A baseball genius with a heart of gold, the Stick's imprint on the Yankees and on all who knew him will last forever
By Nathan Maciborski
Yankees Magazine |
Looking out at the congregation of teary-eyed friends and family gathered at Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater, Fla., Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman couldn't help but think of George Bailey from It's a Wonderful Life. In the final scene, Bailey opens a book and sees an inscription. "Dear George: Remember no man is a failure who has friends."
By that measure, the man Cashman was eulogizing was the epitome of success.
When Cashman's mentor, Gene "Stick" Michael, died suddenly of a heart attack at age 79 on Sept. 7, the newspapers remembered Michael as the architect of the Yankees' most recent dynasty -- and rightly so. As general manager of the Yankees in the early 1990s, Michael orchestrated a complete rebuild of the team, a project that resulted in four world championships in five years.
But while that success will remain the most acclaimed aspect of Michael's legacy, his contributions to the organization extend much, much deeper. In the Yankees family tree, Stick was embedded in the trunk, touching every limb and connecting in some way to every last leaf. Members of the Yankees clan, young and old, loved Gene Michael -- and that love often had more to do with who he was than what he did.
"He saw the good in everybody," Cashman said upon returning from Michael's funeral. "For a guy who accomplished so much, he was very humble, very approachable. Some people don't have time in the day, or might be a little ornery to deal with especially as they get older in life, but Gene Michael was never that. He was a man of the people. It didn't matter if you were an 18-year-old intern or some famous baseball player, he would treat you the same -- with respect and kindness -- which should always be the case, but that's not the way the world seems to work."
It was 1968, and a brash young hotshot who thought he was the Yankees' next big thing rolled up to the minor league stadium in Binghamton, N.Y., and parked his orange Corvette right outside the ramshackle clubhouse. When he strutted inside, the hard-working 23-year-old head trainer of the Binghamton Triplets, Gene Monahan, introduced himself and said, "I heard you'd be joining us. I've heard wonderful things about you."
"Yeah, I'm Thurman Munson," the cocky 21-year-old said. "And I'm not going to be here very long."
Munson was right; he was in the big leagues just a year later. But he might never have become a humble, beloved Yankees legend if it weren't for Gene Michael.
Born in Kent, Ohio, in 1938, Michael graduated from Akron East High School in Akron, Ohio, in 1957 and then played one season at Kent State University. Nicknamed "Stick" for his slender build, Michael signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1958 and began his professional playing career the following year in North Dakota with the Class C Grand Forks Chiefs. He committed 56 errors at shortstop that first season, but Michael worked hard to improve, and after seven years in the minors, he came up to the bigs for 30 games with the Pirates in 1966 at age 28. He was traded to the Dodgers after that season for Maury Wills, and after batting .202 in 98 games for Los Angeles, Michael was dealt again. In exchange for $30,000, the Yankees, in desperate need of a shortstop, acquired the switch-hitter -- and "promptly heard jibes about having acquired a switch-no-hitter," The New York Times reported.
The 30-year-old Michael hit just .198 in 61 games for the 1968 Yankees, but bounced back with a career-best .272 mark in 1969. On Aug. 10 of that season, in Munson's second career game, the three M's -- Bobby Murcer, Munson and Michael -- began the sixth inning with consecutive home runs off A's pitcher Lew Krausse. The light-hitting Michael, who would knock just 15 home runs in his 10-year career, always loved that. "I made the papers that day," he'd say.
Ballplayers had roommates back then, and Michael was paired up with Munson, another Kent State product. It was the beginning of a very special friendship.
"Gene was Thurman's first and only roommate," Diana Munson recalled in a recent phone conversation. "Lots of the guys would go to bars at night, but they were big card players, so instead of going out, they would play cards in their room."
Michael, nine years older than his fellow Ohioan, put a figurative arm around Munson's shoulder and guided him toward a path that would lead eventually to Yankees immortality.
"Stick slowed him down," said Monahan, whose first "patient" after becoming the Yankees' trainer in 1973 was Michael after the shortstop fouled a ball off his leg. "Thurman became the Oreo cookies and glass of milk guy who would be in the trainer's room early with me on Sunday mornings for a day game because of Stick."
While he would end up batting just .229 for his career, Michael didn't last seven seasons with the Yankees only because of his mentoring abilities. He was "a vacuum cleaner" at short with a knack for coming up with clutch hits, such as his 13th-inning walk-off homer against Detroit in 1971.
