Gene Michael, a baseball infielder who gained his greatest acclaim as the behind-the-scenes architect of the New York Yankees dynasty that won four World Series titles from 1996 to 2000, died Sept. 7 at his home in Oldsmar, Fla. He was 79.
The cause was a heart attack, the Yankees said in a statement.
Mr. Michael, nicknamed “Stick” for his reedy, 6-foot-2, 180-pound physique, was a smooth-fielding, light-hitting shortstop during his 10 seasons in the major leagues, seven of which were with the Yankees.
He later had two stints as both the general manager and field manager of the Yankees under tempestuous owner George Steinbrenner. Annoyed by his boss’s constant meddling during the 1981 season, Mr. Michael challenged Steinbrenner to fire him. Steinbrenner did just that, with less than a month remaining in the season.
Bob Lemon took over the team and led the Yankees to the World Series, which they lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The next year, Steinbrenner fired Lemon after 14 games and reinstated Mr. Michael — then fired him a second time late in the season.
“When I was manager, we fought all the time on the phone,” Mr. Michael said in 1991. “The phone was the problem. That’s the way we communicated, and George doesn’t have the patience on the phone he has face-to-face.”
In 1990, after Steinbrenner was suspended by Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent for his involvement with a suspected gambler, Mr. Michael was named Yankees general manager for the second time.
Unencumbered by Steinbrenner’s looming presence, he rebuilt the team’s minor league system. He drafted or developed the players who became the “Core Four” of the team’s future dynasty: shortstop Derek Jeter, catcher Jorge Posada, and pitchers Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera.
When Mr. Michael hired the untested Buck Showalter as manager before the 1992 season, he was derided by sportswriters who wanted a bigger name in the Yankees dugout.
“Michael comes out of this taking a huge hit on his already weakened credibility,” Tom Verducci wrote in Newsday in 1991, “like a shot of seltzer water in the face.”
In 1994, Showalter led the Yankees to an American League-best record of 70-43, only to have the season end prematurely because of a strike, with the World Series canceled. The team was led by such cornerstone players as outfielder Paul O’Neill, pitchers David Cone and Jimmy Key, and infielders Tino Martinez and Wade Boggs — all of whom Mr. Michael acquired through trades or free-agency signings.
When Showalter was fired after the 1995 season, Mr. Michael was instrumental in hiring his successor, Joe Torre, who guided the Yankees to World Series titles in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000.
But Mr. Michael’s enjoyment of the Yankees’ success was somewhat muted, since he was dismissed as general manager soon after hiring Torre.
Nonetheless, he was largely responsible for one of the team’s smartest moves, converting the young Rivera from a starting pitcher to a reliever.
“We concluded that he might not have held up as a starter, because he was so wiry,” Mr. Michael told the Newark Star-Ledger in 2013. “Buck and I thought he might have a longer career as a reliever. It was an educated guess, sure. It turned out to be a good call.”
Rivera went on to become baseball’s all-time leader in saves, with 652, and is considered the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history.
Eugene Richard Michael was born June 2, 1938, in Kent, Ohio. He was a standout basketball and baseball player at Kent State University and signed a professional baseball contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1959.
He played in the minor leagues for seven years before making his major league debut with the Pirates in 1966. After a season with the Dodgers, he joined the Yankees in 1968, when the once-powerful franchise was in decline. He finished his career with the Detroit Tigers in 1975.
Despite a mediocre lifetime batting average of .229, Mr. Michael impressed other baseball professionals with his knowledge of the game and his no-nonsense attitude.
He joined the Yankees front office and managed in the minor leagues before being named general manager before the 1980 season.
Mr. Michael managed the Chicago Cubs for parts of the 1986 and 1987 seasons, then returned to the Yankees. He remained a part of the team’s front office, holding scouting and advisory positions, until his death.
His first marriage, to Rae Reuter, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife, the former Joette Corona of Oldsmar; three children from his first marriage; and a daughter from his second marriage.
According to an account by baseball reporter Buster Olney of ESPN, Steinbrenner once demanded that Mr. Michael trade young center fielder Bernie Williams. Mr. Michael was reluctant to part with a player he correctly saw as a future star.
He dutifully called other general managers and discussed almost every player but Williams. He then reported back to Steinbrenner.
“George, I talked to every team,” Mr. Michael said, “and I didn’t get one offer for Bernie Williams.”
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