Gene “Stick” Michael Was More Responsible For The Yankee Championship Teams In The Late 90s Than Anyone Else
Former Yankees shortstop, manager and general manager Gene Michael died today September 7, 2017 at the age of 79 of a heart attack at his home in Oldsmar, FL.
Michael was a slick fielding light hitting shortstop who played on Yankees teams from 1968 – 1974, that were a shadow of the former Yankee teams. From 1921 -1964 the Yankees had appeared in 29 World Series, winning 20 of them.
If The New York Yankees futility of the late 1960s and early 1970s was epitomized by their second baseman Horace Clarke, then Gene Michael would unfairly be attached to that failure with his double play partner. Horace Clarke, was a career .256 hitter and average fielder who hit a total of 27 home runs with the Yankees from 1965 – 1974. Because Clarke’s career coincided with that of Michael’s the two were paired together unfairly as the face of Yankee ineptitude.
But there was never any question that Gene Michael was a decent ballplayer and a great competitor.
The “Stick,” as the six foot two skinny shortstop was nicknamed, had baseball smarts and could execute the plays a lot better than an average player. That is what kept Michael on the team. A .229 lifetime average usually won’t ensure your spot on a major league roster unless you can hit thirty or more home runs a year. Yet Michael was valued by teammates and some fans as a hard-nosed, crafty ballplayer.
Michael would have the ball in his glove as the pitcher would be getting ready to pitch and Michael would sneak up on an unsuspecting runner as he began to take a lead off second base and apply the tag. It’s called a bush league play today. Completely unprofessional. I disagree. It showed smarts and initiative to pull it off and I question why it is not tried more often today. I once witnessed Michael do this in person and didn’t realize what had happened.
Michael was smart in other ways. In a May 25, 1973 game against the Texas Rangers the Yankees were quickly down 7-0 in the second inning. The Yankees clawed their way back to 7-6 in the seventh inning. With runners on first and second and no one out Michael was given the bunt sign. Seeing that the Ranger third baseman was charging in hard, Michael feigned at bunting the first pitch. Realizing the Rangers would try the same play again Michael decided to swing away. Michael launched a line drive that landed eight rows deep into the right field stands at Yankee Stadium for a three run homer and an eventual 9-7 Yankee victory.
After his playing career was over and he was released by the Boston Red Sox in 1976 George Steinbrenner recruited Michael back to the Yankees organization.
After managing the Yankees twice and a general managing stint in the 1980s, Michael was brought back to be the Yankees general manager in 1990. Through Michael’s vision of using prospects from the Yankee farm system and shrewd trades, the Yankees would go onto win four World Series titles between 1996 and 2000. Though he was fired in 1995, it was Michael that had assembled the necessary winning pieces.
Under Michael’s reign the Yankees constructed a winning franchise with players like Derek Jeter Paul O’Neill, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Jimmy Key, David Cone and Andy Pettitte.
Michael’s most appreciated quality was that he was not a “yes man.” Yankee owner George Steinbrenner respected that and the fact that Michael was sharp and a battler, the kind of guy you want next to you in a foxhole. Michael said to New York Times writer George Vecsey in 1980, “A man who’s successful does not want to hear yes from everybody. George (Steinbrenner) wants opinions. There are times if you argue he’ll say ‘Go ahead and do it your way.’ Of course he’ll always remember it was your suggestion.”
I realized it back when it was happening in the 1990s that the Yankee success was not just because of the team on the field or manager Joe Torre, but the man who had put it all together, Gene Michael.
In death Michael will now get those accolades and overdue recognition.