Like all of Michael's former teammates, Roy White was saddened to his core to hear of Stick's passing. But he has vivid memories of the type of player Michael was. "Stick was a great athlete, really," said White, who patrolled the outfield for the Yankees from 1965 to 1979. "He was a great basketball player at Kent State, and we used to have our offseason basketball team back in the late '60s and '70s where a number of us would play at fundraisers and stuff. Stick could throw in 30 points like nothing, dribble behind his back, through the legs, shoot long jumpers -- he could do it all out there. On the baseball field, the only thing that he wasn't adept at was hitting. He probably wasn't the fastest guy, but all of his other skills -- his hands, his quickness, his reflexes -- were great."
White credits Michael as having been his "personal hitting coach," able to analyze White's swing and figure out what opposing pitchers were trying to do to him. That watchful eye would come in handy down the road, as would Michael's effervescent personality. Whether it was pulling off the hidden-ball trick so proficiently or ribbing guys in the clubhouse, Michael brightened his teammates' days constantly.
"What a real genuine good guy," said Goose Gossage, who signed with the Yankees in 1977 and had Michael as his manager in 1981 and '82. "He was a great guy, a great baseball man, always a pleasure to be around. I'll miss his joking around and his smile.
"And no one had greater loyalty to the Yankees organization than Stick."
From the time George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees in 1973 and told the press that he was going to stick to shipbuilding, The Boss always sought to surround himself with smart baseball men. Stick Michael was one of his guys.
Michael wasn't impervious to Steinbrenner's penchant for making changes, filling more roles than Robert Mitchum (Stick's favorite actor). But Michael earned Steinbrenner's trust, and when The Boss was forced to step aside in 1990, he tabbed Michael to run the team.
By his second stint as Yankees general manager -- Steinbrenner handed him the reins prior to the 1980 season, before naming him manager in 1981 -- Michael had learned to trust his gut. And with the autonomy to mold the Yankees as he saw fit, he did a 180 from the way things had been done, which had often meant spending big bucks on free agents and trading prospects for big-name players.
Perhaps Michael's greatest attribute from a baseball standpoint was his ability to see a player not for what he was, but for what he would become. "Gene had an inherent way of understanding the athletes in our game," Monahan said. "He had this intangible, deep-rooted feeling about players." Fans thought Michael was nuts for trading away Roberto Kelly for Paul O'Neill, but the Reds outfielder had the type of makeup -- and high on-base percentage -- that Michael coveted. He also saw massive potential in a young center fielder the Yankees already had; he felt the player just needed the room to grow without being disturbed by some of the negative influences in the clubhouse that Michael was working to remove.
"He literally cleaned house and gave the young players an opportunity to show what they could do," said Bernie Williams. "He knew his reputation and his future as a baseball person in the Yankees organization were in jeopardy if these moves didn't pan out. But he had enough confidence in his ability and in us that he just went ahead and did it. He probably saw in us things that we weren't able to see at that point in our careers. He gave us the confidence to perform and be part of the team and become the players we became. To have that opportunity is priceless."
Reflecting further on Michael's impact on him personally, Williams said that if it weren't for Michael's kindness and generosity with his time, he might never have reached the heights he did with the Yankees.
"He always had an encouraging word to say, even when I was struggling. He never really let me know what was happening behind the scenes. He didn't make me pressure myself into thinking that maybe other people didn't want me on the team, or that maybe I was going to be traded or whatever. He just kept saying, 'Keep doing what you're doing. Keep taking care of business on the field, and all of this peripheral stuff is going to dissipate.' To have that sort of guardian angel on my side, there's no other way that I could have been successful with the Yankees, to be honest."
Michael drafted a high school shortstop with the sixth overall pick in 1992. And when that 19-year-old kid made 56 errors at Single-A Greensboro, Michael said, "Leave him be. He'll be fine." Today, you can find Derek Jeter's No. 2 out in Monument Park not far from Williams' No. 51.
In August 1992, a 22-year-old right-hander who hadn't pitched above A-ball had an elbow problem that would require surgery. The young man didn't drive and barely spoke a word of English, but as he was chauffeured from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Vero Beach to see Dr. Frank Jobe, he could sense that the man behind the wheel was somebody he could trust.
"Forget about baseball -- baseball, he was amazing -- but as a person, Gene was someone special," said Mariano Rivera. "Gene meant a lot to me. He was a person that, if you asked him for any kind of help, he was there for you. He was always aware of what was going on with the players; that's what you appreciate about a person like that. He not only cares about you in baseball, but outside baseball, about you and your family, and that's great.
"We lost a big one."
Steinbrenner returned in 1993 and vowed not to interfere with Michael's master plan. But when other teams started dangling their stars in an effort to entice a trade for a Jeter or a Rivera, those urges to make a splash came rushing back. Stick would have none of it.
