By Dan Federico – guest contributor
It was a crisp 48 degrees in Trenton, New Jersey, some 75 miles south of Yankee Stadium. Gene Michael was sitting in the last row behind the first base dugout in Arm and Hammer Park, right under banners of alumni Derek Jeter and Dellin Betances. He was observing Thunder pitchers including Justus Sheffield, Domingo German and Chance Adams — who started his third game of the season that night — work on their defensive skills.
“I see a lot of similarities,” Michael said, commenting on the parallels between the building stages of the Yankees dynasty of the 1990s and the team’s current crop of Baby Bombers.
That era, when the Yankees reigned nearly uncontested while bringing home four championships in five seasons, boasted plenty of big names.
Twenty years into his ownership, George Steinbrenner was a bigger boss than Bruce Springsteen. Despite rollercoaster years in the late ’80s, he still set the tone for the franchise with his win at all cost mentality trickling down from front office to the janitors working on 1 E 161st St.
Joe Torre, who began his pinstripes career known as “Clueless Joe” with a career record of 894-1003, left The Bronx with four rings, a .605 winning percentage and a spot in Monument Park.
The talent on the field was also primed for success. The Core Four of Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada weren’t just exceptional ballplayers on the diamond — they also cared as much about their reputation as their stats and carried a pride in the interlocking NY that has been matched by few before or since.
They may have stolen the headlines in many forms and fashions, but it was Gene Michael, the team’s perceptive and farsighted General Manager, who orchestrated it all.
Growing up in Ohio and attending nearby Kent State University, Michael excelled as a two-sport athlete before choosing baseball over basketball as his future profession. He spent his first two years playing for the Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Dodgers — where he batted a combined .177 — before being purchased by the Yankees in 1968.
It has been a lifelong relationship ever since.
The man known as “Stick” — simply due to his skinny frame — spent 10 seasons in New York. He played with Mickey Mantle during his final year in baseball and was teammates with Thurman Munson when he was awarded the American League Rookie of the Year award in 1970. He managed the Yankees in both 1981 and 1982 and became the General Manager of the club in 1990 after coaching the Chicago Cubs from 1986-1987 — the only time during his post-playing career that he wasn’t in pinstripes.
When he took the helm at the start of the decade, he had the chance to shake up the system in a monumental way. With Steinbrenner suspended from baseball, he didn’t have to pluck every big name he saw and add them to the roster. Instead, Michael began to construct the team from the ground up, making quality draft picks and shrewd trades along the way.
But it wasn’t always easy.
“You’re going to get fooled with some players no matter what,” Michael said, speaking to the difficulty of evaluating prospects. “Some players you may think are the best players you’re going to look at, then they become lesser players than some of the other guys.”
In hindsight, Michael did a tremendous job in pressing the right buttons throughout his tenure as GM. He signed Rivera out of Panama in 1990, drafted Posada and Pettitte later that year in the MLB Amateur Draft and then selected Jeter in 1992. But when these future stars were in the infancy of their big league careers, Michael wasn’t always sure who would stick around for the long haul.
“We didn’t know who was going to be the best. We had [Sterling] Hitchcock in [the system]. It was between Hitchcock or Pettitte that was going to Seattle when we got [Jeff] Nelson with [Tino] Martinez. That worked out great for us. We got lucky with that trade. Pettitte had big time endurance, big aptitude and a big heart.”
Like they were for Pettitte and other highly touted prospects from past seasons, current expectations are set from day one. Today, names like Sheffield, Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier and Jorge Mateo are expected to be a part of the next core of Yankees. They’re looked upon as players who will join Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird and Luis Severino, setting the stage for future parades down the Canyon of Heroes.
But the secondary prospects are equally as important — especially knowing they can blossom into something special. The organization is seeing that with their pitching depth, as Jordan Montgomery is throwing every fifth day for the Yankees while Adams — who gave up one run on six hits in five innings on this crisp day in Trenton — hopes to follow suit.
And who knows? Even with the uncertainty of development, some now look to have the talent to potentially follow in the footsteps of a first ballot Hall of Fame closer.
“Take Mariano Rivera,” Michael said. “When we first saw him, he was a little on the small side and he didn’t have a great arm. But later on, after he had an injury and came back a year after, he blossomed and started to throw the ball 94-96. That’s when we knew we had something.”
Michael has enjoyed watching the 2017 version of youngsters grow in the minor leagues. He spoke glowingly about Gleyber Torres, stating he’s, “a very promising player” who can play second base, shortstop and third base. He pointed out pitching depth and Miguel Andujar as two positives of the Thunder roster.
And he’s just as excited for the current young talents on the 25-man roster.
“Well [Aaron] Judge doesn’t remind me of anybody, he’s so big and strong,” he said, visibly digging through his memory. “Nobody has more raw power than Judge. And I think he has the aptitude for it. I think he’ll learn to put it all in place. He’s already shown signs for it.”
Even though Bird is struggling, he, too, drew praise from the current senior advisor for the organization. “He has a great swing. He’s selective, doesn’t chase. That’s why I think he’s going to be a good hitter, he sees the ball real well.”
In a symbolic yet unnoticed gesture, Michael wears his 2009 World Series ring on his left ring finger — the last championship he won with shades of the team he helped put together.
Current GM Brian Cashman has followed Michael’s path to success; after years of buying and trading for top names, he’s put together a nucleus of young talent throughout the minors while bringing in the right veterans to help lead the way.
While Yankees fans are ready for the newest crop of Baby Bombers to create the next dynasty, Michael, of course, is still taking it year by year — just like he did in the early 90s.
“I couldn’t do that,” he said when asked when the Yankees will compete for a World Series. “But we’re going to be an improved team by the end of this year.”