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FAMILY ORIENTED

Orestes Destrade says "thankful" more often than most millionaire athletes.

Humility is a snap course for the Florida Marlins first baseman. "It's silly for me to ever complain or get big-headed over baseball," said the Big O, "when I know the human sacrifices made by my mother, father and older brother in escaping Fidel Castro's Cuba."

Destrade is now a $2.3-million-a-year athlete, but baseball gold was a slow dig through eight bounce-about, cash-poor, insecure seasons in America's minor-league outback.

Then, like a winning lottery ticket from the Far East, there came a Japanese attraction to reward the Santiago strongboy with lots of money, home runs and social enrichment.

Finally, in 1993, another profitable but even more challenging baseball chapter came into Destrade's life. There was a new National League franchise in Miami, and he became the darling of Latin-loaded South Florida.

Destrade's job is glamorous, his fortune considerable, but Senor Marlin manages to stylishly eschew jock arrogance. Big O speaks with applaudable emotions about his Cuban heritage, a Japan he appreciates beyond baseball/money, a wife he adores, two sweetheart children and the God the Destrades of St. Petersburg devoutly worship.

"I'm 32 now, and going into a one-season-at-a-time mode," Destrade said. "We're financially set for life, for which I am most thankful. Brenda and I live simply compared to the lives of many athletes, with God and family and baseball hopefully in proper perspective."

Does it all sound too good? Too pure? An almost unbelievable throwback to times less-complicated and less-threatening? Too much like Father Knows Best or a global version of the Cleavers?

Not if you ask enchanted neighbors of the Destrades in their north St. Pete neighborhood, or parishioners at Sky View Church of Christ in Pinellas Park.

"What a nice fellow," said Bud Ogle, a financial planner who lives a few doors away. "Youngsters from our street are always dropping by the Destrades' house. You'd never know Orestes is a sports celebrity, the way he treats everybody."

Let's talk more about the diverse, intriguing, thankful Orestes Destrade who just reported to the Marlins' spring training camp in Melbourne.

During a recent afternoon at home, he frolicked with 2-year-old son Devin and daughter Danielle, an ebullient 6-year-old. As we talked, Orestes both laughed with his children and disciplined. He answered questions about a fascinating baseball past and his examinations yet to come.

Orestes was 6, Danielle's age, when his family fled Cuba. "My brother Alberto, four years older, had an eye injured by flying glass," Destrade said. "Castro would sometimes allow sick children to leave Communist Cuba for treatment. United States was off-limits, but not Mexico.

"Alberto wasn't yet 10. An aunt and uncle from New York met him in Mexico. My brother immediately defected, as was the plan. A lot of Cuban families would get the oldest son out, then try for more."

A year later, taxi driver Leo Destrade, wife Elinsel and son Orestes followed Alberto. Like so many Cuban refugees, they headed for Miami. "We had to leave everything in Cuba but clothes on our backs," Orestes said. "Castro's government demanded that."

In Miami to assist the Destrades was a colorful uncle for whom Orestes was named. "Uncle Orestes has always been, let's say, an entrepreneur and adventurer," Destrade said. "He left Cuba when Castro took over in 1959 but would return in the Bay of Pigs invasion. Uncle Orestes was captured and sentenced to die. I was named for him when Uncle was in prison. Then he got real lucky. President Kennedy exchanged medical supplies for Bay of Pigs victims."

Baseball has forever been a Cuban passion. Even now, Castro's team rules the sport in Summer Olympics. In Miami, Hispanic players dominate amateur baseball. Orestes played on Coral Park High School's 1978 state championship team, then transferred to Miami Columbus High.

"My first exposure to the Tampa Bay area was for those '78 playoffs," he said. "I came back two years later to play baseball for Florida College in Temple Terrace, where I met Brenda."

Orestes and the former Brenda Boyd of Chicago married in 1982. "She's been through it all with me," he said, "the years in the minors, down to the Caribbean for winter baseball, then to Japan for four seasons and finally to the Marlins. My wife is responsible for most of what we have achieved."

Destrade's pro career began in the New York Yankees' chain at Paintsville, Greensboro, Oneonta, Fort Lauderdale, Nashville, Albany and Columbus. "Making the Yanks as a first baseman in the early '80s was pretty much a fantasy since they owned Don Mattingly, Willie Upshaw, Steve Balboni and young Fred McGriff."

