee.

“I played five games and was 0 for 4. I should have been 1 for 4 but they ruled it an error,” he said with a chuckle.

Not bad for a guy who didn’t make his Little League team.

He recalled his time with Houston Colt .45s with great affection.

Only 19 years old and a wiz with the glove at third, Hertz impressed the scouts. He went on to play six seasons in the minors.

But soon it was clear that coaching would be his ticket to real success.

Baseball has been at the center of Hertz’s life, but not quite at the epicenter. That spot has always been occupied by family — Fran, his wife of 46 years, and their two boys, Jeff and Darren.

Hertz says Fran was the key to everything.

“It was her sacrifices that allowed me to coach,” he said. “My wife and kids were always ultra supportive.”

He said she walked away from a teaching career to help raise the boys and let him focus on the long hours and demanding job of coaching.

“She really carried the load at home and I owe her so much for that,” he said.

Both their sons have gone on to have success after college.

Darren’s sport was basketball and he’s been an assistant under Billy Donovan at Florida for 16 years. Jeff, the oldest, is a successful marketing analyst in Atlanta.

After 41 years as a coach, 26 at Miami Dade, Hertz is proud of his career and says that it’s always been the players who made it memorable.

Of the thousands of special memories spanning four decades of coaching, there’s still that second game of the 2001 JUCO World Series.

“That one still hurts,” Hertz said with another chuckle.

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