How Gene Michael saved a desperate Yankees franchise

How Gene Michael saved a desperate Yankees franchise

A Joel Sherman series tells how the 1990 Yankees fiasco laid the foundation for a dynasty.

George Steinbrenner was Jerry Jones and Mark Cuban, if they were one person. It was a force of nature. The people who worked for Steinbrenner will tell you that they can sense his presence even before he appears. And the room changed with his entry. He was all that mattered.

George or Steinbrenner or The Boss. They all knew who you were referring to. What he meant. In employees, it created fear, hatred, 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 managers or coaches or explorers who always spin.

“Everyone was there because of George Steinbrenner,” said Brian Cashman, who was 23 in 1990 and was the assistant manager of the Yankees’ farm. “He ran all the departments. He hired all the people. Everyone there was working at their discretion. So when I was [banished]Now everyone is afraid of what the future would be and trying to process it. “

In the period between then Commissioner Fay Vincent, who placed Steinbrenner on the permanently ineligible list on July 30, 1990, and when that ban went into effect on August 20, there were countless reports and gossip and conjecture about who would become general managing partner and who would. be general manager.

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

Gene Michael
Gene MichaelAP

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

As for the property, Steinbrenner wanted his oldest son, Hank, or a loyal as team executive Leonard Kleinman. But when it became clear that Vincent would not approve of either, Steinbrenner even surprised Nederlander, a limited partner, by telling him it was the option 48 hours earlier than it would be a unanimous approval vote from the other partners on August 15, the day actress Jennifer Lawerence was born.

Nederlander was the no George: teacher, calm, not drawn to the spotlight. It came from one of the earliest theater families, the Dutch with more than two dozen in the United States and Great Britain. He was seen as the accidental owner, a discreet placeholder until perhaps Steinbrenner’s youngest son, Hal, 21, about to start his senior year at Williams College, could make the job or one of his sons-in-law filled the post. empty. One, Joe Molloy, was already overseeing the minor league facilities in Tampa and gaining a voice within the organization.

For now, however, Nederlander was going to be the boss (in lowercase), and everyone agreed that, unlike Steinbrenner, he was a good listener, someone who would listen to the advice of a trusted executive. The worst thing the Yankee team since 1913 had to do now was put someone in place to run baseball operations that Nederlander could trust.

It’s not easy to give a count of how many CEOs Steinbrenner had between 1973 and 1990. You could produce a number that had that title. But who was really giving Steinbrenner baseball advice that he would listen to changed from one moment to the other impetuous. He was just as likely to listen to an agent he preferred, like Tom Reich, or another landlord, like Jerry Reinsdorf of the White Sox, or, hell, his barber if he liked what the barber had said that day, since he was her General Manager.

And of course Steinbrenner was the general manager.

Peterson had won the title after writing a series of letters to Steinbrenner about how he could achieve the necessary stability in the office. He had been the general manager of the 1979 Pirates world champion, but had not worked in baseball since his dismissal in 1985 in Pittsburgh. Like everyone else 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 for confidence. Yes, Stick was a respected baseball man. But it was about trust. “- Brian Cashman

And Peterson’s problems, apart from being out of touch with the game, were not one, but two Georges. George Bradley, who directed minor league operations in Tampa, received half the power. The two had no proximity or affinity for each other. They often worked at cross purposes; they both have to constantly please a nasty overlord and escape the wrath of an owner who loved nothing more than to play the blame game.

Peterson was marginalized and defamed, and as Cashman recalls, “Peterson would throw furniture. Of all the people we have had, he was the loudest. You would hear the furniture being thrown from closed doors. “

Competing agents and executives would complain that they did not know who to contact to establish business with the Yankees. Who favored which move and when would he need a CSI baseball team, which would eventually find Steinbrenner’s fingerprints, to say the least.

When no quality free agent was willing to come to the Yankees comedy / calamity, Reich again found the right partner for one of his broken toys at Pascual Pérez. Mel Hall, insubordinate rather than productive, re-signed 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 Yankees thought would look and pitch like Lee Smith. Nothing that was done for the major league roster under the Bradley / Peterson starting leadership ended up working, and most of it was brutal. Both were underqualified and were trying to save their respective jobs, which was a daily search.

