In New York, the 1996-2001 Yankees are considered a connisseur’s team much in the same way that the New York Knicks of the late 60s and early 70s were. Curiously, there has been relatively little written about them, especially when compared with the Bronx Zoo Yankees of the late 70s. (Has there been any team in the last fifty years that has inspired more literature–if you want to call it that–than the Bronx Zoo Bombers?) The recent Yankee teams have not been as controversially juicy as their shaggy predecessors; in comparison, they are a tame bunch. But there have been plenty of interesting characters–flakes, stand-up guys, and red asses–that have passed through the Bronx over the past ten years. Buster Olney, who covered Joe Torre’s Yankees for the New York Times from 1997 through 2001, has written the first detailed look at that team. “The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty” (Harper Collins) is an insider’s look at the one of the great teams of the modern era.
The following is a chapter Olney devotes to Stick Michael and Buck Showalter, two men who were largely responsible for the Yankees’ return to glory. Enjoy!
by Buster Olney
Gene Michael had tickets, and he would watch the first innings of Game 7 [of the 2001 World Series] from the stands, but it was understood that eventually he should make his way to the visitors’ clubhouse, where his presence was required. Steinbrenner’s superstition was powerful and he needed his trusted amulets to ward off defeat. Michael, the director of major league scouting for the Yankees, would be seated alongside Steinbrenner and Dwight Gooden, a special assistant, in the visiting manager’s office through the game.
Michael’s relationship with Steinbrenner had roots 30 years deep. He had worked for him as a player, coach, manager, general manager and scout, and like many of Steinbrenner’s baseball lieutenants, he had fled the Yankees and then returned, in his case after spending much of the 1980s with the Cubs. When Michael came back, he, like all Yankees executives, was intermittently shoved out of the loop. But Steinbrenner seemed to trust Michael’s judgment on players above that of all other advisors.
Steinbrenner had turned to Michael in the summer of 1990 as he faced a suspension from baseball. He had been caught paying a known gambler for damaging information on one of his own players, Dave Winfield, and his lawyers began negotiating a sentence with Commissioner Fay Vincent. It was a good time for Steinbrenner to leave, anyway; he had run the team into the ground with rash decisions, and the Yankees were a laughingstock. “I want out of baseball,” Steinbrenner told Vincent during deliberations over the penalty to be levied. “I’m sick and tired of it.” He agreed to a suspension of indefinite length, knowing he could subsequently apply for reinstatement, but before he left the Yankees Steinbrenner decided to replace his general manager, Pete Peterson.
At the time, Michael was working as a scout for the Yankees, and he phoned Steinbrenner to suggest former Dodgers pitcher Don Sutton as a candidate for general manager. Michael had been impressed by Sutton’s intelligence, and he thought Sutton would satisfy Steinbrenner’s standing desire for marquee names; Don Drysdale was another possibility, Michael thought. But Steinbrenner sounded completely disinterested. A couple of weeks later, Steinbrenner called back. “We’ve been thinking about your choice,” Steinbrenner said. “But we keep coming back to one name.”
Michael waited, silently. “Aren’t you going to ask me who it is?” Steinbrenner asked.
“OK,” said Michael. “Who is it?”
“You,” Steinbrenner replied, and Michael was stunned.
“I have great confidence in him,” Steinbrenner told reporters when Michael was introduced at a press conference, as he had about other general managers and managers he had fired in the past. “No one is more knowledgeable in the organization.” But a club official close to Steinbrenner thought the real reason the owner chose Michael was because he trusted Michael’s motives. Michael might make decisions Steinbrenner didn’t like, but Steinbrenner believed he would never make any decision without the best interests of the Yankees at heart.
He had been the team’s general manager before, during 1979 and 1980, after Steinbrenner had pried him off the field. “Forget about managing,” Steinbrenner had said, “and come up here with the other second-guessers.” Now, in 1990, Michael was attracted to the challenge of rebuilding the Yankees, and he had some ideas of how the team could be improved. And with Steinbrenner out of the day-to-day operations, Michael would have the element most essential to restructuring the team: time.
There would be time for the prospects to develop in the minors. Time for the youngest Yankees, like 21-year-old Bernie Williams, to evolve into productive major leaguers. Time for the organization to restock its pool of pitching. Steinbrenner would not be around to impetuously override the judgment of his baseball executives. He had changed general managers 14 times in his 17 years as owner of the Yankees, but now it appeared Michael would have carte blanche for at least a couple of years, maybe longer.
Michael was introduced at a press conference on Aug. 20, 1990, and a reporter asked whether Michael would have taken the job if Steinbrenner had not been forced out of the game. Michael smiled. “That’s not a fair question,” he said. “I wasn’t offered that.” Twelve years later, Michael again declined to answer the same question. But friends inside and outside the organization thought the answer in both instances would have been no.
For many years, it seemed Michael made a mistake to make a career in baseball, because anyone who had seen Gene Michael play basketball and baseball knew that he was better at basketball. Michael himself preferred basketball. Almost 6-foot-3 and stronger than his slender build might suggest, Michael could shoot and play defense, and he liked basketball better because you could practice by yourself; a ball and a basket and you were in business. Baseball required too many players. But he wanted to play professional sports and baseball seemed like a more stable employment option; the major and minor leagues were better established. He signed with the Pirates for $25,000, but never felt fully confident, the way he did in basketball. Playing in the Class B Carolina League in 1962, Michael faced a Durham Bulls pitcher named Wally Wolf and was completely overwhelmed by Wolf’s fastball; nobody could hit that stuff, he thought. Wolf was subsequently promoted to Class AAA, where hitters pounded him, and Michael was appalled. If Wally Wolf can’t get to the majors with that fastball, Michael thought, how am I going to hit major league pitchers?
Michael had a strong second season in the minors, though, batting .324 and stealing 36 bases, and in that winter, as 1961 became 1962, he played basketball in Akron – and was recommended to the Detroit Pistons, who had lost a couple of guards to injuries. Michael was offered a two-year contract that would have offset his baseball signing bonus. But this was before players had agents and lawyers to represent them in negotiations, and Michael knew that his baseball contract specifically forbade him from pursuing a basketball career. “Nowadays, you see players get out of that kind of contract all the time,” Michael said years later. “But I was scared.”