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!
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, I was naïve."
He was misled, too, by the high batting average he posted for the Hobbs Pirates. His offense continued to fluctuate in the summer that followed - that year with Hobbs, as it turned out, would be the best of his professional career, something of a fluke - and he kept taking college classes, working toward his degree. Michael tended to take more classes after his worst seasons, fewer when he played better.
When a minor league teammate named Jim Price met Michael for the first time, he was struck by how tall and skinny Michael was. "Either you're a human 1-iron or a stick," said Price, and forever after Michael was widely known as Stick. Michael spoke with a hearty Midwestern accent and laughed easily. Michael's thick hair often looked wind-blown when there was no wind, and he tended to wear caps that didn't quite fit him. He often finished his sentences with a chuckle, guffawing at an anecdote or at himself. "You could look at him and underestimate him," said Pat Gillick, who played against Michael in the minor leagues in 1960, long before Gillick became general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. "And the whole time, he would have his hand in your pocket, getting the best of you. He was always heads-up, always in the game."
He demonstrated a wider understanding of the game very early in his career, even as he struggled to hit. Michael was playing for the Class B Kinston Eagles and his team was getting pounded by a young Red Sox prospect named Rico Petrocelli, who would later go on to star for Boston. Playing shortstop, Michael noticed Petrocelli's whole approach to hitting was based on the ball-strike count: when he was ahead in the count, two balls and no strikes or 3-1, he would wait for fastballs - and only fastballs - and crush them. When he was behind in the count, Petrocelli would wait for breaking balls. It was a common approach, but Petrocelli was uncommonly disciplined in adhering to this strategy, and Michael informed the team's catcher, Harper Cooper, who scoffed. Catcher and shortstop argued, until an annoyed Cooper gave in and told Michael he should call the pitches from his position. Years later, Michael vaguely recalled the system they used - he stood a little straighter for fastballs, placing his hand on his knee for a breaking ball. Petrocelli began making outs.
Michael reached the major leagues for the Pirates in 1966 and was quickly conquered by curveballs and sliders, hitting just .152 in 33 at-bats. The Pirates traded Michael and Bob Bailey to the Dodgers for shortstop Maury Wills before the 1967 season, and Michael batted .202 in 98 games, his career path established. He would hit .229 with 15 homers in 11 seasons, surviving because of his fielding and other intangibles. Peter Gammons, the Boston Globe baseball writer who covered Michael at the end of his playing career, found him to be unexpectedly competitive and tough. Yankees catcher Thurman Munson and Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk had gotten into a brawl at home plate in 1973, after Michael had missed a squeeze bunt and Munson, charging from third, had smashed into Fisk viciously, with a resolve that was not entirely spontaneous. For months, Michael had been prodding Munson by placing pictures of Fisk in his locker, and Munson, aware that Fisk was more photogenic and perhaps a better player, was furious – partly because he did not know who was taping the pictures. Michael knew, however, and, as the scrum evolved, Michael came face to face with Fisk and fired punches at the Boston catcher, defending the Yankee pinstripes.
Bouncing from team to team at the end of his career, Michael was 37 years old when Boston dumped him a month into the 1976 season, before he even had an at-bat. He had only vague notions of what he would do with the rest of his life. Michael had made a steady wage in baseball but he wasn’t wealthy; maybe he would teach someplace, coach in college or high school.
Marty Appel, the Yankees’ media relations director at that time, contacted Michael and told him that Steinbrenner wanted to talk. The two chatted at a function in Shea Stadium's Diamond Club. "I think you should stay in the game," Steinbrenner told Michael, adding that some of the Yankees' coaches had thought he was unusually intelligent. Michael was still unsure what Steinbrenner had in mind, whether it was broadcasting or coaching or working in the front office; he only knew he had a job with the Yankees. In 1978, Michael joined Billy Martin’s coaching staff, but because Martin had no prior relationship with Michael and because Steinbrenner had sponsored him, Martin was suspicious. "Billy thinks Gene is a spy for George, that he's one of the guys telling George stuff," Sparky Lyle wrote in his 1979 book (beginital)The Bronx Zoo(endital). "Billy doesn't know for certain, but he knows that he doesn't like him. If Billy can keep his job to the end of the year, he'll fire Gene at the end of the season." Once, when the Yankees were in Detroit, Michael was forced to dress with the players, rather than with the other coaches. "I don't know what's wrong," Michael told Lyle. "They just don't like me anymore." Martin and Michael later settled their differences, Michael recalled. "Billy trusted me only when he knew I didn't want to manage for George," said Michael.
