#How Gene Michael saved a desperate Yankees franchise

How Gene Michael saved a desperate Yankees franchise

A series by Joel Sherman chronicles how the Yankees’ fiasco of 1990 laid the groundwork for a dynasty.

George Steinbrenner was Jerry Jones and Mark Cuban — if they were one person. He was a force of nature. People who worked for Steinbrenner will tell you they could sense his presence even before he came into view. And the room changed with his entrance. He was all that mattered.

George or Steinbrenner or The Boss. Everyone knew who you meant. What he meant. In employees, he created fear, loathing, respect — perhaps all at the same time from the same person.

In 1990, George Steinbrenner was the Yankees and the Yankees were George Steinbrenner. Not the players or ever-revolving managers or coaches or scouts.

“Everyone was there because of George Steinbrenner,” said Brian Cashman, who in 1990 was 23 and the Yankees’ assistant farm director. “He ran every department. He hired every person. Everyone there was working at his discretion. So when he was [banished], now everyone is fearful of what the future would be and trying to process it.”

In the period between then commissioner Fay Vincent placing Steinbrenner on the permanently ineligible list on July 30, 1990 and when that ban went into effect on Aug. 20, there were myriad reports and gossip and guesses on who would become managing general partner and who would be general manager.

No one saw the combination of Robert Nederlander and Gene Michael coming. The naming of each was met with shock, but not an initial belief that a good choice had been made.

Gene Michael
Gene MichaelAP

Steinbrenner actually met with Tom Seaver, then a Yankees broadcaster on WPIX, to discuss running the major league team while demoting the GM at the time, Harding Peterson, to run just the minors. Seaver demanded complete control and in the end would be disappointed that Steinbrenner did not take his candidacy more seriously.

As for ownership, Steinbrenner wanted his eldest son, Hank, or a loyalist such as team executive Leonard Kleinman. But when it was clear Vincent would approve neither, Steinbrenner surprised even Nederlander, a limited partner, by telling him he was the choice just 48 hours before what would be a unanimous vote of approval by the other partners on Aug. 15, the day actress Jennifer Lawerence was born.

Nederlander was the un-George — professorial, quiet, not attracted to the limelight. He came from one of the first families of theater, the Nederlanders owning more than two dozen in the United States and Great Britain. He was viewed as the accidental owner, an unobtrusive placeholder until perhaps Steinbrenner’s youngest son, 21-year-old Hal — about to begin his senior year at Williams College — might rise to the position or one of his sons-in-law filled the void. One, Joe Molloy, already was overseeing the minor league facilities in Tampa and gaining a voice inside the organization.

For now, though, Nederlander was going to be the boss (lower case), and everyone agreed that unlike Steinbrenner he was a good listener, someone who would heed advice from a trusted executive. All the worst Yankee team since 1913 had to do now was put someone in place to run baseball operations whom Nederlander could trust.

It is not easy to give a count as to how many general managers Steinbrenner had from 1973-90. You could produce a number who had that title. But who actually was giving Steinbrenner baseball advice that he would heed shifted from one impetuous moment to another. He was as likely to listen to an agent he favored, such as Tom Reich, or another owner, such as the White Sox’s Jerry Reinsdorf, or, hell, his barber if he liked what the barber had said that day, as he was his general manager.

And, of course, Steinbrenner was the general manager.

Peterson had gained the title after writing a series of letters to Steinbrenner about how he could bring needed front-office stability. He had been the GM of the 1979 world champion Pirates, but he had not worked in baseball since his 1985 firing in Pittsburgh. Like everyone who took these jobs, Peterson thought he could handle George, which was like believing you could handle a live wire in one hand and a king cobra in the other.

“Gene Michael was a member of the family. He chose Stick because of trust. Yes, Stick was a respected baseball man. But this was about trust.” — Brian Cashman

And Peterson’s problems — besides being out of touch with the game — were not one, but two Georges. George Bradley, who ran the minor league operations in Tampa, was given half the power. The two had neither proximity to nor affinity for each other. They often worked at cross-purposes; both consistently having to please an unpleasable overlord and escape the wrath of an owner who loved nothing more than to viciously play the blame game.

Peterson was marginalized and maligned, and as Cashman remembers, “Peterson would throw furniture. Of all the people we have ever had, he was the loudest. You’d hear the throwing of the furniture from behind closed doors.”

Agents and competing executives would complain that they did not know who to contact to enact business with the Yankees. Who favored what move and when would necessitate a baseball CSI team, which would ultimately find Steinbrenner’s fingerprints, at minimum.

When no quality free agents were willing to come to the comedy/calamity that was the Yankees, Reich again found the right partner for one of his broken toys in Pascual Perez. Mel Hall, insubordinate more than productive, was re-signed to a three-year contract. Hal Morris was traded for Tim Leary, Dave Winfield for Mike Witt, Don Slaught for a reliever named Willie Smith, whom the Yanks thought looked and would pitch like Lee Smith. Nothing done for the major league roster under the titular leadership of Bradley/Peterson ended up working, and most of it was brutal. They were both underqualified and trying to save their respective jobs, which was a daily pursuit.

