Following the Yankees’ minor league affiliates today—if you’re so inclined—is easier than ever. Coverage of every level, from AAA Scranton-Wilkes Barre all the way to the Rookie Leagues is plentiful on milb.com and news sites devoted to covering the minors. With affiliates just a short drive away in Trenton and (the $19 Verrazzano Bridge toll notwithstanding) Staten Island, taking in a Pinstripers farm team game is within reach of most local fans.
But for Yankee fans of a certain age—especially this one—who formed their Yankees allegiance in the mid-70s, news on the minor league teams and players was harder to come by. And with the International League affiliation flipping from Syracuse to (improbably) Tacoma to Columbus between 1977-1979, just figuring out where the best prospects were playing took a little research.
That 1978 Tacoma Yankees team that had the best record (80-57) in the Pacific Coast League in its quick stop on the left coast came back east to Columbus for 1979, beginning a two-year run of International League titles leading into the season that is subject of a new book, Almost Yankees: The Summer of ’81 and the Greatest Baseball Team You’ve Never Heard Of (Univ. of Nebraska press, 336 pps, $29.95), by J. David Herman, whose budding Clippers fandom at age 11 was cut short that summer by a family cross-country move.
That ‘81 Clippers team, which (spoiler alert!) made it three straight IL crowns, had just about every kind of player on it: the future MLB All-Stars (Dave Righetti, Pat Tabler), the solid major leaguers (Andy McGaffigan, Steve Balboni), the guys who just couldn’t cut it one level up (Bobby Brown, Marshall Brant), career minor leaguers who never made the bigs (Wayne Harer, Dan Schmitz), and guys on the way down never to return to the majors (Mike Bruhert, Paul Mitchell).
Herman took some time to speak to NYSportsDay about his experiences putting together the book.
NYSD: To me, it seems the essence of minor league fandom is captured in your line, “the Yankees are just names in the paper. The Clippers are real.” How was the pull to this past—your past—important in deciding to write this book?
Dave Herman: I’ve always had a thing for Columbus and the Midwest, even though I only spent five years there (age 5-11). “Fixation” is too strong a word, but I’ve thought a lot about my time there. There’s a certain spirit that came with growing up Columbus that I’ve always missed. Maybe it’s just about trying to recapture youth, but it was a great place to be a kid. My room overlooking the Olentangy River, lightning bugs, thunderstorms, humid nights, snowy winters, good friends. And of course, the Clippers. In writing Almost Yankees, I certainly tried to tap into some of that spirit. I think a lot of people my age long for those days, and baseball the way it was back then. It’s still a great sport, but it’s definitely different. The whole book process also helped me to connect with my dad, to whom the book is dedicated. We did some real bonding around the Clippers. His health was declining when I started the project back in 2013, and sadly he didn’t live to see it completed. I wanted to share some of his story and our story, in addition to sharing an account of that season.
NYSD: Describe the feeling, three-plus decades later, of getting to talk to the players who you idolized in the formative years of your baseball fandom.
DH: I managed to track down 28 of the 36 players who were on the ’81 roster, along with many others connected to the team. Finding them was like an incredibly fun puzzle for me. It was a chance to be in my element, out on the road, doing interviews, gathering information. And it was definitely a thrill — even as an adult — to meet and/or talk on the phone with my old heroes. Their stories were fascinating. I knew there were some pretty amazing things about this team and those players going into the project. Then so many of these guys really opened up to me about their careers and their lives, and even more stories started to flow, and I realized I was onto something even more special than I’d thought.
NYSD: How important was the fact that George Steinbrenner was an Ohio native in his perception and control of the Clippers as the Yankees’ top affiliate? What were some of the effects on the team of his reign?
DH: George wanted to win everywhere, but I think Columbus was a particularly special outpost in his empire. His ties there were deep. He went to Ohio State, was stationed at a nearby Air Force base, met his wife in Columbus. He visited often and players knew their acts better be cleaned up when he did. But his biggest impact on the team had to be the nature of the Yankees’ minor league organization. Everything from the stadiums to the uniforms to the coaching to the talent was top-notch. But there was very little upward mobility, even for very talented players, and many burned out their best years in Columbus waiting for a chance.
NYSD: Of the players and others you spoke to from those years, which ones gave you some of the best material in putting the book together?