Michael eventually did manage for Steinbrenner, though, for two brief stints during the 1981 and 1982 seasons. But after a year as general manager, Michael went to work for the Chicago Cubs, returning to the Yankees as a scout only after the Cubs fired him as their manager in 1987. As Michael became general manager of the Yankees again on Aug. 20, 1990, the team was a mess, a jumbled collection of ill-fitting parts; they would finish that season last among seven teams in the American League East, with 67 victories and 95 losses. Michael had a strategy for rebuilding the franchise.
He wanted to restock the Yankees' lineup with left-handed hitters, to take advantage of the close right field fence - 314 feet down the line and 385 feet in right-center, compared to left field, where the fence seemed to curl out from the foul line and extend into Queens. Seven of the nine regulars in the team's lineup in 1990 were right-handed, and Don Mattingly, one of the two lefties, was suffering from back trouble that would sap the power he had had earlier in his career. Most of the Yankees in the Hall of Fame were left-handed hitters - Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey and Yogi Berra, Reggie Jackson. Roger Maris had been a leftie, Mickey Mantle a switch-hitter. Yankee Stadium had been built to favor left-handed hitters - Ruth, at the outset - and it made no sense to Michael for the Yankees to be predominantly right-handed.
Michael planned to build his offense on the foundation of on-base percentage. He wanted to acquire players who would draw walks, as well as get hits. If there were more runners on base, Michael believed, it naturally followed that more runs would be scored. This was an elementary concept that had not yet gained league-wide recognition, and it was partly a by-product of the shrinking of the strike zone. Umpires no longer were calling strikes at the bellybutton, or even pitches at the belt. "If you throw it above the sack" - the scrotum - "then it's borderline," said a National League pitcher. The average number of pitches per at-bat would rise steadily, and so would walks. Babe Ruth and Ted Williams drew more walks than other hitters in their respective generations, but primarily because pitchers refused to throw them strikes. By the late 80s, however, the best hitters were making walks an integral part of their offense. Wade Boggs, an All-Star third baseman for Boston, had won the American League batting title in 1986, with a .357 average, but he also drew a league-high 105 walks. By the turn of the century, the inability to draw walks would be viewed as a liability.
But in the early ‘90s Michael was ahead of the pack in building a lineup of hitters with high on-base percentages - a group of hitters who would force opposing starting pitchers to work deep into ball-strike counts and perhaps tire in the fifth, sixth or seventh inning. The strength of most pitching staffs was the starters and the late-inning relievers, and if the Yankees could wear out the starters, they could then feast on the soft underbelly of major-league pitching - the middle relief.
The Yankees gradually added left-handed hitters, with the notable exception of Mike Stanley, a right-handed backup catcher who had been cast off by the Texas Rangers after the 1991 season. Stanley hit .249 in 1992, and before the next season Michael gave him a two-year contract, a move that appeared based in no logic whatsoever. But Michael recognized that he had good plate discipline, and in 1993, Stanley - 30 years old - batted .305 with 57 walks. Wade Boggs signed with the Yankees in 1993, batting .302 with 74 walks in his first season. O'Neill, a tough left-handed hitter, was added in '93. Mike Gallego, a 5-foot-7 inch middle infielder with a small strike zone, joined in 1992. In 1990, the year Michael became general manager, the Yankees drew 427 walks; in 1993, they collected 629, and scored 218 more runs than they had three years before.