In June, perhaps to distract from the investigation into Steinbrenner, one of the two-headed GMs leaked that the Yankees were working on a deal with the Mets in which they would receive Darryl Strawberry in his walk year, a disgruntled Ron Darling and Dave Magadan for a return that included three outfielders — Jesse Barfield, Roberto Kelly and top prospect Bernie Williams.

But no matter what either man tried to do for real or to cover for The Boss, Steinbrenner knew neither should lead baseball operations in his absence. So when Steinbrenner announced on Aug. 20 at Yankee Stadium that Peterson was being replaced — his literal final act before retreating to supposed lifetime exile — his choice walked in and there was both surprise and a sense of “of course.”

‘’I went through all the names I could,’’ Steinbrenner said that afternoon. “And this is the guy.’’

Gene Michael had become the first and last man to be named twice as manager and now twice as GM by Steinbrenner.

“Gene Michael had for George been a player, a coach, a manager, a GM, a scout and an adviser,” Cashman remembers, leaving out minor league manager too. “Gene Michael was a member of the family. He chose Stick because of trust. Yes, Stick was a respected baseball man. But this was about trust.”

Michael could mangle a sentence. He could tell a story that he thought was hysterical, but wasn’t. He could betray a worldly lack of knowledge.

But Michael also had a backbone. He was the rare executive who would stand up to Steinbrenner, which in the moment would infuriate The Boss, yet move the owner to respect Michael more than the people he vocally and emotionally ran over.

“Gene Michael was a member of the family. He chose Stick because of trust. Yes, Stick was a respected baseball man. But this was about trust.” — Brian Cashman

 – “”

And Michael had a savantism for being able to look at baseball players and — even if he might struggle for the words to describe what he was seeing — know good from bad. And he knew just how bad the 1990 Yankees were. He was not lying to himself or others by throwing out a party line like co-GMs Bob Quinn and Syd Thrift in 1989 or Bradley and Peterson in 1990 that the Yanks were just a tweak away from re-establishing excellence.

Michael, with a three-year contract from Steinbrenner, demanded Bradley be brought from Tampa to New York to try to eliminate the two-locales/two-voices split. He made Steinbrenner codify that the day of the split decision was gone. Michael was the lone decision-maker about the major league roster. And he did not have anyone above him second-guessing every move.

“Bob Nederlander was a really nice man and he deferred all baseball to Gene Michael,” Cashman recalls. “He really trusted him.”

One day, Michael brought a young reporter into his office, pulled out a stat sheet and began to run his finger down a line of numbers in the .200s for Oscar Azocar, Steve Balboni, Bob Geren, Mel Hall and others. The reporter noted these were not batting averages. Remember, it was 1990 — batting averages, homers and RBIs were king. Stick was pointing to on-base percentages.

The Yankees as a team that year had a .300 on-base percentage, 11 points worse than any other club, 20 points worse than any other AL squad. “Moneyball” was 13 years away from being published and Bill James was still a mostly anonymous writer pushing new baseball concepts. Michael understood by observation what would become common wisdom soon.

“We have too many seven- or eight-pitch innings and we are back in the field,” Michael told the reporter. “We are making it too damn easy for them. We are the easiest at-bat in the majors. That has to change.”

Over the coming years, he would bring in more grinding at-bats with Mike Gallego and Mike Stanley. He would do two-birds-one-stone by trading free-swinging Roberto Kelly, which not only brought Paul O’Neill’s more tenacious approach, but allowed the deliberate Bernie Williams to play center with no questions asked.

His first major turn-the-page decision, though, was not about hitting. Dave Righetti was a homegrown, beloved Yankee; one of the few who could hold his head with dignity above the wasteland the organization had become. But he was a free agent after the 1990 season and took offense that Michael was saying he wanted to keep him, but not really coming through with the four- or five-year deals he and his agent sought. Plus, Michael undiplomatically mentioned Righetti was not what he used to be as a closer.

Michael was not interested in keeping Righetti because of what he had meant to the team. Maybe the closer would stay, maybe not. But Michael was more interested in changing the demeanor of the team and in Steve Farr he saw someone he not only thought could start or relieve, set up or close, but someone who was tough and alibi-free. Michael blew away the field and on Nov. 26, 1990 — the day after the Giants lost their first game of that season to the Eagles to fall to 10-1 — the Yankees paid a pitcher who was not a starter or closer the kind of money you did not pay to that kind of pitcher then: three years at $6.3 million. Farr, like Gallego and Stanley, would not be present for the dynasty, but all three would help create an environment that lasted beyond them.

Michael was determined to change how the Yankees prepared, presented themselves and played. The major league roster was his and he had an image of what he wanted the Yankees to be — and it wasn’t the 1990 version.

“Until Stick became the GM, there was no one I was answering to as far as baseball-related moves,” said Jeff Idelson, then the Yankees’ head of media relations. “You never knew who did what or where to get an answer from. Until Stick came along. Then it was clear. He was in charge. Stick put us on a path to greatness.”


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