I’m taking a break from my preaching on spiritual matters and politics today to tell you about a friend I lost last week.
“Friend” might be a little strong. I know he wouldn’t have recognized me had I actually seen him in the last 30 years. But he was a celebrity I got to know, first from afar and then up close as a regular patron of my family’s restaurant business as a 20-something.
For New York Yankees fans, he was known simply as “Stick,” because he was tall and lean. Gene Michael came to play shortstop for the Yankees in 1968 and stayed until 1974. He couldn’t hit a lick, but he was smooth at short – and best-known for repeatedly pulling what is known as “the hidden ball trick,” a play on which he would tag out a runner at second base who didn’t realize he never returned the ball to the pitcher.
Those were mostly lean years for the New York Yankees – building years after the Mantle-Maris-Whitey Ford era – and devoid of championships.
After his playing days were over, Michael, a solid baseball man, moved to the Yankees front office, where he became one of the architects of the Yankees late-1970s championship runs and the later, even more extraordinary 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s dynasties. In fact, he played a critical role in grooming and retaining the “Core 5” of that latter run – Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte.
He became the Yankees senior vice president and general manager and George Steinbrenner’s top baseball man.
George Steinbrenner wanted to trade Bernie Williams while he was still developing as a young player. The “Stick” had to lie to the “Boss” to keep him – telling George he had called every team and nobody wanted Bernie.
So, what was my personal connection to Michael?
My Mom owned and managed restaurants in the New York-New Jersey area. All of them had very nice, big bars. Michael, along with other Yankees, discovered ours. And Michael, in particular, was a regular.
As a devoted Yankee fan, I would look for opportunities to cozy up next to him when he was alone at the bar and talk baseball. Since I had seen virtually every game he played for the Yankees, there was plenty to talk about.
And the “Stick” loved to talk baseball.
I’ll never forget those occasions and the warmth he exuded. He was fun, entertaining and very sweet and genuine. He had a self-deprecating sense of humor that was unsurpassed.
He knew he wasn’t much of a hitter – and he reminded people of it in every story.
I was sad to see he died Sept. 7 at age 79, but he lived a wonderful life.
I wasn’t his only big fan.
“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.”
Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who was hired by Michael to manage the Yankees 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,” said Don Mattingly. “I will always appreciate his sense of humor and the joy he brought to those around him.”
“I always had a great regard for his baseball knowledge, and secondly, how he handled the stress working for George that many years,” Joe Torre said. “He kept the thing afloat when George was away; he did more than that because he built a heck of an organization.
You may have never heard of Gene Michael.
He was low key.
He didn’t crave attention. It’s part of what made him so successful – humility.
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