Michael had his own strong sense of what kind of player could succeed in New York, and amiability was not a factor. Along with Buck Showalter, who became the Yankees' manager in 1992, he rid the team of players they thought detrimentally selfish – bad teammates, like Mel Hall. To Michael, it really didn’t matter if a player was an asshole so long as his antics did not become a serious distraction for the other players. Michael wanted players who demonstrated an ability to block out everything going on around them and focus on the task at hand. "Deep thinkers," he called them, although in a sport in which almost everything could be quantified by some type of statistic, it was unclear how deep thinkers might be identified.
But Michael had a knack for recognizing them. Other scouts who had seen O'Neill throw helmets and rant while with the Reds were certain he would fail in New York, unnerved by nosy reporters, or Steinbrenner, or the fans who would boo him as a matter of course. Michael, on the other hand, watched O'Neill and interpreted his intensity as evidence of a player deeply committed to his work, preoccupied with the pursuit of success.
Steinbrenner had once landed the best free agents, signing players like Reggie Jackson and Goose Gossage in the first years of the system. But Steinbrenner's bizarre treatment of Winfield and other players, as well as the team's disintegration in the 1980s, changed the way free agents viewed the Yankees. The team was neither successful nor glamorous, and a veteran player signing with the Yankees had to assume there was a fair chance that sooner or later, he would become a target Steinbrenner’s criticism. Free agents flirted with the Yankees, but merely used the team to boost their market values. It became an amusing rite of fall: an attractive free agent would express interest in playing for the Yankees, driving up his own asking price, and then sign elsewhere. By the mid-80s, the Yankees were struggling to lure the premier free agents, a problem that would last for almost a decade. Instead of getting stars, they settled for flawed players like Steve Sax. Before the 1992 season, Yankees executives - presumably serving Steinbrenner, who was not permitted oversight of day-to-day operations of the team - circumvented Michael and jumped in late in negotiations with outfielder Danny Tartabull, compelled by public-relations fears after the Mets signed Bobby Bonilla. But Tartabull was over-hyped: Injury-prone and a subpar outfielder, Tartabull signed for $25 million over five years and was a disaster, and was dumped before the end of his contract. Shortly after the 1992 season, the Yankees pushed hard to sign Greg Maddux and failed; Maddux signed with Atlanta. The Yankees had a perception problem with free agents. But that all changed with Jimmy Key, Michael believed.
Key pitched for the Toronto Blue Jays for nine seasons, working steadily, usually winning 13 to 17 games when he was healthy. But his impact went beyond his record. The left-hander was viewed as a serious professional and competitor, tested in the post-season - a natural leader, in the opinion of Pat Gillick, the Toronto general manager. Key had thrown three scoreless innings in the 1992 playoffs before winning twice in the World Series, and despite his history of injuries, he was one of the premier free agents in the off-season. A country kid from Huntsville, Alabama, Key had thrived in the calm of Toronto, and when the Yankees began wooing him, questions arose among scouts about whether he would like pitching in New York, if he would be bothered by the big city. But Gillick didn’t think anything would bother him: "He was just one of those guys who competed no matter where he was." The Blue Jays offered Key a three-year deal, and the Yankees topped them with an offer of four years and $16 million. But Key would also be swayed by what he had seen of the Yankees in 1992. Since Showalter became the manager, Key had seen the roster shifting, the personality of the team changing. "The so-called bad guys were getting weeded out," Key recalled years later. "I just felt like Buck had gotten the organization going in the right direction."
Key went 18-6 in 1993, his first season, and the Yankees went 88-74. They led the league in hitting with a .279 average, their roster had many more young players, and, said Gillick, it was apparent that Michael was building something good, something that might last.
Steinbrenner didn’t see it that way. "This team is messed up," he told Michael shortly after he returned from his permanent ban, which had been reduced to two years. "The players are messed up; everything is messed up. This was in good shape when I left."
