Community feature: 'Almost Yankees' recounts Clippers' winning season of '81

Joel Oliphint

In the summer of 1981, 11-year-old J. David Herman caught the baseball bug. He pored over box scores in the Dispatch and listened to late-night games on the radio under his covers in bed.

That summer also happened to coincide with a Major League Baseball strike, which would, presumably, be devastating for a freshly baseball-obsessed kid like Herman. And sure, it was disappointing, but Herman's focus wasn't on MLB, anyway. He fell in love with baseball through the Columbus Clippers, which was then the Minor League affiliate of the New York Yankees.

“The Clippers were just so much more real to me,” Herman said recently by phone from Seattle, where he's now a senior managing editor at Microsoft News. “I had all these local heroes.”

While the MLB strike was in effect, the Clippers soldiered on in pursuit of another Governors' Cup after winning championships in 1979 and 1980. With a dearth of Major League games, teams like the Clippers garnered more attention than usual, and with the deep-pocketed George Steinbrenner at the helm of the Yankees, the Clippers had more talent than most. New York media outlets regularly traveled to Columbus for games.

Herman, though, moved from Columbus to California later that summer, and for years he never knew what happened to that '81 team.

In 2013, Herman found himself thinking again about that magical season, and the games he attended with his dad, whose health was declining. Back in the day, Herman would use a cassette player to record games on the radio.

“I got those tapes out, and I hadn't listened to them for a long time. I wasn't even sure if they would still play, but they did,” said Herman, who came upon the recording of a particularly memorable game he attended with his dad that ended with a walk-off grand slam for the Clippers. “Those calls — especially that home run — had been rattling around in my head for all these years, and I was listening to it again and thinking, ‘Whatever happened to all these players? What were the details of that season?' I've always loved to tell stories, and it just occurred to me, ‘I think I want to write about this.'”

And so he did. Herman managed to track down 28 out of the 36 players on the Clippers roster that season, and he tells their stories — along with his own — in the newly publishedAlmost Yankees: The Summer of '81 and the Greatest Baseball Team You've Never Heard Of.

Recently, Herman got to throw out the first pitch at a Clippers game at Huntington Park, and several former players also came out for anAlmost Yankees book event in Columbus. “When you have childhood heroes coming up to you and saying, ‘Hey, thanks for bringing us all back together,'” Herman said, “that makes me feel great.”