A great baseball man and great gentleman of the game named Gene (Stick) Michael died on Thursday. He was a player and coach and scout and manager and general manager with the Yankees, finally a vice president and adviser with them for the last decade of his life. But he was so much more than those jobs, those titles. All Stick Michael did, back in the 1990s, was start making the Yankees into the Yankees again. It turned out to be the brightest moment of a wonderful baseball life.
Stick managed the Cubs, too. But the Yankees, for whom he first played in 1968, were the best of it for him. This tall, quiet, funny man would never have thought of himself as somebody who was worthy of a plaque in Monument Park. But in so many ways, he is. Such an unlikely Yankee immortal, gone now at the age of 79.
Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte and Mo Rivera and Jorge Posada came into the Yankee farm system on Michael's watch. He hired Buck Showalter, another great baseball man, to be his manager in 1992. And Stick traded for Paul O'Neill. It was in those years, in the early '90s, that George Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball because he had hired a gambler named Howie Spira to dig up dirt on one of Steinbrenner's stars, Dave Winfield. While he was gone, Michael and Showalter began to make the Yankees matter again, a little bit at a time.
The two of them brought a culture back to the old Stadium, and professionalism, and class, even before the winning started again in the strike year of 1994, when we all knew the Yankees were on their way to the World Series.
"There was never a day when I worked for him, not one, that I didn't have a full appreciation of how lucky I was to have him," Showalter said on Thursday morning after getting the news of Michael's passing. "Guys managing in our game right now have no idea how lucky they'd be to have somebody who had done all the things Stick did in this game, playing and scouting and managing, somebody who on top of all that could handle the owner for them when the owner needed handling. That was Stick. He was also the best evaluator of talent, hands down, I've ever been around."
Then Buck was telling stories about the two of them. One was about the time after Steinbrenner returned from his suspension, a day when Stick went to find Buck on one of the back fields in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., back when the Yankees still had their Spring Training there. Stick told Buck they were going to go play nine holes of golf, whether Buck wanted to or not.
"I gotta get you away from here for a little while," Stick would say.
In the very next moment, though, he was giggling. Buck asked what was so funny. Stick pointed to the sight of George Steinbrenner, coming toward them in a golf cart.
"He found us," Stick said.
Michael saw things in baseball players with his scout's eyes. He knew how much everybody in the organization loved a kid named Roberto Kelly in the early '90s. But Stick had his eyes on O'Neill, despite the reputation as a hothead that O'Neill had when he was with the Reds, with whom he'd won a World Series in 1990. Stick had a vision of what he wanted the Yankees to be again. And O'Neill fit that vision. After years of losing at the old Stadium, he was looking for winners.
"When he got one of those ideas," Showalter said, "he'd always ask me the same question, every time: 'Can you make it work?' That's the way he presented the O'Neill trade to me: 'I'm thinking of trading Kelly for O'Neill. I'll probably get jumped for it, but I don't care. Can you make it work?' And I told him I sure as hell could. Stick said, 'He's a bit of a red-ass.' I said, 'Bring it on.'"
Later, O'Neill would become a cornerstone of the Yankees' next era of greatness, the dynasty between 1996 and 2001. He would fit right in with Jeter and Rivera and Pettitte and Posada, even after Showalter was gone and Joe Torre had taken his place and Stick finally gave way to Bob Watson as general manager.
"He just saw things in players that others didn't see," Buck said on Thursday before the Orioles would play the Yankees. "I guess he must have seen something in me."
Then he was telling another Stick story, about Michael calling after the '91 season and saying that he was going to make a change at manager but that he just didn't see the job going to Buck, a 34-year-old Yankee coach at the time.
"I'm probably gonna go with a veteran guy," Stick told Buck, as Showalter remembers. "And if I do, that guy's gonna want to pick his own staff. So the best thing for you to probably do is start looking around for another job." Buck told him that he appreciated the phone call. But then before long there was another call, and Stick was telling him that he was going to be the new Yankee manager.
"I went from no job," Buck said on Thursday, "to that job."
He went to that job, with that team. Just as importantly, he and Stick Michael became a team at what turned out to be such an important crossroad for Steinbrenner and for Steinbrenner's Yankees. It started with Gene Michael's vision.
Of course, he tangled with Steinbrenner. Everybody who worked for George did. There was a time when Michael called out Steinbrenner when the Yankees were in Chicago, saying he'd finally found the constant threats about dismissing him intolerable. Stick wrote down his thoughts and shared them with the media. That was a Friday night. I was on a plane to Chicago the next morning, and was sitting with Michael in the visiting manager's office when Graig Nettles poked his head in.
"Wow," Nettles said. "You're still here?"
A little over a week later, Michael was gone, replaced by Bob Lemon. But a decade later, when it was Steinbrenner who was gone, Michael was there when the Yankees needed him the most. All he did was change the history of the most famous and storied baseball franchise in this world, one that had fallen on such hard times in the late 1980s and into the '90s. It was on Michael's watch that they started to come back.
He was so much more than just a great baseball man. He was a good and kind man, and such good company, and somehow was always telling a story about baseball you'd never heard before. The best, though, was the one he wrote for the Yankees. Unlikeliest Yankee immortal of them all.