By Sweeny Murti
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Gene Michael is being remembered Thursday as a great baseball man. And he very well should be, as the general manager and later special assistant to George Steinbrenner who helped build the Yankees dynasty of the late 1990s.
I’ll remember “Stick,” who died Thursday of a heart attack at age 79, as a man always willing to share his knowledge of the game. Also as a man I could make laugh just by walking into the room.
“Hey, fatso! What’s up, fatty?” is how he would greet me and my 160-pound frame every time he saw me, mostly in spring training and at random times during the year. Stick was amused at how I was built the way he used to be in his playing days.
Describing Stick as having a keen baseball mind probably doesn’t do him justice. Stick was hard of hearing these last several years, and maybe he didn’t recall a guy’s name off the top of his head. But, boy, did he know what he was looking at when a baseball game was in front of him. His eyes were as good as anybody’s in this game.
Those eyes saw seven decades of professional baseball at every level. And it’s probably not what anyone would foresee for a guy who began his professional baseball career 1-for-41 and believing all these years later that he made a mistake by choosing baseball over basketball, the sport at which he really believed he excelled.
Stick shared many great stories over the years. I was fortunate to sit down with him for a half-hour conversation during spring training in 2016, which you can listen to here.
We talked about his early days in baseball and how that 1-for-41 start to his career shaped how he viewed players for the rest of his life.
Stick shared with me stories about Roberto Clemente, Mickey Mantle and, of course, Steinbrenner.
After a career in baseball that began in 1959 and lasted until the day he died, Stick still told me, “I made a big mistake” choosing baseball over basketball. “There was no curveball in basketball,” he joked.
His post-playing career obviously eclipsed what he did on the field. But it still didn’t keep Stick from bragging to me about his basketball ability.
“I was the best basketball player to come out of Akron until you know who,” he said laughing, referring, of course, to LeBron James. And then he gave me a tutorial on how he would guard Stephen Curry. Always a scout at heart, he watched, studied and devised a plan for that, too.
Stick was a man who stuck to his guns, and when he was the Yankees’ GM under Steinbrenner, he fought for what he believed in when it came time to make moves on players.
“If I went back at (George) twice, he would listen,” Stick told me. “If I went back at him a third time, I’d get my way.”
There is the famous story of how, when ordered by The Boss to trade Bernie Williams, Stick called every GM just as he was ordered to, but never actually brought up Bernie’s name. He then, truthfully, reported back to Steinbrenner that he didn’t have any takers for the soon-to-be cornerstone outfielder.
There is also the story of how he noticed on the Yankees’ internal reports that a young right-hander’s radar gun numbers had suddenly jumped into the mid 90s without explanation. Stick called around to other scouts he knew and asked what they had on the kid.
“Oh yeah, that’s what we had, too,” he told them, knowing then that Mariano Rivera was about to reach a new level as a prospect.
In our conversation last year, Stick went on to say how Steinbrenner got jealous of all the accolades thrown Michael’s way when the Yankees began their rise back to prominence. And that’s when he was bounced out as GM.
But Stick still gets a lion’s share of credit when it comes to building the core that became the dynasty. And he maintained a respect for Steinbrenner (“George taught me a business sense, and I taught him patience”) while also acknowledging that there were other forces at play, too, in the 1990s.
“You gotta get lucky with some things,” Stick told me.
But that luck was also the residue of design. As the Yankees built their juggernaut, he looked for players who fit a certain offensive philosophy that sounds simple today, but wasn’t quite as mainstream then.
Stick sought out players with high on-base and slugging percentages before OPS was printed on the back of baseball cards.
“Very simple and rudimentary at the time,” Stick told me. “I think we were way ahead of everybody years ago.”
And as the tendency to build teams off analytics grew, Stick maintained, “There’s a blend between the numbers and the scouting.”
Getting little dribs and drabs of that knowledge was part of the fun of covering the New York Yankees for me the last two decades. As a frequent guest and listener to WFAN, Stick would give me an occasional “you’re on the right track” or “I’ve heard you, you know what you’re doing.” They were confidence boosts I needed early in my career, and every time I would go back to him, I’d get a little more knowledge.
The only thing I could do for him was make him laugh.
Thanks, Stick, for everything you gave the Yankees, their fans and all of us who just wanted to know a little more about baseball. Rest in peace.
Please follow Sweeny on Twitter at @YankeesWFAN