The Clippers’ raw recruits, prospects, and Minor League veterans responded to this opportunity by playing the greatest baseball of their lives on the greatest team most of them would ever belong to. Then the strike ended, leaving them to return to their ordinary aspirational lives and to be just as quickly forgotten.
Almost Yankees is the previously untold baseball story of a team and its players performing in the shadow of one of the sport’s most famous teams and infamous owners. Featuring interviews with more than thirty former players (including Steve Balboni, Dave Righetti, Buck Showalter, and Pat Tabler) and dozens of other baseball and media figures, this season’s narrative chronicles success, failure, resilience, and redemption as told by a special group of players with hopes and dreams of big-league glory. J. David Herman, who worshipped the team as an eleven-year-old, tracked down his old heroes to learn their stories—and to better understand his own. The season proved to be a launching pad for some, a final chance for others, and the end of the dream for many others.
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"I Wouldn't Ship Anything to New York Just Yet"
A day after John Hinckley Jr. nearly killed President Reagan, the San Diego Padres' team bus pulled out of Phoenix, and John Pacella felt good about himself and his future.
It was the last day of March 1981. Songs such as Kool & the Gang's "Celebration," Blondie's "Rapture," and the late John Lennon's "(Just Like) Starting Over" played on the radio. Unemployment remained high with the nation between economic recessions. Spring training was winding down and Pacella, a hard-throwing right-hander, had just tossed four solid innings in an exhibition game against the San Francisco Giants. He was poised to grab the number three spot in San Diego's starting rotation. In less than two weeks, he'd be taking the mound against those same Giants at Candlestick Park, in the opening series of the season.
Pacella had a full year of Major League service, albeit a ragged '80 campaign with the New York Mets. Traded in December, he signed a guaranteed two-year deal with the Padres. He possessed an upper-90s fastball, a hard slider, and a good changeup. He owned a condo on the beach in San Diego, just purchased. His new ride, a '75 BMW bought from teammate Rick Wise, was on its way to his new Southern California home.
He had one of the best mustaches in the game, an impressive handlebar.
Pretty good for a twenty-four-year-old kid who'd grown up in Brooklyn with no grass around, much less visions of a professional baseball career.
Pacella struggled that spring, but against San Francisco that day, he'd been sharp. He made a mistake against Joe Morgan, and the Giants' veteran second baseman tagged him for a two-run homer, but those were the only runs Pacella allowed in his four frames. He struck out three and walked one. With other Padre pitchers struggling through injuries and poor outings, it would be good enough.
On the bus leaving Phoenix that day, Pacella settled into a seat next to outfielder Jerry Mumphrey, who'd contributed two hits and San Diego's lone RBI in the just-completed exhibition. A bizarre scene unfolded. The bus screeched to a halt on the highway, flagged down from behind. The players looked back and saw flashing lights, police cars, and a black car, out of which stepped Padres general manager "Trader Jack" McKeon and the team's traveling secretary. McKeon boarded the bus.
"Mumphrey, Pacella!" he barked.
Pacella glanced at Mumphrey, whom he barely knew, and asked in his Brooklyn accent, "What did you do?"
"I don't know," Mumphrey replied. "What did you do?"
They shuffled to the front of the bus. McKeon delivered the news. The Padres had dealt them to the New York Yankees, and they needed to get their gear off the bus and head back to Yuma. Both were expected at the Yankees' spring training home in Fort Lauderdale the next day.
It was spin-cycle time in Pacella's head. Usually one to pick up on trade vibes, he hadn't this time. The New York freakin' Yankees. He was headed back to New York, to play for a team he'd worshipped growing up. Things were happening quickly. Arrangements needed to be made. He asked McKeon about getting his possessions sent ahead to New York.
"I wouldn't ship anything to New York just yet," McKeon said. "You may be going to Columbus."
"Columbus?" Pacella thought. "Columbus ... Ohio?"
Not that Pacella was a stranger to the Triple-A International League. He'd pitched in Virginia for the Tidewater Tides during parts of the 1977, '78, and '79 seasons. He just hadn't figured on coming back to the International League, ever. The Minor League assignment left him shocked and confused, and many of his new teammates felt, or would be feeling, the same way.
