Friday, September 08, 2017

With the death of Gene Michael, it's tough day for the Yankees, baseball and me

By Bill Madden
September 8, 2017

Image result for gene michael steinbrenner

In this March 1, 1981, file photo, New York Yankees manager Gene Michael, left, and team owner George Steinbrenner are shown during a team workout in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Gene Michael, the slick-fielding shortstop nicknamed Stick who went on to manage the Yankees and then as a front-office executive built a power than won four World Series titles in a five-year span, died Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. He was 79. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)

He was the heart, soul and conscience of the Yankee organization for 40 years and also one of the closest baseball friends I’ve known, so writing about Gene Michael’s life, which was so shockingly snuffed out by a heart attack at age 79 early Thursday, is about the hardest task I’ve ever had to perform for this newspaper.

Please forgive me but this is personal
What can you say about the Stick? That when it came to player evaluations he was always the smartest guy in the room as the architect of four championship Yankee teams between 1996-2001 and, before that, the 1980 Yankee team that won 103 games?
That he had the keenest sense of baseball people in hiring three of the best managers the Yankees ever had in Dick Howser, Buck Showalter and Joe Torre.
That he was the one guy in the Yankee organization who was not afraid to go to the mat with George Steinbrenner, no matter what the issue, as he did in fighting not to give 1991 No. 1 draft pick Brien Taylor a major league contract; or pushing through the 1995 trading deadline deal for David Cone; or issuing a “me or him” ultimatum to the Boss after Tampa-based player development director, George Bradley — behind his back with the Boss’ approval — signed Steve Sax to a four-year extension in 1990 at the same time the Yankees were letting Dave Righetti sign a four-year deal with the Giants, or that he repeatedly deflected Steinbrenner’s snipes at Howser and Showalter?
“People don’t know all the things Stick did behind the scenes,” Showalter said by phone Thursday. “He kept the Boss at bay and allowed me to do my job.”
After taking over as Yankee general manager for the second time in 1990, Stick hired Showalter in the winter of 1991 to replace Stump Merrill, but not after first considering a more experienced manager such as Doug Rader or Hal Lanier. He was finally convinced by some of the Yankee limited partners, most notably Marvin Goldklang, to stay within the organization and give the job to Showalter, who had worked his way up through the Yankee minor league system.
“I knew I wasn’t his first choice,” said Showalter, “but midway through that first (’92) spring training he came to me and said, ‘I watched you closely the first two weeks of camp and then I knew you were going to be OK.’ You have no idea how much confidence that gave me.”
Together, with Steinbrenner suspended from baseball, Stick and Buck rebuilt the Yankees from their lowest ebb (back-to back 90-plus loss seasons in ’90 and ’91) to the team that became a dynasty under Torre.
The first building block was the November 1992 deal in which Stick sent Roberto Kelly, regarded then as the Yankees’ best player, to the Reds for Paul O’Neill, known to be a temperamental player who clashed often with then-Cincy manager and former Yankee Lou Piniella. Kelly’s star quickly faded while O’Neill went on to achieve icon status with the Yankees over the next nine seasons as a mainstay of those Torre teams.
“That was the other trait I so admired Stick for,” said Showalter. “He had guts. But he knew players, and he knew every aspect of the game. He was the one guy who believed Mike Gallego could play shortstop for us when everyone else looked at him as a utility guy. He signed Steve Howe, despite his drug history, because he believed he was passed that.”
There were all the other inspired trades and signings, of course.
The November 1990 signing of closer Steve Farr. The January 1992 signing of Gallego. The April 1995 trade with Montreal for John Wetteland, the August of 1996 re-acquisition of Charlie Hayes, who’d been lost over Stick’s objections in the ’92 expansion draft.
The December 1992 signing of Jimmy Key after Greg Maddux spurned the Yankees for less money from Atlanta and of course the 1995 megatrade with Seattle for Tino Martinez and Jeff Nelson.
But the one I remember most vividly was the 1995 trade deadline deal with Toronto for Cone, if only because on that one I witnessed Stick at his most frustrated.
For three days he’d been going back and forth with then-Blue Jays GM Pat Gillick, who was holding out for top Yankee pitching prospect, Marty Janzen. Finally, the deal got done and Janzen was shipped, but just before it was announced, Stick confided in me: “You have no idea what I had to go through with (Steinbrenner) on this.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“He kept telling me his baseball people didn’t want to give up Janzen because they thought he was gonna be a star. Finally I said: ‘George I’m your GM. If we don’t get Cone, we’re not going to the postseason.’ He finally relented, but then he told me: ‘Gillick’s the smartest GM in baseball. He’s taking advantage of you. He knows something about Janzen that you don’t.”
Janzen appeared in just 27 games, starting 11, for the Jays over two season, pitching to a 6.39 ERA.
Conversely, when Steinbrenner returned from suspension in 1993, it was Stick who had to talk him out of trading homegrown Yankees such as Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams, who came up through the farm system he rebuilt.
And when it came to trades, there was another lesson Showalter learned from Stick. Showalter hated Danny Tartabull, whom Stick had signed as a last-ditch free agent in the winter of 1992 after Steinbrenner had locked up the coffers for most of the offseason. Sitting together in the manager’s office in July of 1995, Showalter begged Stick to get rid of Tartabull, who was repeatedly begging out of the lineup. “If you trade him I’ll kiss your ass at home plate in front of 40,000 people.”
“I’m gonna save you the embarrassment,” Stick said, pulling down his pants. “You can do it right here. I just traded him to Oakland.”
“You did?” said Showalter. “Who did we get back.”
“Ruben Sierra, who’s been just as big of a pain in the ass for the A’s,” Stick said, “but that doesn’t matter. You can trade anybody as long as you don’t care what you get back.”
Despite their frequent dust-ups, Steinbrenner always had the highest respect for Stick, beginning with when he hired him to manage the Yankees’ Triple-A team in 1979. It’s uncertain if the Boss was aware of the fact Stick pulled off five “hidden ball” tricks during his shortstop career from 1966-75 but he recognized early on his baseball acumen.
“Stick was always the guy George turned to,” Giants baseball operations chief Brian Sabean, who worked under Stick as Yankees VP of player development and scouting in the early ’90s, said by phone Thursday. “Stick taught me so much about baseball. He took me under his wing, brought me everywhere and had just a wealth of baseball knowledge.”
“Stick was simply one of the finest men I’ve ever known,” said a devastated Piniella. “One of the smartest baseball men ever and also one of the best poker players I ever knew. I don’t think he ever made a bad trade or signing. This is just so unbelievable. I just loved him.”
So, too, did everyone who knew him. God bless and rest in peace, my friend. 

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