The Yankees took to the field Thursday at Camden Yards with a black armband stitched to the left sleeve of their road gray uniforms, hours after learning that Gene “Stick” Michael, a beloved franchise icon, had passed away.
The current pinstriped generation knew Michael was the architect of the late-1990s dynasty, but mostly as the smiling, sage gentleman who maybe came over during spring training and offered advice, or to poke fun.
Brett Gardner was Michael’s kind of player, a third-round draft pick with potential that others possibly missed. The sort that could put a tenacious at-bat on a pitcher, then further apply pressure from the basepaths with his speed.
Before Thursday’s game, Gardner was asked about Michael, and he recalled one of their last baseball conversations. It resonated with him.
Michael urged him to steal more bases, telling Gardner to “run like your hair’s on fire.” And Thursday, with a long overdue series win in Baltimore at stake, Gardner did exactly that, opening the game by drawing a walk after falling behind 0-and-2, then stealing second, then scoring the first run in the Yankees’ 9-1 victory over the Orioles.
“I’m sure he would have liked that,” Gardner said, smiling.
What a perfect tribute. After taking over as GM in 1990, Michael rebuilt the Yankees by using a concept that existed only in his head — wearing down pitchers with exhausting at-bats and getting on base more. It wouldn’t become an industry-wide movement for another decade, but the Yankees, with Michael’s ideology behind their roster, used that blueprint to grow the next dynasty and win five World Series rings.
Fast-forward to Thursday, and the Yankees employed that same strategy against Orioles starter Kevin Gausman, whose 2.03 ERA in his previous nine starts was the best in the American League since the All-Star break. But Gardner worked him for eight pitches for that leadoff walk, and two outs later, Didi Gregorius ripped him for an RBI double. Aaron Judge followed with his 39th home run, and the Yankees raced to a 3-0 lead that was never threatened.
Judge provided the big blast, and Chase Headley, Starlin Castro and Todd Frazier later went deep, but Girardi pointed to Gardner as the day’s catalyst. He reached base four times in five at-bats, with a double, single and two walks, and the Yankees chased Gausman after three innings — his shortest outing since July 14 — and 79 pitches, 36 of which came in the first.
“That’s a Stick special,” Girardi said. “Making pitchers work and hitting home runs. We were able to do that, so that was for Stick.”
Michael would have appreciated the gesture, but as a backstage guy, he also would have deferred the credit to the guys wearing the uniforms. Gardner said Michael’s presence was felt by seeing the armbands, and for whatever reason — be it spiritual or otherwise — the Yankees were able to ride a blowout victory for their first series win at Camden Yards since 2013.
That year, one of Michael’s Core Four disciples — Mariano Rivera — was still adding to his record save total but got the Sept. 12 victory that decided that series win. On Thursday, however, the person at Camden Yards who shared the strongest bond with Michael was in the Orioles’ dugout — Buck Showalter, whom Michael hired to be the Yankees’ manager in 1991.
Before the game, Showalter spoke at length about their time together in the Bronx and how Michael’s vision was instrumental in turning the Yankees into what they are today. No one could have foreseen, however, that Showalter would become an adversary to Michael’s team rather than a career-long partner to his former GM.
“[Michael] knew what managers went through, especially with Mr. Steinbrenner,” Showalter said. “He was always checking in. He’d say, ‘Messed anything up yet? It’s still early. You will. I’ve messed up three things today, most of them at home.’ I could write a whole book.”
But on this day of mourning, even for many far beyond the Bronx, the Yankees left for Dallas — their next destination on this three-city trip — with a sense of relief. They got a much-needed bounce-back win and honored a lifelong baseball man in the best way possible.
“We thought about him a lot,” Girardi said.
And it showed.