Gene Michael, universally known in the baseball world as “Stick,” passed away of a heart attack yesterday. He was 79, and perhaps the most universally beloved person in baseball amongst people who work in the game.
I can’t tell you anything you won’t see written better elsewhere about Stick’s role in building the 1990s Yankee dynasty. I cannot tell you about his relationship with George Steinbrenner, or his mentorship of Brian Cashman. I can’t tell you whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame or not. I’m sure there are many obituaries that adequately cover his great impact on the Yankees from his playing days through the present day. That’s just not the column I can write today.
What I can do is talk about the Stick Michael I knew and admired, the generous man who frequently hung around the Trenton ballpark in his semi-retirement in recent years. A few months ago, I talked about the types of people you run into at the ballpark who you can glean information from. Something I didn’t explicitly mention in that piece, but is relevant here, is that I often take team executives and even scouts with a huge grain of salt when discussing their own team. My natural assumption is that they’re working me; I’m media, after all, and baseball men have been working the media about their own players as long as there have been baseball men and media.
I ran into Stick every now and then in Trenton, in the press box or scout section. I don’t exactly remember when the first time we met was other than “earlier this decade,” but I remember he just appeared in the row behind me at a game and inserted himself into a conversation about whether 65 was a legitimate grade to give a player on speed. (The answer: yes, if the player is consistently right below 4.1 from the left or 4.2 from the right, but not scraping 4.0/4.1.) We would talk about baseball and Yankees prospects and the weather and ballpark food, not because I was anyone special but because Stick would move around the park and talk to literally everyone about those things. Well, mostly he’d talk and I’d shut the hell up and listen, because a large chunk of what he said was absolute gold—the type of baseball education you can only get from someone like Stick Michael, even if only a few minutes at a time. Never once did I get the feeling that he was working me to hype a Yankee, and never once did he give me information on a player that did not verify. A few times he pointed me in a direction that ended up being way ahead of the curve, by showing me something that a player was or was not doing such that it sharpened my ability to spot similar in the future. If you’ve read and enjoyed my thoughts about prospects and baseball over the two seasons I’ve been writing at BP, know that they were greatly informed by talking to Stick out at the park.
When I’m asked about how to learn how to develop an eye for baseball, my response is usually “watch a lot of baseball at different levels from behind the plate, and talk about it all with a lot of people smarter than you.” If there’s a smarter person about baseball scouting than Stick Michael in this world, I’ve yet to meet them, and I’ve met an awful lot of incredibly smart baseball folks. And he’d hold court in a section for a few innings or a round of batting practice or even just a couple minutes in the press box, and then he’d move on to the next cluster of scouts, writers, and assorted other well-wishers. It once hit me that Stick couldn’t possibly have known everyone who he talked to at these games, and I suspect he couldn’t have picked me out of a police lineup outside of the ballpark. But he treated everyone like a friend, as generous with his time as any major figure in the game I’ve ever interacted with.
I hadn’t seen Stick in a few months, because his minor-league haunt was Trenton and I was mostly covering Lakewood during the second half of this season. Trenton lost most of its top prospects by July to promotion or trade, whereas Lakewood picked up Arquimedes Gamboa and Adam Haseley, and frankly we’ve had more coverage needs late in the season at BP for the South Atlantic League than the Eastern League. Lakewood’s season ended on Sunday, though, and Trenton comes home for the EL playoffs today. I’ll be attending as much of Trenton’s playoff run as I can, and just a few days ago I remarked to a friend that I was hoping to see Stick out at the park this weekend. Instead I expect I’ll be watching a tribute to him.
In that weird way that you associate people with small stories, I will always associate Stick Michael with Mini Melts ice cream—you know, the little flash-frozen ice cream balls/Dippin’ Dots knock-off mostly consumed by small children for an immediate sugar high. Stick absolutely loved the Mini Melts at the Trenton ballpark. He would often skip a half-inning to go get a cup, and more than a couple times, he offered to buy me and whomever else was around a cup. I never took him up on it, and I always chuckled at the thought of a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate scout and executive being so excited for, of all things, a Dippin’ Dots clone. But that was Stick Michael.
Farewell, Stick, and thanks for all the lessons and tips. The next cup of Mini Melts is on me.