"George didn't have the patience when he first came in to baseball," Michael told Yankees Magazine in 2011. "I think we helped teach him that. He taught me business, and I helped him with patience. … With people that you have confidence in, you've got to have patience. Otherwise you're not going to find out if they can reach their max."
Michael held on to Jeter and Rivera and a 24th-round pick named Jorge Posada and a 22nd-round pick named Andy Pettitte, and he built the Yankees into a dynasty.
"There's a lot of people that can talk the lingo and can fake their way through a lot of stuff," Cashman said. "But Gene Michael, he was mostly right about everything he saw.
"Everything I am in terms of the baseball knowledge that I've attained, he was a big part of that because he took the time to share. That was the special gift that he had for everybody; it was open for all."
It's still hard for everyone to believe Stick is no longer here. When Monahan turns on his computer and sees the background image he put up this summer -- a photo of him and Michael from behind, standing side-by-side at Old-Timers' Day -- he thinks of his friend, and his eyes well up. It'll be strange not seeing a smiling Stick at George M. Steinbrenner Field during spring training, striding purposefully toward the Yankees clubhouse in his baseball cap and khakis, coffee in hand. Or not seeing the Lincoln Navigator that he so proudly pushed beyond 200,000 miles -- license plate "NYY STICK" -- in the Yankee Stadium parking deck anymore. But that doesn't mean his presence won't be felt in the Bronx.
Several people have already voiced support for Michael's inclusion among the team's pantheon of legends. "It would be great if he were immortalized in Monument Park because he was just as much a part of the success of the franchise during those years as we were," Williams said. "It will be a great tribute for him."
Even just looking at the roster and the product on the field, Stick's imprint remains. Every organization in baseball has its own ideology, and Gene Michael's beliefs will stay embedded in the Yankees' DNA.
"The one thing that I really learned about the game from him was, offensively, how to put a club together and what you're looking for in your offense, and that's really being able to use the entire field to hit and own the strike zone and working counts and working pitchers and getting a good pitch to hit," said bench coach Rob Thomson, who has been with the organization since 1990. "We kind of formed our hitting philosophy around that, and it's worked very well for a long time."
On the pitching side, Cashman points to Michael's emphasis on hurlers who get ground-ball outs and rack up strikeouts as being part of the organizational philosophy. But more important to the future of the franchise was Michael's unending enthusiasm for sharing his knowledge and grooming the next generation of front-office superstars -- guys such as Angels GM Billy Eppler, who came up through the Yankees organization and, upon hearing of Michael's death, not only held a moment of silence at Angel Stadium but later took a red-eye flight to Florida to attend Stick's funeral.
Matt Ferry is another one of those rising stars. Ferry, 28, joined the Yankees in 2012 and has already taken over as manager of baseball operations. For Ferry, talking baseball with Michael and seeing him demonstrate the things he was describing was like being a young ballplayer and having Joe DiMaggio pop by to offer hitting tips.
"His opinion in this organization and this department was huge to his last days," Ferry said. "He was very valued, and that really shaped me because I saw that [age] didn't matter. He was still out there grinding, loving life, learning more about the game and sharing that with the younger generation.
"I wish he was still here because he still had so much to take care of, and we had so much to learn."
It was June 25, 2017, Old-Timers' Day, and Diana Munson was sitting in the Yankees Steakhouse having lunch with her oldest daughter, Tracy, and her granddaughter, Madison. It had been nearly 38 years since her husband died, and Diana, as always, received a warm and sincere applause from Yankees fans when she was introduced during the festivities earlier in the day.
Michael was having lunch at another table, but when he noticed the Munson women across the room, he made his way over and sat down to join them. Having never met Madison, he introduced himself, then proceeded to regale the young girl with stories about her grandfather. They weren't tales about Thurman Munson the All-Star catcher or Thurman Munson the world champion. Michael told stories about Thurman Munson the human being: his quirkiness, the card games, the funny man who guys got on about eating burgers. "Yeah, I kept him out of the bars for your Gram here," Michael joked about his old roommate.
"It meant so much to me," Diana said, her voice cracking with emotion. "He related stories that I didn't even know that were just so heartfelt, that made Thurman less of a monument and more of a grandpa. And after Gene's passing I thought, 'Thank God that he took that special time and shared that with us.' Because it's something that I will have forever, and so will they."
Perhaps Stick is now looking down from heaven, and like George Bailey, he is being given a chance to see what the world is like without him. With so many friends and family paying tribute and keeping his memory alive, Michael can rest in peace knowing it was a wonderful life.
Nathan Maciborski is the executive editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.