BALTIMORE — Gene Michael, nicknamed “Stick” for his slender frame and best known for laying the foundation of the Yankees’ dynasty in the 1990s, died of a heart attack Thursday morning at the age of 79.
In addition to making an impression at every level of the sport, from player to coach to manager to general manager, Michael’s game-smart, fun-loving side came through in a way that many fans fondly remember — his flair for the hidden-ball trick, which he pulled off roughly a half-dozen times.
How fitting, then, that Michael excelled at finding talent that others failed to spot, or just couldn’t identify the way he could.
Michael batted .229 during his 10-year playing career from 1968-77, including seven seasons with the Yankees (1968-74), and went 206-200 as a manager in the Bronx (1981-82) and for the Cubs (1986-87). But Michael performed his greatest work in the front office, where he helped transform the Yankees, a dormant empire in disrepair, into a championship franchise again.
A big part of the job during those days was reining in the tempestuous George Steinbrenner. Michael, who had a remarkable eye for talent, kept together the nucleus of young players that would become the critical Core Four of Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera — plus Bernie Williams.
Michael protected Williams despite Steinbrenner’s repeated insistence that he be traded, a perfect example of how Michael not only recognized skilled players but provided an essential buffer between the on-field Yankees and The Boss’ persistent disruption.
“As the architect of the team that would go on to win four World Series,” Williams said, “Gene was as significant a part of our world championship teams as anyone.”
Michael was hired as GM toward the end of the 1990 season, as the Yankees were spiraling toward a 67-95 finish and Steinbrenner was about to serve a two-year suspension. In Steinbrenner’s absence, Michael became the compass for guiding the Yankees back to respectability, fortifying the farm system and also making the pivotal trade of outfielder Roberto Kelly, then one of his top players, for Paul O’Neill in 1993.
“Stick was a pillar of this organization for decades,” managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said. “He knew the game of baseball like few others did and was always willing and excited to talk about it with anyone in earshot. His contributions to the Yankees over the years have been immeasurable. He loved baseball and this organization, and he will be profoundly missed.”
Michael also was responsible for giving Buck Showalter his first managing job, hiring him in October 1991, and the two remained very close. Showalter clearly was shaken before Thursday afternoon’s game at Camden Yards, saying he had to pull over on his drive to the ballpark when his wife called him with the news of Michael’s death.
“Best baseball evaluator I ever saw,” Showalter said. “Had a great gut. Never missed on an infielder. If you ever sat with him at a game, he saw the game through a projection. Everything was a projection. And he knew about the people that could play in New York.”
Showalter fondly recalled how Michael told him he got the job — a week after saying he wasn’t in consideration — and the fun of sneaking off with the GM to play golf during spring training until Steinbrenner tracked them down. Professionally, Showalter marveled at Michael’s keen observations and his knack for seeing the potential in young players, even correcting the early flaws in Jeter’s defensive footwork.
“Gene Michael was not only largely responsible for the success of the Yankees’ organization but also for my development as a player,” Jeter said. “He was always accessible and willing to share his personal knowledge as well as support.”
Michael’s five-year tenure as GM ended after the 1995 season, when the Yankees won the wild card and made the playoffs for the first time since 1981. But his trusted voice continued to make a big impact in his role as a special adviser to Steinbrenner, and Michael was instrumental in grooming the next generation of front-office personnel, including the current GM, Brian Cashman.
“I am heartbroken by Stick’s passing,” Cashman said. “He was both a friend and mentor to me, and I relied upon his advice and guidance throughout my career. He did it all in this industry — player, coach, manager, general manager and scout — and his knowledge base was second to none.”
Michael never played on a championship team in the Bronx, as the Yankees failed to qualify for the postseason during his time as an infielder there. But his fingerprints are all over the last five World Series trophies, and that dynasty is a huge part of his legacy.
“Stick was a great man with enormous heart and integrity,” Yankees president Randy Levine told MLB.com. “One of the greatest baseball executives of our time. He was central to the success of the Yankees.”
TRIBUTES TO STICK
“Gene was as significant a part of our world championship teams as anyone.”
— Former Yankees centerfielder Bernie Williams
“If you ever sat with him at a game, he saw the game through a projection. Everything was a projection, And he knew about the people that could play in New York.”
— Orioles manager Buck Showalter
“He knew the game of baseball like few others did, and was always willing and excited to talk about it with anyone in earshot.”
— Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner
“He did it all in this industry — player, coach, manager, general manager and scout — and his knowledge base was second to none.”
— Yankees GM Brian Cashman