The Columbus Clippers, the jewel of George Steinbrenner's New York Yankees farm system, weren't your typical Triple-A team.
Ten days earlier in Hollywood, Florida, Clippers general manager George Sisler Jr. drew deeply on a cigar and pondered his team's prospects for the '81 season.
"This club," Sisler told Columbus newspaper columnist Kaye Kessler, "is a cinch to be better than our 1980 team."
Pitching coach Sammy Ellis concurred.
"Talentwise, prospectwise, toolwise, there's no comparison," Ellis said.
The words were as strong as the aroma from Sisler's stogie. The 1980 team had won 83 games in a 140-game regular season. After a hard-fought win against Richmond in the Governors' Cup semifinals, the Clippers thumped second-place Toledo in the finals. Columbus boasted the best pitching in the league, by far, and the International League's MVP in Marshall Brant, their slugging first baseman.
Yet here were Sisler and Ellis, claiming the '80 team was nowhere near as good as the bunch likely to coalesce in Columbus this season. Many players destined for Columbus were working out with the Yankees in Fort Lauderdale but would soon be reassigned to Minor League camp at Hollywood's Dowdy Field.
How loaded were the '81 Clippers? Consider Pacella's situation. He found himself in a battle for the last spot in the New York Yankees' starting rotation with a group of pitchers — Dave Righetti, Andy McGaffigan, Gene Nelson, and Greg Cochran — that was arguably more talented than the Major League Padre rotation Pacella left behind in Arizona. Combine whoever didn't make the Yankee rotation with a solid cast of new and returning Triple-A pitchers and the Clippers looked formidable. You could count Yankee pitching legend Whitey Ford among the impressed.
"It's the best group of young arms I've seen in a Yankee camp," Ford told a Florida newspaper earlier that spring. "And if I didn't believe it, I wouldn't say it."
More from Ellis: "If I don't screw this staff up, we'll have a better pitching staff in Columbus than half the teams in the Major Leagues. These guys are so good they scare me to death."
A bit of hyperbole, perhaps, but at least some giddiness was merited.
The Clippers also upgraded defensively, and the new batting order looked scary good for Triple-A.
Brant, who smiled and hit home runs and never said no to autograph seekers, was back. He became my biggest hero on the team. He was pretty much everyone's hero. In 1980, his first season with the Clippers after five years in the Mets organization, Brant hit .289 with twenty-three homers and ninety-two RBIs. Stellar numbers, though still not good enough to earn him a meaningful look from the big club in spring training the following season. With the '81 Clippers, Brant didn't even have a full-time role locked up, at least not a well-defined role.
That's because another first baseman, Steve Balboni, was up from Nashville, where he earned league MVP honors. Balboni was already something of a Minor League legend and had New York fans drooling, anticipating the day he'd take over at first base in Yankee Stadium. He and Brant might already have a shot with other Major League teams. Not with Steinbrenner's New York Yankees. Both would start the season at Triple-A, trading off between first base and designated hitter. And behind them in the organization, rising quickly, was an outfielder beginning to play more first base named Don Mattingly.
The Clippers also upgraded at third base, where newly acquired Tucker Ashford, an IL All-Star, would take over, and at second, where red-hot prospect Pat Tabler would roam. Rising star Andre Robertson, the smiling, soft-spoken young Texan, was up for good at shortstop. The outfield was strong and about to get stronger via trades and demotions of top-notch talent by the Yankees, whose outfield was beyond loaded with megastars like Reggie Jackson and free agent prize Dave Winfield.
On March 22, the Yankees cut nine players — including Brant — from their Major League roster and sent them to the Clippers' camp. Rick Rizzs, the Clippers' new play-by-play man, arrived in Florida and soon filed daily reports on the team for WBNS radio.
