Former player, longtime exec instrumental in building Yankees dynasty
By Mark Feinsand
For everything Gene Michael accomplished during his lengthy career on and off the field, the longtime Yankees executive was being remembered most on Thursday for his heart, warmth and ever-present smile.
Michael, known throughout his career as "Stick" due to his slight build, died Thursday morning at his home in Oldsmar, Fla. He was 79.
"Stick was a pillar of this organization for decades," Yankees 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. I extend my deepest sympathies to his wife, Joette, and his entire family."
That sentiment and sorrow over Michael's passing was prevalent throughout baseball.
"I was saddened to learn of the passing of Gene Michael, a baseball man to his core and an important part of the New York Yankees for decades," Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. "'Stick' was vital to the franchise's renaissance in the '90s, balancing his incredible scouting intuition with analytical thinking that is prevalent throughout the game today. In many different capacities, Gene played a pivotal role in shaping great baseball careers on and off the field. We appreciate his many contributions to the National Pastime.
"On behalf of all of Major League Baseball, I extend my deepest condolences to Gene's wife Joette, their family and the entire Yankee organization."
Michael was listed as the Yanks' senior vice president and senior advisor, though he meant much more to the organization for which he played, coached, managed and worked during the bulk of his six decades in the game.
"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."
"The organization will never be quite the same," said Mike Mussina, who pitched for the Yanks from 2001-08.
Michael hit only .229 over 10 seasons with the Pirates, Dodgers, Yankees and Tigers, but teammates loved him and opponents respected him, something that would continue through his six decades in the game.
"We played against each other in the Northern League in 1960," Joe Torre said. "He would always kid, 'I was fighting you for that batting title that year. I think I lost out on it by about 140 points.' Stick was something. He was always a pleasure to be around."
Michael played shortstop for the Yanks from 1968-74, later rejoining the team after his retirement in '76 at the request of owner George Steinbrenner, starting as a member of manager Billy Martin's coaching staff.
Michael held the posts of general manager and manager during parts of the early-1980s, then after a two-year stint managing the Cubs in 1986-87, he returned to the Yankees, holding various coaching and scouting roles. He was named GM for a second time in 1990 -- right before Steinbrenner began serving a suspension that would last three years.
"Mr. Steinbrenner valued him so much," legendary Yankees athletic trainer Gene Monahan told MLB.com. "He started out as his shortstop in his first year as owner. He loved and respected him as a player, coach, manager and general manager. He did it all. The Boss knew he had a gem in this guy."
Under Michael's watch, the Yanks drafted or signed each of the members of the "Core Four" -- Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera -- while also trading for Paul O'Neill.
"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. He will be greatly missed. My thoughts and prayers go out to his entire family."
"The hallmark of his tenure was his ability to understand clubhouse culture in conjunction with having an incredibly good eye for scouting talent," said Baseball Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson, who served as the Yankees' media relations director during Michael's tenure as GM in the early '90s. "He had the unique perspective of having been a manager, coach and player in addition to being GM, so he understood the culture of a clubhouse. He worked to reshape that clubhouse."
Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who was hired by Michael to manage the Yanks in 1992, was devastated by the news of his friend's passing, calling him "the best baseball evaluator I ever saw."
"Never missed on an infielder," Showalter said. "He knew Jeter made 40-something errors [in the Minors] and he's telling me, 'This guy is going to be an All-Star shortstop.' I'm like, 'Really?' He said, 'Yeah, he's got a little footwork issue' ... How do you project those things and then stand by them? The right kind of stubborn."
"Stick had a great eye for players and mentality," Don Mattingly said. "I will always appreciate his sense of humor and the joy he brought to those around him."
Michael famously talked Steinbrenner out of trading Bernie Williams early in his career, telling the owner that he had called every team -- which he had not -- but nobody wanted him. Michael was the man most responsible for putting together the core of the late-'90s dynasty, and more important, keeping together the heart of a team that won four World Series titles from 1996-2000.
"I always had a great regard for his baseball knowledge, and secondly, how he handled the stress working for George that many years," Torre said. "He kept the thing afloat when George was away; he did more than that because he built a heck of an organization.
"He never craved attention. Looking at it, you'd never realize what an integral part of the Yankees organization that he was."
Torre believes Michael "was very influential" in Steinbrenner's decision to hire him as manager before the 1996 season, and the two maintained a close relationship during Torre's 12 years at the helm.
"He was always a very positive guy; even when things were going bad, he would come in and talk to me, always try to cheer me up," Torre said. "He always had a smile on his face. He would minimize the problems and look for the bright side of what could be."
Michael spent most of his time during the past two decades scouting and serving as an advisor to 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. My condolences go out to his family, friends and all those he touched throughout his lifetime in the game. I will miss him."
"I talked with him as a player, a coach, a manager," manager Joe Girardi said. "Those guys don't come around every day where you can just sit and pick a baseball guy's brain, and to me, that's enjoyable."
Even as analytics invaded the game and reduced scouting to only part of the talent-evaluation process, the Yankees relied on Michael's experience and time-tested gut when it came to judging players.
"He used his eyes and his heart to judge a player, not just stats," said Yankees broadcaster Suzyn Waldman. "It's a baseball mind and heart that is unfortunately disappearing."
Michael's presence in the Yanks' clubhouse, whether it was during Spring Training or the regular season, rarely went unnoticed. Whether he was offering a word of encouragement to a struggling veteran or patting a rookie on the back for a good game, Michael would leave the room a little brighter than he found it.
"Everybody there -- the clubhouse guys, the scouts, coaches, players -- would all ask him for advice," Monahan said. "He would always have good stuff to offer."
Torre wasn't the only one to recall Michael's terrific sense of humor.
"Every time we'd be in the clubhouse after a game, if someone did well and got two or three hits, he'd say, 'I worked with that guy before the game,'" said Lee Mazzilli, a former Yankees coach and annual spring instructor. "We would always get a chuckle out of that because of Stick's hitting prowess. He'd say it 10 times and we'd get a good laugh every time. We would have breakfast every morning during Spring Training. We would just sit around and talk baseball. I'm going to miss that."
In memory of Michael, the Yankees will wear black armbands on the left sleeves of their jerseys for the remainder of the season.
"The game was everything to him," Monahan said. "He knew what everybody's job was and he knew how they did it. He was remarkable. Just a fabulous guy."
Mark Feinsand, executive reporter for MLB.com, has covered the Yankees and MLB since 2001 for the New York Daily News and MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.