Gene Michael, RIP: The big Stick

Paul O'Neill (far left) and Gene Michael (next to O'Neill) with, from left, head trainer Gene Monahan, Joe Torre, Tino Martinez, David Cone, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada, when O'Neill---for whom Michael dealt to begin building the Yankees' 1996-2000 dynasty---was presented his Monument Park plaque.

Paul O’Neill (far left) and Gene Michael (next to O’Neill) with, from left, head trainer Gene Monahan, Joe Torre, Tino Martinez, David Cone, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada, when O’Neill—for whom Michael dealt to begin building the Yankees’ 1996-2000 dynasty—was presented his Monument Park plaque.

You could say the Yankees’ fabled Core Five dynasty wouldn’t have happened if Gene Michael—the Yankee general manager who was inadvertently allowed to build it, and who died of a heart attack 7 September at 79—hadn’t had something in common with Phil Rizzuto, other than being Yankee shortstops a couple of generations apart.

They also shared a phobia about creepy, crawly creatures. Michael’s got him into George Steinbrenner’s sights early and often, when Steinbrenner was a newly-minuted Yankee owner and Michael his slick field/slack hit shortstop in 1973.

As the Yankees began pre-game practise in Texas, Steinbrenner was astonished to see Michael running onto the field as if he had a tax auditor on his trail, flinging his glove up frantically, with a hot dog falling from one of the fingers. Like Rizzuto in his playing days, Michael’s teammates took to making him pay through the proverbial nose for his phobia. Except that Steinbrenner was now the Boss, and he wanted Michael disciplined to within an inch of the skinny shortstop’s life.

Manager Ralph Houk, stifling his laughter, was forced to tell Michael he wasn’t just in Steinbrenner’s dog house, he was in the Boss’s dog pound. But Steinbrenner keeping a close eye on the veteran nicknamed the Stick turned into something else, when he realised Michael had a rare baseball intelligence that belied his puny playing statistics.

In due course, that intelligence would lead Michael as general manager to make the trade and the four draft signings that seeded the Yankees’ return to greatness from the mid-1990s through the early Aughts.

When Michael called it a career as a player in 1976, Steinbrenner made him a scout, then coach, then minor league manager, then major league manager. Oops. Succeeding Dick Howser after 1980, and a season as GM in which he seemed to spend more than half his time buffering between Howser and the Boss, Michael spent one full season and part of another season in what was then the baseball job most likely to be considered a violation of its holder’s Eighth Amendment rights.

“When you become his manager,” Michael once cracked, “it’s like your IQ drops by fifty percent. All of a sudden you don’t know anything.”

Steinbrenner invited Michael back to the front office after canning him as manager. Michael demurred, saying he still thought he was a good manager. “Sure you are,” Steinbrenner agreed. “But why would you want to stay as manager and be second-guessed by me, when you can come up into the front office and be one of the second-guessers?”

Michael eventually got another crack at being the Yankees’ general manager, and the timing couldn’t have been more bizarre. Steinbrenner went into drydock on the orders of then-commissioner Fay Vincent, after he’d recklessly and foolishly been caught paying off small-time con Howard Spira to dig up any kind of dirt diggable on outfielder and future Hall of Famer Dave Winfield.

Most tellingly, Michael—who thought nothing of standing up to Steinbrenner’s illogic and seat-of-his-pants rantings, ravings, and reductionisms no matter which job he held in the Yankee circus—proved both an astute trader and a master of knowing which trade not to make. Doing both helped return the Yankees from the Twilight Zone to the next best thing to their 1950s dominance.

First, Michael went against the front office consensus about Roberto Kelly. The front office saw Kelly as their center fielder of the future as the 1990s began. They loved his power/speed combination and couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t become the superstar he was supposed to be in his first four Yankee years.

Michael saw the flaw that answered that question and would keep Kelly from becoming that superstar: he was an undisciplined hitter who was likely to remain that way. And he also had a taker in Cincinnati, where then-manager Lou Piniella—formerly a Yankee teammate of Michael’s and twice a Yankee revolving-door manager—was exhausted of fencing with his talented right fielder Paul O’Neill.

Michael (right) with Yogi Berra, two who loved the game even more than they loved the Yankees.

Michael (right) with Yogi Berra, two who loved the game even more than they loved the Yankees.

Piniella wanted to turn the disciplined but severely self-critical O’Neill into a pull-hitting 40-bomb a year man, and his insistence upon it turned O’Neill into a wreck. After Piniella left the Reds to manage the Mariners, Michael and Reds GM Jim Bowden made the deal. Yankee personnel who fumed over it (and Steinbrenner, even suspended, wasn’t one of them) were reminded politely that the Yankees had a better center fielder in waiting, Bernie Williams.

“When I got to New York, he told me they wanted me to play the way I played,” O’Neill remembered in a New York Post commentary upon Michael’s death, “and even though Yankee Stadium was a pull-hitter’s stadium I could hit the way I did. He gave me the biggest opportunity of my life.”

O’Neill became the Yankees’ right field fixture and one of the team’s spiritual leaders for the final nine years of his career. Michael waved away periodic criticism of Williams, concurrently, including orders from Steinbrenner to trade him. Somehow, Michael kept Steinbrenner at bay just long enough to move veteran outfielder Mel Hall after he saw Hall bully the resilient and sensitive Williams mercilessly and once too often.

Williams and O’Neill became outfield fixtures while Michael drafted Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera. Married to fellow Yankee farm product Williams, they became the Core Five who—with a little help from such friends as O’Neill, Tino Martinez, Scott Brosius, David Cone, and Roger Clemens—drove the Yankees back to greatness, to four World Series rings in five seasons, and to a refreshed rivalry with the Red Sox in the American League East.

The bad news was that Michael wouldn’t be in the GM’s seat to see the beginning of that Yankee resurrection. As had happened after the 1981 strike, Michael was fired as GM after the 1994 strike was resolved in early 1995. Why? The Yankees slumped after both were resolved, and somebody had to take the fall, especially with Michael haggling with the Boss over a new contract.

Bob Watson and then Brian Cashman succeeded Michael, but those 1996 and 1998-2000 World Series winners were Michael’s teams. “I always had a great regard for his baseball knowledge, and secondly, how he handled the stress working for George that many years,” said Joe Torre, who managed those winners en route the Hall of Fame himself. “He kept the thing afloat when George was away; he did more than that because he built a heck of an organization.”

“He was a mentor to many people in this office,” Cashman said upon Michael’s death. “He would take the time and pass the baton. He did it with me and plenty others. If you were interested, he would give his time and expertise to try and train you. He was a remarkable individual who was impactful.”

Divorced and remarried with four children, Michael knew a few things about balance, including between statistics and sight. “Numbers are important,” he once said, “only to the degree you can blend them with what a scout has seen with his own eyes.”

“He knew the game of baseball like few others did,” said Yankee owner Hal Steinbrenner, “and was always willing and excited to talk about it with anyone in earshot.” Count me among those who’d have loved to be within earshot whenever the Stick decided to swing about the game he loved.

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