"That's why we had the first pick in the '91 draft, right?" Michael shot back. "Don't be a wiseass," Steinbrenner replied.
For the next few years, Michael would hold together the framework he had built, together for the next few years, but it wouldn’t be easy. Steinbrenner was forever impatient, temperamental. He would demand change and Michael would argue, vehemently. "There was a mutual respect between he and George, because Stick would stand up for what he believed, and George knew that," said Showalter. "You had to show him how passionate you were about a decision. Now, you were going to be held accountable for it, but Stick didn't have a problem with accountability. He had the same thing we were looking for in our players."
Because Steinbrenner was boss, Michael often had to wage clandestine battles, using creative tactics in the face of a stronger enemy. Before Bernie Williams established himself, Steinbrenner once ordered Michael to collect offers from other teams for the young outfielder and then trade him to whoever dangled the best deal. Michael employed a tactic worthy of Rommel: he called executives with the other 25 teams but never mentioned Williams, then reported back to Steinbrenner that yes, he had talked with every team in baseball, and no one had expressed any interest in Williams. He had succeeded in holding off Steinbrenner, and though Michael almost traded him in 1994, talking for weeks with the Montreal Expos about a possible swap for Larry Walker, Williams hit a few homers and was again saved. Michael phoned Montreal GM Kevin Malone: Thanks for your interest, but we're keeping him.
Michael was not afraid to trade young players; there was no set rule against dealing a prospect for a veteran player. But patience was paramount, he thought. You had to give a young player time to develop, to learn, to adjust, and if you didn’t, you would cheat yourself of the opportunity to make sound judgments. He had swapped Kelly for O'Neill when Kelly was 27 and younger and faster, and had taken some criticism. The swap of a blossoming young player for a veteran who seemed to be fading smacked of Steinbrenner, circa 1985. But Michael had watched Kelly for several years and decided he had peaked, while O'Neill had not realized his potential. Over the next nine seasons, O’Neill would drive in 858 runs, Kelly 325.
Michael had been talking to the Detroit Tigers about a possible trade for left-handed pitcher David Wells in the early part of the 1995 season, and the Tigers had expressed interest in Mariano Rivera, then a young and unproven pitcher who had undergone elbow surgery in 1992 and had gone through a lengthy rehabilitation. Rivera threw with varying success, compiling a 5.81 ERA in six starts at Class AAA Columbus in 1994. His array of pitches was considered to be a bit above average - a good changeup and slider, a mediocre fastball that usually clocked 88 to 90 miles per hour. Michael was prepared to trade Rivera, in the right deal. But after Rivera pitched for Columbus on June 26, 1995, Michael read the reports the next morning and was stunned: Rivera's fastball had been clocked at a consistent 95 mph, sometimes touching 96 mph. Skeptical of those results, Michael called the Columbus coaching staff to make sure its radar gun was operating properly. Yes, he was assured, the reading is accurate. Still doubtful, he phoned Jerry Walker, the Tigers scout who had seen the game. Michael chatted amiably, asking about other players and other teams, and then idly inquired if Walker had noticed what Rivera's radar readings were. Consistent 95 mph, Walker told him, and he touched 96. There was no way Mariano Rivera would be traded that summer, Michael decided. Talent existed within him the Yankees had not seen yet; they had to be patient.
Stump Merrill was the Yankees' manager when Michael took over, and ran the team through the 1991 season before being replaced by Buck Showalter. The lasting memory some beat writers had of Merrill came from spring training in ‘91: As he spoke with reporters after an exhibition, Merrill finished his meal and applied utilized a game-used sock to clean his teeth. Showalter, on the other hand, was impeccably dressed, looking as though he just stepped out of a Nordstrom's catalogue. When he appeared on a baseball card for the first time, he was disturbed by a particularly prominent pore on his nose.
