In his new book "Almost Yankees," J. David Herman asserts that for two months during the 1981 season, the Columbus Clippers were "the greatest baseball team on the planet."
That claim comes with a significant asterisk, as that two-month stretch covered a Major League Baseball players strike that erased 52 games from the 162-game schedule. Baseball-hungry fans around the country summarily turned their attention to teams like Columbus, an International League club that was the Triple-A affiliate of the Yankees at the time. The Clippers were, per Herman, "King George [Steinbrenner's] super-talented collection of spare parts," a squad "stocked with an unusual blend of experience, talent and potential for a Triple-A team."
When the 1981 season began, Herman was an 11-year-old Columbus resident "living through a coming-of-age, live and breathe baseball summer." He saw the Clippers -- and especially first baseman Marshall Brant -- as heroes. Rick Rizzs, now the radio voice of the Seattle Mariners, narrated the action on Columbus' WBNS.
"Almost Yankees" was motivated by Herman's desire to reconnect with his childhood infatuation. A chronological overview of that 1981 season is interspersed with accounts of what was happening in Major League Baseball and America at large, as well as in-depth explorations of who the players and coaches were at the time and who they became in their lives after baseball. Through it all, Herman reflects on his childhood, adulthood and the constancy of baseball amid an otherwise unpredictable existence. It's a sprawling, ambitious work that speaks to just how meaningful a Minor League team can be to its fans -- and was especially so during that anomalous 1981 strike season -- as well as the perilously thin line that separates baseball's stars from its also-rans.
Herman began work on "Almost Yankees" in early 2013, at a time when his father, Jim, was in declining health.
"I was thinking about my dad a lot," said Herman, reached by phone earlier this week. "And I had these tapes, which I had along with an old clunky tape recorder, the kind where you'd hit 'record' and 'play' at the same time. As a kid, I'd record excerpts from Clippers games and, in particular, there was a [Rizzs] call of an Andre Robertson home run. It'd been rattling around my head for years. So I was thinking about my dad, and that team, and it just occurred to me. What happened to guys like Andre Robertson? Like Marshall Brant?"
That curiosity led to a years-long journey, culminating with the April 1 publication of "Almost Yankees". Along the way, Herman spoke with 28 of the 1981 Clippers' 36 players, as well as many others connected to the team.
"When the idea came up, I had some self-doubt about pulling it off and doing the research," he said. "But I got some good advice from a mentor: 'Just start. You'll get the bug and get going from there.' From the concept to having the finished copy, it took six years. I have three kids and work full-time, so I really had to get creative to carve out time to work on it."
Herman said that the Clippers (who are now affiliated with Cleveland), and especially team president Ken Schnacke, were instrumental in putting him touch with players from the 1981 team.
"[The Clippers] were great in providing that first round of contact info. But a lot of other players, I'm a journalist by trade, so I started to find them," Herman said. "I found a lot of them in the online white pages. ... Some knew of other players, some were harder to find and some I could never find."
A few, like Dave Righetti and Steve Balboni, went on to have memorable Major League careers. But there were others, like Brant, who never got much of an opportunity. Brant hit 52 home runs for the Clippers from 1980-82 but only received 20 at-bats at the Major League level.
"I found [Brant] to be really approachable. I went to Santa Rosa [California] and visited his house," Herman said. "We talked for 10 hours, had meals together, talked about baseball and life. His fears. The uncertainty. He opened up to me a ton about not making it, of fearing failure even while he was hitting home runs. I related to that, and it was a linchpin of the book."
Another key character is manager Frank Verdi, an acerbic, old-school baseball lifer with a penchant for creatively deployed profanity.
"Frank Verdi died in 2010, but I spent a lot of time with his son and friends of his," Herman said. "That guy was a walking baseball story. There's more, so much more, that could be written about him. ... Verdi was a study in contrast. On one hand, he was a volatile, short-tempered guy. On the other, he'd take younger players under his wing, tell great jokes, be the life of the party. But like a lot of these guys, he was haunted by never making it to the Majors."
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In writing "Almost Yankees," Herman faced the challenge of telling these compelling stories while also weaving them into a coherent whole.
"Trying to chronicle the season provided a backdrop and a framework, but around that I would weave in and out," he said. "It was complicated, but I'm proud of the way it turned out. Some people may be into that, some may have preferred something more straightforward."
But few things in life are straightforward. As work on the book progressed, Herman found that his account of the 1981 Columbus Clippers had turned into something much larger.
"I wanted to grasp for something bigger than just that season," he said. "I wanted to talk about life, about facing fears, about not giving up, about getting to a better space and what makes a hero. Hopefully, folks enjoy that and enjoy the nostalgia as well."