Columbus dropped its first exhibition game 13–6 against the Richmond Braves — an International League foe — at Dowdy. Most of the Clippers who played in that game were ticketed for Double-A Nashville. First baseman Jim McDonald singled and tripled. He was a former first-round draft pick who played well for the Clippers in 1980. Now, with Brant coming off an MVP season and Balboni present, McDonald would have to fight just for a spot in Double-A. Before long, he'd be suiting up for Veracruz in the Mexican League.
About seventy miles west of Columbus, star-turned-utility-player Dave Coleman, who helped the Clippers win it all the previous season, spent the first part of March at home in his native Dayton, unsure whether to journey to Florida or retire. He faced a twelfth season in the Minors, interrupted only by his few at bats for the Boston Red Sox four years earlier. Even in the rough economy, there were job opportunities offering a lot more money than he'd earn for another season with the Yankees organization, particularly considering the team's latest, underwhelming offer. Maybe driving a truck for a distributorship. Was suiting up for one more baseball season worth another round of long bus rides, early morning plane trips, injuries that became an issue late in his career, and what figured to be less playing time? He still believed he had the talent to play in the Majors, but did — or would — anyone else?
Coleman played six different positions, and played them well, but to call him a phenom at any point in his career would be overstating things. He was terrific for Dayton's Stebbins High School, earning all-league honors as well as the MVP Award for the annual All-Ohio Baseball Series in Columbus, during his senior season in 1969. Getting drafted wasn't on his radar. He was taken in the eighteenth round, and only after his high school coach, Jim Murray, convinced some scouts to come give the young third baseman a look. When Coleman was selected with the 419th pick by the Boston Red Sox, it didn't even earn a mention in either of Dayton's two daily newspapers. He drew more attention from the local papers when he pitched a no-hitter for Dorothy Lane Market, his Little League team, at age seven.
In the Minors, he showed athleticism and some pop — twenty-four home runs for Pawtucket in '78 and twenty more for Toledo the following season. It wasn't enough. He was thirty now and would be the oldest player on the Columbus roster. Metaphors like "out of gas" and "hitting my head against a wall" were on his mind. But he also feared quitting too soon and facing that regret from behind the wheel of a delivery truck in a few years.
He decided to sign and report. One more season.
I Ran the Ballclub for about Five Minutes, Then I Got Shot in the Head
The man tasked with shuffling all this talent into another title winner was manager Frank Verdi, a vino-drinkin', horse-bettin', front office defyin', tough guy with a heart of gold out of Brooklyn's Boys High School. The '81 season was Verdi's first with the Clippers. His career in professional baseball had touched five different decades, all in the Minor Leagues, save for the briefest of moments.
Verdi, fifty-four when he took the Columbus job, was lucky to be alive. Among his most remarkable life stories, he once took a bullet to the head while coaching third base. It happened during the early morning hours of July 26, 1959, in Havana, Cuba.
Full appreciation of the story requires a bit of Cuban history. On July 26, 1953, a twenty-six-year-old baseball pitcher named Fidel Castro led an armed attack against the Moncanda Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. He took the loss. But the attack came to be recognized as the start of the Cuban Revolution, and Castro dubbed his forces the 26th of July Movement.
Just shy of six years later, Verdi — then a thirty-three-year-old player in his fourteenth Minor League season — and his Rochester Red Wings traveled to Cuba for an International League series against the Havana Sugar Kings, a club flush with talent from the Cincinnati Reds organization. Castro had taken control of the Cuban government the previous winter, and wild celebrations — often involving guns — broke out frequently in and around the capital.
On the night of July 25, the Red Wings and Sugar Kings got a late start in their regularly scheduled game at Gran Stadium after completing a suspended contest. Rochester led the first game 3–2 in the bottom of the ninth when Havana's Rogelio Alvarez tied the game with a dramatic home run. As the clock struck midnight and July 26 arrived, the three thousand locals in the stands erupted with flag waving, singing, and plenty of gunfire into the air. Well, those bullets eventually came down, many of them on the field, sending players and umpires running for cover. Verdi and some of his teammates found some under a jeep near the Rochester bullpen, beyond the left-field fence. The game was suspended but eventually the gunfire subsided, at least enough that play could be resumed.