Showalter’s meticulousness extended to the decoration of his office. A calendar on which he could organize his pitching rotation - and those of the Yankees' opponents - was mounted on the west wall. His lineup cards were written so neatly that they appeared to be computer-generated (in contrast to Merrill’s nearly illegible scribble). Jack Curry, the beat writer for the New York Times, noticed that the major league media guides behind the desk were always arranged in alphabetical order. Showalter worked extraordinary hours, sometimes sleeping in his office and spending almost his entire waking day at ballparks, meeting with coaches, reviewing statistics and charts. He once complained about gaining weight and when an acquaintance suggested he might work out more, Showalter said it wasn't possible. When I'm on the treadmill or riding an exercise bicycle, he explained, I'm wondering what Tony La Russa - the manager of the Oakland Athletics - is doing at that exact moment to get better.
Showalter changed the conditions and the culture of the Yankees' clubhouse, making everything first rate. The weight room was improved, a family room was installed for the players' young children to play during games, there was more attention paid to appearance. The clubhouse looked great, and while players might have lingering concerns about their safety outside of the Yankee Stadium gates, life at the park seemed much more tenable. Make being a Yankee a great thing, Showalter told the players. Eliminate the excuses; make this a great place.
He paid attention to the evolution of the whole organization, and was aware of development at every level. When a young minor league pitcher injured his arm and required surgery, Showalter penned a letter, encouraging the player - Mariano Rivera - and assuring him he had a bright future in baseball, with the Yankees. There were team meetings before every series to review the scouting reports of the opponents, and while some players increasingly grew weary of Showalter’s micromanaging, they understood that the Yankees would never lose a game because their manager wasn't prepared.
Showalter, like Michael, carefully weighed the effect that players had on their teammates. He wanted players who cared about being part of a team, players who were sincere about playing well. When Showalter watched videotape of the games, he would check how the players reacted to the success of teammates. Because the home dugout in Yankee Stadium was angled toward right field, players on the bench would have to leap forward to follow the flight of a ball hit into the right field corner, and Showalter saw that when other Yankees drove balls to right, Mel Hall never moved from his spot on the bench. "You can afford to have one asshole if you surround him with 24 good guys," Showalter once told a friend. "But if you have more than that, than the assholes are going to befriend those who might be good guys, and pretty soon it's a problem." Showalter was instrumental in bringing in strong professionals like Spike Owen, who were not necessarily great athletes but were considered great people, and who treated teammates with respect. He wanted players who were accountable. During the 1995 season, Showalter relieved starting pitcher Jack McDowell, and as he faced the bullpen in left-center field, he heard a loud roar from the crowd. "Stano, what was that?" Showalter asked Stanley, his catcher. "Well, let's put it this way," he replied. "Jack just flipped off New York." McDowell had flashed the middle finger to the fans. But as the manager considered juggling his rotation to keep the offending pitcher from starting in Yankee Stadium, McDowell said no, he wanted to pitch at home, to take the heat he had created. It was the kind of attitude that Showalter loved.
After years of having managers with loose control, the Yankees needed someone rigidly structured. Showalter had never played in the major leagues and had battled and scrapped for everything he gotten in his professional life, ascending because of his tenacious concern with detail. But that trait, some players believed, fueled his obsession with control and worries about what was being said privately, and in particular, what was being said about him. Managers traditionally exit first from their spots at the front of the buses and planes, but Showalter would wait in his seat and allow the rest of the team to depart before he left, all of them pinned by his stare; it was as if he was trying to see how they reacted to each loss, to each victory, to him. He would pull the beat writers aside, ask them questions and then offer information, beginning in a conspiratorial tone: "Just between us girls..." Of course, it didn't take long for them to figure out he was telling other writers the same information. Some felt Showalter treated prominent national columnists with much more deference than the beat reporters who covered the team daily, a dangerous habit in a city with such heavy newspaper crossfire.
