Baseball enjoys an intimacy with the real world that’s shared by few other sports. It’s an intimacy based on the accessibility of the players and management which developed at the foundation of the Major Leagues and been nourished ever since on a seasonal cadence of six-month sweltering summers and long days at the ballpark.
That allows plenty of time to get to know the protagonists, plenty of time for real and interesting people to emerge from behind the standard remoteness of the sports star.
Gene Michael, who died earlier this month, was one of those quintessentially interesting baseball people.
He spent six of his eight decades on earth deep in the trenches of ‘America’s Pastime,’ first as a player and then as coach, manager, scout, commentator, and counsellor.
The footprint he left on his beloved sport is both wide and deep but he will be remembered mostly as the man who dragged the New York Yankees out from years of chaotic underachievement and back to regular glory.
He will also be remembered as one of the few brave souls with the guts, gumption, and moral courage to face up to the club’s authoritarian owner, George Steinbrenner, and survive.
Eugene ‘Gene’ Michael was born in Ohio in 1938 and was a promising high school athlete before going on to star both at basketball and baseball for Kent State University.
He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates as a shortstop in 1959 and somewhat surprisingly agreed to join them, given that he was deemed a far better basketball prospect and had drawn the interest of several professional NBA franchises.
Shortstop is one of the games more cerebral positions, a flexible fielding beat that fills the dangerous gap between second and third base and is populated by defensive specialists who prowl the infield, knowing what the pitcher will throw next and guessing where the ball will end up.
Solid judgment, spilt second decision making and easy athleticism are the key elements of short stop greatness. While he had all these talents, Michael in truth could never be described as a great player.
His value lay in his ability to stop the opposition scoring, killing danger before it emerged — more Glenn Whelan than Wes Houlihan. Tall and thin to the day he died, he was always a weak hitter and his lack of upper body strength had earned him the nickname ‘Stick’ at college, and he took it to his grave.
But what he lacked in muscle he compensated with grey matter. For instance, ‘Stick’ remains one of Baseball’s greatest ever practitioners of the ‘hidden ball’ trick, a technique as devious as it is hilarious, an underhand but legal method of retiring an ‘on base’ batter by faking a return throw to the pitcher while secreting the ball in your glove and tagging the bewildered runner when he carelessly drifts off the bag.
He started in only one of his seven seasons with the Pirates, was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers before moving on to the New York Yankees for a fee of thirty grand in 1967. He was a starter there for the next five years before his distinguished but unremarkable playing career fizzled out a with a couple of minor trades. But it was that spell playing for New York which would prove instrumental in defining the legacy of Gene Michael. This is where he first met George Steinbrenner, owner of the Yankees and still renowned as one of the greatest cultural thugs that sport has ever known.
No story is ever lessened by the presence of an evil stepmother and in ‘Stick’ Michael’s Yankee fairytale Steinbrenner added the roles of ugly sister, poisoned apple, and big bad wolf. One of the world’s most storied and wealthiest franchises, this was the spiritual home of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, and Mickey Mantle among many other legendary players. It had fallen on fallow times and when Steinbrenner bought the club from CBS in 1973, he promised immediate investment and positive change.
Change there certainly was. By 1990 he had already fired a total of 19 managers, 12 general managers, five team presidents and 15 pitching coaches as well as emerging as a trusted mentor to one of New York’s then up and coming property developers, Donald Trump Jr.
On his death in 2010, Steinbrenner was described by one obituarist as “a bully and a brat, devoid of humility, class, and civility, famed for his bombast and for making himself bigger than his players and team, tolerated only because he had money and power… and as anyone who follows baseball has heard about constantly was breathtakingly cruel and petty.”
ene Michael had impressed Steinbrenner when playing for the Yankees and he turned to him to manage the club for the first time in the early 80s. The owners’ instinct was correct. Beneath Stick’s easy charm, slightly dishevelled appearance and slow mid-west tones a razor-sharp baseball mind and a strong steeliness of character had emerged. Predictably they fell out after a couple of years but it was Michael the owner turned to again in the depths of crisis in 1990 when he was suspended from the game for hiring a sleazy gambler called Howard Spira to try dig some dirt on one of the Yankees classiest players, Dave Winfield, who Steinbrenner felt had slighted him.
The lasting upshot of the suspension was that Michael was now in an unencumbered position to manage the club by his own rules and implement his own tactics. His first and most critical decision was to abandon the Yankee’s long held ‘galactico’ policy and to build rather than buy a team. Steinbrenner’s immediate gratification was replaced by a long term, sustainable strategy.
A decade before the concept of ‘money ball’ had been discovered amid baseball’s big data, Gene Michael had intuitively worked out that the twin determinants of success were patience at the plate and ‘on-base’ percentage.
Out went the expensive big-ticket sluggers; in came lesser lights that could hang around at the plate long enough to get on base more often. The most apt comparison locally to Michael’s regime is how Alex Ferguson nurtured the ‘class of 92’ but instead of Giggs, Beckham, Scholes, and Neville, Michael’s ‘core four’ were the then undiscovered legends Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera.
Michael’s strategy worked better than he ever could have hoped. The Yankees won the World Series four times between 1996 and 2000 with the team he’d meticulously constructed, a remarkable level of dominance in one of world sports most difficult challenges. By then Steinbrenner was back at the helm, and had kicked Stick upstairs to a scouting role. But those intimate with baseball knew the truth. The Yankees were reborn and it was in the image of Gene Stick Michael, one of those old fashioned interesting baseball men.