DH: Marshall Brant has to be at the top of the list, because of how much he opened up to me about his struggles around not sticking in the majors. He shared about dreams he still has a couple of times a week, about finally getting a chance, but not being ready in a variety of ways. It was sad but fascinating to find out that my childhood hero struggled so much with self-doubt, and I really relate to that. I’d also say Andre Robertson’s stories of racially charged abuse he endured during his career are particularly compelling. John Pacella had a lot of good stories to share, as did many others.
NYSD: I suppose it’s the nature of the minors, but for such a talented team, there were plenty of guys who either never made the majors or just couldn’t make it work at the next level. Of those guys, which ones, from having spoken to them, adjusted best to not reaching their ultimate goal?
DH: There seems to be a spectrum in how players on this team (and I would imagine other minor league teams) deal with failing to reach the majors. Some seem to have totally blocked baseball out. Others still seem to obsess over the game and how they fell short. Everyone copes in their own way, and I hope this doesn’t seem judgmental, but I’m not sure either of those extremes are optimal adjustments. I’d guess the players who’ve adjusted best allowed themselves to mourn their loss, allowed their feelings to move through them, and then moved on to the next stages in life. Andre Robertson strikes me as a good example of this. Here’s a guy who might have been a true major league star, maybe the Yankees’ starting shortstop for a decade or more. Due to a series of injuries, a horrible car accident and some other misfortune, that didn’t work out. I know that hurt him. He still talks about baseball and what might have been. But he seems to be confident and OK with how life has turned out. As his wife Lanier shared, they have a mantra: “You choose to be happy.”
NYSD: Speaking of career minor leaguers, Frank Verdi hit just about every level and league you could as a manager, but he’s a guy that’s pretty much forgotten. What was he like and what part did he play in the team’s success?
DH: I wasn’t able to interview Frank Verdi for this project. He died in 2010, about 2 1/2 years before I started. But I did spend a great deal of time with one of his sons, Frank P. Verdi. I also interviewed some of the elder Verdi’s best friends from various stages in his life, as well as numerous former players and others who knew him well. And quite a bit of information is available through newspaper articles from cities where he made stops over his long career. I feel I’ve gotten to know Frank pretty well through this process. … It’s a shame Frank has been mostly forgotten, because he led such an incredible baseball life filled with unbelievable stories, triumph and heartbreak. He was also an amazing character, a man who could get so beet-red angry around the game of baseball that he once tore one of his office doors out of its hinges, but who also could treat players gently when called for, and be the life of any party he attended. He was mellowing by the time 1981 rolled around, and he took a lighter approach with a talented, veteran Clippers team that didn’t need to be yelled at. Not all of his players were fans of his. But many loved him and some became like sons to him.
NYSD: Growing up a Yankee fan in the late 70s and early 80s, we kept hearing the name Marshall Brant, that he “just couldn’t hit major league pitching.” But he only got 20 MLB at bats, so it seems he never got the chance. Why didn’t he make it?
DH: Marshall Brant’s failure to stick in the major leagues was one of the mysteries I wanted to unravel in researching and writing this book. I think there are multiple reasons for it. For starters, he spent many of his best years in the wrong organization. George Steinbrenner obviously set the tone for the Yankees, and the Boss didn’t trust younger players. He was famously impatient with them. Brant needed to be with a team that would let him settle in a bit and find his groove. The Yankees just weren’t that team. They were also a rough team for a first baseman to be with in the early ’80s because Don Mattingly was on his way up. There was also bad luck for Brant, for example getting the call early in the ’81 season, when he was off to a hot start in Triple-A, only to be sidelined by a clerical error and an obscure rule and sent back down without an appearance. Brant was also strikeout-prone. But his biggest obstacles may have been in his own head. A lack of confidence in himself, his constant worry, his need for everything to feel just right at the plate … these may have been his biggest blockers. It’s a shame because I believe that given a meaningful chance, he could have been a productive major league hitter and a fan favorite.
NYSD: Have any of the players and other personnel from the team given you any feedback on the book, how they were portrayed, what it meant to have that season and their careers recorded in this way?
DH: The feedback I’ve received from players and others around the team has been mostly very positive. Which is a relief, because they were the ones who lived through it. I was just a kid sitting in the stands and listening on the radio. But I really tried to ace my research and get it beyond right. I think most if not all feel my portrayals of them are fair. And, I think they’ve enjoyed the memories and the conversations the book has stirred. Seven of them gathered in Columbus earlier this month to reunite and attend some of my promotional events, which was great. Several have approached me and said things along the lines of, “Thanks for bringing us all back together.” That makes me feel great. I mean, these are my childhood heroes. It’s nice to feel like I’ve given something back to them, all these years later.