Destrade got just 19 at-bats in a New York uniform, plus 47 more in Pittsburgh after being traded to the Pirates in 1988. His major-league experience had included one homer and four runs batted in.

"My opportunity in Pittsburgh was to back up Sid Bream at first base for minimum salary," he said, "but somebody from Japan had been watching me."

Deep into the 1989 season, Orestes was offered $250,000 to play the remaining 83 games in the Tokyo suburb of Seibu. "Brenda and I were eager to settle down and get our family going," he said. "I went to Japan for the money. Our goal was to buy a home in the Tampa Bay area, where people had been so nice to us."

That was the summer of Cecil Fielder in Japan, before he returned to Detroit in 1990 to become power-hitting emperor of the Tigers. "I managed to outhit Cecil with 32 homers and 81 RBI despite playing less than two-thirds of that '89 season," Destrade said. "Cecil's success in Detroit would help pave the way for me, even if my return to America would be another three years in coming."

Destrade became Japan's most prolific home run basher since Sadaharu Oh, the country's Babe Ruth. In full seasons of 1990-91-92, Destrade averaged 40 homers and 95 RBI. His contracts rapidly escalated to seven figures.

Foreign players in Japan are provided an interpreter. Destrade did something rare for a U.S. player, using Takashi "Jerry" Suzuki as a language teacher.

Fluent in Spanish and English, the first baseman learned to speak Japanese. Destrade was invited back to Tokyo in October 1993 to be a TV commentator on the Japan Series.

"Japanese people appreciate it when a foreigner makes an effort to learn their culture and especially their language," he said. "It became a marvelous experience for us." Destrade's name remains huge there. His biography is being printed in hardback, but only in Japanese.

"I would've never returned to the U.S. to play baseball, except for a team in Florida," he said. "It'd become a comfortable career for me in Japan. My son was born there. I watched Brenda deal with childbearing methods different from the United States. We grew a lot there, in baseball and as people.

"When I came to the Marlins, money was not the prime reason. It was a chance to prove myself in the big leagues, playing in a community where many Cubans live. I left maybe $2-million on the negotiating table by leaving Japan."

Destrade hit 20 homers for the first-year Marlins, batting in 87 runs. His batting average was not prodigious (.255), his strikeout (130) and error (19) totals were a bit high, but Orestes was predictably one of the more popular employees of Wayne Huizenga's baseball corporation.

"No question that the Cuban thing was a powerful motivator, both for me and the Marlins," Destrade said. "When I showed up, people came out of the Miami woodwork. I found aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews I never knew I had.

"There were a couple hundred in my senior class at Columbus High, but I've encountered at least 5,000 who say they graduated with me. It can get demanding. Every Latin organization or news reporter wants a chunk of time with you. They consider me as family.

"Last season, the interviews were overwhelming, in three languages. Japan sent reporters and photographers to track my experiences. But, 20 years from now, I'll look back and be extremely thankful for having been the original Cuban player with the Marlins.

"When I was very young, I followed Latin players in the majors. Tony Perez of Cincinnati was a favorite. Cuban-born, you know. Now I have young people telling me I'm their favorite player. It's exciting but also a big responsibility. If athletes think they're not all role models, they're way off base."

Brenda and Orestes own two homes, the one in St. Petersburg plus a manse at Weston Country Club west of Fort Lauderdale, where they are neighbors of football heroes Dan Marino and Bernie Kosar.

Orestes took me to his "den-in-the-making." There is a video game, 55-inch TV, mini-basketball hoop and many boxes of personal memorabilia, including cut-glass trophies from Japan and an authentic Samurai sword. One trophy is for 1990 league MVP, another for being 1992 Japan Male Athlete of the Year. "Midori Ito, the silver-medal figure skater," he said, pointing to an inscription in Japanese, "was the female winner."

In both locales, the Destrades are a tighly woven and highly religious clan. Perspective is obvious. "One of my dreams is to see Cuba a free country again," Orestes said, "including the return of professional baseball. I'm hoping the Marlins can help when the opportunity comes."

Easy guy for whom to root.

Destrade facts

Bats: Both

Throws: Right

Position: First base

Height: 6-4

Weight: 230

Age: 32

Destrade in the majors:

Year Team BA SLG G AB R H HR RBI

1987 Yankees .263 .263 9 19 5 5 0 1

1988 Pirates .149 .234 36 47 2 7 1 3

1993 Marlins .255 .406 153 569 61 145 20 87

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