A few months ago, Gene Michael leaned against the railing in front of the New York Yankees' dugout, looking a little disheveled, as always. The baseball caps he wore always seemed ill-fitting -- I could never figure out if they were too big or too small -- and his shock of white hair usually needed a trim. When "Stick" Michael carried a notepad, the primary architect of what may be baseball’s last dynasty looked more like a sportswriter than a multisport star from Kent State, where he played basketball and baseball.
Even after 10 years as a major league middle infielder, Stick had long maintained to me that he’d been a better basketball player. But he loved to joke, loved to tell stories, particularly at his own expense, and he mostly smiled when he talked about his basketball career, so I never knew for sure if he was kidding. I am certain, however, that Michael was so smart that he understood that his grinning, aw-shucks Midwestern demeanor would improve the chances that he would be underestimated.
The fact is that he could not have survived decades as an employee of George Steinbrenner without a marrow-deep toughness, a stubbornness, as an emotional Buck Showalter recalled Thursday morning, not long after learning about the death of his close friend and former boss.
Michael played for the Yankees for the first couple seasons of Steinbrenner’s ownership and later worked as a coach, manager, general manager and scout -- just about every role. As Steinbrenner negotiated his suspension from baseball in 1990, he ordered Michael to generate a list of candidates to run the Yankees in Steinbrenner’s absence. But then Steinbrenner asked Michael himself to go back to being the team’s GM, because Steinbrenner knew that even in the worst of times, in the most trying of times, Michael possessed the integrity to always try to do what was right for the Yankees organization, rather than for himself.
The promotion was a crossroad for the organization. More than a decade before "Moneyball" highlighted the Oakland A’s focus on on-base percentage, Michael rebuilt the Yankees by emphasizing OBP and acquiring left-handed power hitters to take advantage of Yankee Stadium's dimensions. Michael also worked to rebuild the farm system.
Sometimes, what was right for the Yankees was to defy Steinbrenner throughout the owner’s swinging emotional pendulum -- sometimes directly, sometimes surreptitiously. Michael once recalled the day that Steinbrenner, frustrated with a young center fielder named Bernie Williams, phoned Stick and ordered him to cultivate offers from other teams, so the Yankees could pick the best offer and trade Williams, because it wasn’t working.
Michael believed in Williams and his talent, so much so that he had confronted veteran outfielder Mel Hall after seeing Hall bully Williams to tears. Michael had no intention of trading Williams. But Michael called every other team, as Steinbrenner had ordered, and talked to rival executives about everything and anything other than Bernie Williams.
Michael reported back to Steinbrenner that he talked to other teams and hadn’t gotten one offer for Williams. Steinbrenner, momentarily placated, moved on to other concerns, and Williams was in center field for the team’s five World Series appearances and four titles from 1996-2001.
Before the 1992 season, Michael listened to former teammate and then-Reds manager Lou Piniella complain about one of his outfielders, Paul O'Neill, who Piniella thought should hit more homers. Knowing Piniella’s personality, Michael figured that Piniella would push and prod O’Neill to distraction. And sure enough, O’Neill had a bad season in ’92, batting .246. With O’Neill’s trade value bottomed out, Michael made a deal with Cincinnati for the right fielder, despite industry concerns that the intense O’Neill would struggle playing in New York.
But Michael believed O’Neill actually had a perfect personality to play in New York, because he would be far more critical of himself than any fan or columnist. A few years later, he made the same assessment of third baseman Scott Brosius; both players thrived for the Yankees.
Early in the 1995 season, in Michael’s last year in the role of general manager, he mulled the possibility of trading pitching prospect Mariano Rivera to the Tigers for left-hander David Wells. As he moved closer to a deal that spring, he read a report from Rivera’s most recent minor league start with Triple-A Columbus and noticed that the velocity readings reflected a jump of 4-6 miles per hour faster than Rivera’s history.
Michael called the Columbus staff to ask about the condition of their radar gun, which he assumed was broken. Nope, he was told, the radar gun was fine. Then Michael phoned a scout who he knew had been in the stands -- a scout from the Tigers, the team that was interested in acquiring Rivera.
The scout’s radar gun readings matched those of the Yankees’ affiliate, and Michael immediately called off the trade conversation. There was apparently more to Mariano Rivera than the Yankees had seen, Michael decided.
For the better part of a decade, the Yankees of the early and mid-90s did what they had never been able to do in the first 17 years of Steinbrenner’s ownership: They held on to their prospects, such as Rivera, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada. And they got back to winning in a manner not seen in the Yankees organization since the 1950s, in a way that has not been seen since in Major League Baseball and may never happen again because of how salaries have made it increasingly difficult for teams to retain players.
Even after Steinbrenner wore down Michael, as he had so many other general managers, the owner paid him handsomely to remain in the organization, as a scout and adviser. Michael would spend a lot of spring training in Tampa, trailing the Yankees from game to game, cross-checking players for GM Brian Cashman.
Stationed in front of the Yankees’ dugout -- almost in the same spot -- Michael would chuckle underneath that oddly tilted baseball cap as he told stories, a hint of laughter seemingly attached to his words.
But if you asked Michael to give an opinion about a player and that player's skills, the laughter would disappear and he would look at you directly and give you an emotionless, honest assessment about the player’s labyrinth of strengths and weaknesses, and the causes and effects of pitching or hitting mechanics. And you understood why George Steinbrenner trusted Gene Michael, and entrusted him.