The Yankees' winning percentage improved from .438 in Merrill's last year to .619 in the strike-shortened season of 1994; there was a wide consensus that the Yankees were the best team in the American League that year. The next year, they would make the playoffs, winning the A.L.'s first wildcard berth. But after they lost to Seattle in a crushing five-game series, surrendering the tying and winning runs in the bottom of the ninth inning of the decisive game, many of the veterans – weary of their manager’s controlling nature – thought it was time for Showalter to go. The players had always had faith in Showalter's managing, said Jim Leyritz, even if they felt he didn't always know how to deal with his players. "What happened in the playoffs was that he made some decisions where it looked like he was protecting himself," said Leyritz. "A lot of guys started to lose confidence in him."
Steinbrenner, furious about the loss to Seattle, seemed ready to make changes anyway. Showalter's contract was about to expire, and while Steinbrenner's well-honed instinct was to fire the manager, the owner recognized his popularity; Showalter, after all, had received the loudest cheers during the pre-game introductions at Yankee Stadium just before the series with Seattle began. But they would part ways – a mutually arranged divorce, executives in the organization thought. Showalter indicated he could not accept Steinbrenner's decision to fire hitting coach Rick Down, but the departure was also convenient for Showalter; he would have tremendous job options elsewhere. The firing was widely criticized, and Steinbrenner blanched at the public outcry over his decision to hire Torre as the new manager. About a month after the change, Steinbrenner arrived on Showalter’s doorstep in Pensacola, Fla., and asked him to take back his old job. You just hired Torre as your manager, Showalter said, and Steinbrenner assured him he would find another job for Torre, make him a vice president or something.
Showalter declined. He had been given the opportunity to mold the franchise in Arizona, making decisions on everything from the outfielders to the uniforms to the design of the infield. Showalter wanted the Diamondbacks' home to look unique, so that if a fan turned on the game or saw a highlight, he would know immediately, just by looking at the field, that he was seeing a game from Arizona's Bank One Ballpark. Showalter also wanted the Diamondbacks to have built-in advantages playing on their own field. So it came to be that Bank One Ballpark was the only field with grass laid down between the outfield fences and the warning track - a feature that fooled opposing outfielders repeatedly – and became the first park in the majors with a yard-wide corridor of dirt running directly from the mound to home plate, cut into the infield grass. "Fucking Buck's strip of dirt," laughed Kevin Towers, the San Diego general manager.
Steinbrenner targeted Michael, as well, after the playoff loss to Seattle, tired of the constant dissent. "Why should I pay this guy to argue with me?" Steinbrenner asked an acquaintance. He told Michael he would have to take a pay cut, from $550,000 to $400,000, and also offered him a job overseeing the team's major league scouting for $150,000 - a golden parachute. Michael had contractual permission to talk with other teams if another GM job became available, and almost immediately, Baltimore owner Peter Angelos expressed interest in hiring him. But Steinbrenner called Angelos and asked him not to pursue Michael. Angelos, who was trying to convince a block of owners to stand against the shift of a team into Washington, D.C., needed Steinbrenner’s support, and respected his wishes.
Michael demotion to the scouting job, after five seasons of rebuilding the franchise into a contender, cemented Steinbrenner's reputation as an impossible boss. A half-dozen executives from other teams declined to interview for the job, before former Houston GM Bob Watson took the position. Steinbrenner promised Watson he was backing away from baseball. "I took the man at his word," said Watson, who would last little more than two seasons.
Michael's quality of life improved greatly after Watson took over; he no longer had to field the daily manic phone calls from the owner, and yet he continued to wield enormous influence within the team's circle of executives. Like all of the Yankees' officials, Michael would occasionally migrate into Steinbrenner's doghouse – as when he encouraged the Yankees to re-sign Cone to a 1-year, $12 million deal in 2000, and Cone won just four games - but Steinbrenner retained an abiding trust in his judgment. Steinbrenner would continue to ignore standard baseball protocol and deny the requests of other teams to interview Michael, including an overture by the Boston Red Sox; to placate Michael, Steinbrenner would increase his salary to over half a million dollars, an exorbitant fee for scouting executive. Although Steinbrenner had demoted Michael, there was no way he would ever allow the person most responsible for building the dynasty to join a division rival.
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