In June, perhaps to distract himself from the Steinbrenner investigation, one of the two-headed general managers leaked that the Yankees were working on a deal with the Mets that they would welcome Darryl Strawberry in their year of walking, a disgruntled Ron Darling. and Dave Magadan. for a comeback that included three outfielders: Jesse Barfield, Roberto Kelly and main prospect Bernie Williams.

But no matter what neither of them really tried to do or cover up for The Boss, Steinbrenner knew that neither of them should run baseball operations in his absence. So when Steinbrenner announced on August 20 at Yankee Stadium that Peterson was being replaced, his literal final act before retiring into alleged exile for life, his choice came in and there was surprise and a feeling of “of course.”

“I checked as many names as I could,” Steinbrenner said that afternoon. “And this is the type.”

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 been a player, a coach, a manager, a general manager, a talent scout and an advisor to George,” Cashman recalls, also leaving out the minor league manager. Gene Michael was a member of the family. He chose Stick for confidence. Yes, Stick was a respected baseball man. But it was about trust. “

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

But Michael also had a backbone. He was the rare executive who would take on Steinbrenner, which would infuriate The Boss at the time, but would move the owner to respect Michael more than the people with whom he ran over vocally and emotionally.

Gene Michael was a member of the family. He chose Stick for confidence. Yes, Stick was a respected baseball man. But it was about trust. “- Brian Cashman

– “”

And Michael had a Savantism about being able to look at baseball players and, even if he struggled for the words to describe what he was seeing, knowing the good from the bad. And he knew how bad the 1990 Yankees were. He wasn’t lying to himself or to others by throwing a party line like co-general managers Bob Quinn and Syd Thrift in 1989 or Bradley and Peterson in 1990 that the Yankees were they were one step away from restoring excellence.

Michael, on a three-year contract with Steinbrenner, demanded that Bradley be brought from Tampa to New York to try to eliminate the two-local / two-voice division. He had Steinbrenner code that the day of the split decision was gone. Michael was the only one to make decisions on the MLB roster. And he had no one above him to guess every move.

“Bob Nederlander was a very nice man and he put off all baseball for Gene Michael,” recalls Cashman. “I really trusted him.”

One day Michael brought a young reporter into his office, pulled out a statistics sheet, and started running his finger over a .200 number line for Oscar Azocar, Steve Balboni, Bob Geren, Mel Hall and others. The journalist noted that these were not batting averages. Remember, it was 1990: batting averages, home runs and RBIs were king. Stick pointed to percentages at the base.

The Yankees as a team that year had a .300 base percentage, 11 points worse than any other club, 20 points worse than any other team in the American League. “Moneyball” was 13 years from publication and Bill James was still a largely anonymous writer pushing for new baseball concepts. By observation Michael understood what would soon become common wisdom.

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

In the coming years, he would bring more at-bats with Mike Gallego and Mike Stanley. He would make two birds with one stone swapping Roberto Kelly, who not only was swinging, which not only brought Paul O’Neill’s most tenacious approach, but allowed deliberate Bernie Williams to play center without asking questions.

However, his first major decision to turn the page was not about hitting. Dave Righetti was a homegrown and beloved Yankee; one of the few who could hold his head with dignity over the wasteland the organization had become. But he was a free agent after the 1990 season and was offended that Michael said he wanted to stay with him, but failed to comply with the four or five-year agreements he and his agent sought. Also, Michael mentioned without diplomacy that Righetti was not what he used to be as a closer.

Michael was not interested in staying with Righetti because of what it had meant for the team. Maybe the closer would stay, maybe not. But Michael was more interested in changing the team’s behavior and in Steve Farr he saw someone who not only believed he could start or ease, set or close, but someone who was tough and alibi-free. Michael flew the field and on November 26, 1990, the day after the Giants lost their first game of that season to the Eagles to drop to 10-1, the Yankees paid a pitcher who wasn’t even the closest starter. the kind of money that pitcher didn’t pay at the time: 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 the way the Yankees prepared, performed, and played. The big league roster was his and he had a picture of what he wanted the Yankees to be, and it wasn’t the 1990 version.

“Until Stick became the general manager, there was no one to respond to regarding baseball-related moves,” said Jeff Idelson, then head of media relations for the Yankees. “You never knew who did what or where to get an answer. Until Stick arrived. Then it was clear. He was in charge. Stick put us on the road to greatness. “

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About the Author: Seth Sale

"Passionate creator. Wannabe travel expert. Reader. Entrepreneur. Zombie aficionado. General thinker."

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