The Red Wings, increasingly anxious to finish the game and make their escape, grabbed a 4–3 lead on Billy Harrell's homer in the top of the tenth. In the bottom of the inning, Havana's Jesse Gonder doubled. Rochester manager Ellis "Cot" Deal argued that Gonder missed first base. The disagreement with first base umpire Frank Guzzetta ended after Deal delivered the international symbol for "choker" and was thrown out, further riling the crowd. Verdi, who was not playing after getting beaned two weeks earlier, took over for Deal as manager. After Gonder came around to score the tying run, Rochester and Havana headed into inning number eleven.
Verdi trotted out to coach third base in Deal's place. He clapped his hands and provided the usual banter. "C'mon, baby!" As Dick Rand started the inning by grounding out to Leo Cardenas at short, more shots rang out.
"I was standing there coaching," Verdi would recall, "and Pow! Down I went."
He was hit, knocked to the ground. He thought at first that he'd been clocked by a wildly thrown ball. A spent bullet had struck him in the head, earlobe, and shoulder. Players and umpires again ran for cover.
Verdi remained conscious but felt groggy. He tried to get back on his feet, but he couldn't.
"Frank, are you alright?" umpire Ed Vargo said, half yelling. "They almost got me too."
Vargo found the bullet that struck Verdi. "This is what hit you," he said. It appeared to be a .45 caliber.
Vargo felt two bullets whiz by, one past his chest and another past his leg. Cardenas was grazed in the back, enough for a hospital visit. Verdi was carried off the field by his teammates, and the game was called. It was the beginning of the end of American baseball in Cuba, at least for several decades.
Verdi's life may have been saved by a rubber-and-plastic liner, which he wore inside his cap with extra fervor after the recent beaning. It wrapped around the sides of his head but left the top exposed. His cap had a bullet hole in it, but the shell apparently deflected off the liner, and Verdi dodged serious injury. Maybe much worse.
"I ran the ballclub for about five minutes, then I got shot in the head," Verdi recounted. "If that bullet had been two inches to the left it would have gone right through my head and all the team would have had to chip in five bucks a piece for flowers."
Back in the states, the incident was national news. Verdi himself penned an account for United Press International. The Red Wings refused to play in Sunday's scheduled twin bill, over the protests of pretty much the whole island, including the Sugar Kings' management. "An atmosphere of peace, tranquility, and happiness reigned in the city when Rochester refused to play due to an incident of no importance the night before," a statement read.
After an anxious Sunday night in their hotel, the Red Wings flew home. Verdi and his manager sat next to each other on the plane, mulling over how getting thrown out of the game may have saved Deal's life.
As soon as he was able, Verdi called home to Bay Shore, Long Island, and checked in with wife, Pauline.
"I read in the paper you got shot in the head," she told him.
He assured her he was okay.
Frank Verdi was a salty character, politically incorrect before the term was invented. He was known to summon rainouts with a mock Native American dance. "Kiss a fat lady's ass" was his go-to expression for frustration or displeasure. Players, umpires, front office types, or others who disappointed him were "cock-knockers." During one practice, he shook his head in disbelief at a young infielder's bad form. "You see him fielding that ground ball?" Verdi asked the team's GM. "It looks like he's fucking a beach ball."
And man, could he get angry. The '81 Verdi had mellowed somewhat, but crossing him was always ill-advised.
Once, during his tenure managing the Syracuse Chiefs, Verdi literally tore his office door off its hinges. A couple of years earlier, during a road trip with the Oneonta Yankees, he got so angry over an umpire's blown call that he went berserk, turned beet red, and refused to leave the field after he was ejected. The umpires summoned a sheriff and deputy sheriff handling security at the ballpark. "Get him off the field!" the sheriff ordered his deputy. "You get him off," the deputy responded. Verdi went eye-to-eye with defiant players, umpires, or anyone else who'd incurred his wrath. He'd flip his cap backward, put his hands in his back pockets, get right up in his target's face and let him have it, bobbing his own face from side to side around the visage of whomever was on the receiving end. Even much larger men were sometimes intimidated.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Almost Yankees"
Copyright © 2019 J. David Herman.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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