Gene Michael became general manager of the Yankees in 1990, the same year I left college and moved to New York City. In those days, my brother and I occasionally rode the subway from Brooklyn up to Yankee Stadium, sometimes to quietly and uneasily root for the Red Sox, sometimes just to see some baseball featuring any random visiting team. At that time the Yankees were bad enough to allow a guy to spread himself across three seats and sit in the sun and watch a game and not have to worry whether the Beast was going rise up and stomp out every cringing nonbeliever in its path. Of course, this did not apply to the games against the Red Sox, which were always packed no matter how irrelevant either team was at the moment, and in those games the Beast was always present, at the very least a grumble, a tremor, a tip of a vast presence waiting to avalanche down on our heads.
The Yankees hadn’t been mediocre for an extended period of years since the days when they employed none other than Gene Michael as their regular everyday shortstop. Of course, neither era (the only two extended spans of also-ranness since the arrival of Babe Ruth nearly a century ago) was the fault of Gene Michael. It’s true that as a player he couldn’t really hit, and unlike some other weak-hitting shortstops of the time, such as Mark Belanger, he doesn’t seem to have a widely acknowledged reputation as a particularly good fielder, either. But the Yankees had plenty of other problems. As for Michael, all I personally know him for as a player, besides the vaguely simian, imaginary-giant-phallus-wielding association the photo on this card has ingrained into my subconscious, is that he was once pummeled by one of Carlton Fisk’s fists while Fisk used his other arm to strangle Thurman Munson. Or did Fisk strangle Michael while pummeling Munson? I can never keep that story straight. Either way, Michael played the vital part of the feckless weakling in the tableau that gave us Red Sox fans one of our rare moments of temporary superiority amid all those decades of abject subservience.
My brother and I were hoping for another one of those moments when we made our way to Yankee Stadium one sunny Memorial Day in the early 1990s. We watched from high above the leftfield foul line in the upper deck as Red Sox pitcher Danny Darwin gradually surrendered most of a big early cushion by giving up one soaring solo blast after another. The Beast, quieted by the early deficit, grew a little louder with every moonshot. Finally Jeff Reardon was summoned from the bullpen in the bottom of the ninth, and Mel Hall ripped Reardon’s meaty offering high and deep. The shrinking white pill disappeared into the rightfield bleachers stands like a catalytic tablet into a witch’s cauldron. The Beast erupted, its closest tendril, a cackling blond woman, pummeling the two of us amid the thunderous noise as Mel Hall slowly frolicked from base to base.
Though perhaps no one but Gene Michael knew it at the time, Hall was something of a vanishing breed among those Yankees. Spared the dictates of the infinitely impatient George Steinbrenner, who was suspended for several key years during Michael’s reign, Michael was able to avoid the twin Steinbrennerian habits of jettisoning prospects and stockpiling fading veterans such as Mel Hall. And Michael’s well-guarded prospects ended up forming the foundation of one of the most dominant runs in baseball history, an (insufferable) era when the Beast hardly ever stopped roaring and devouring.
In my mind the long roar started that Memorial Day in the early 1990s. After Hall finally touched home plate it took so long for my brother and me to get out of there that I’m not entirely sure I’m not still there, insane, dreaming all subsequent events. We took a wrong turn upon exiting the stadium and had to circle the whole giant palace of horrors through an endless circling thicket of the Beast before we got to a subway. Ashen-faced, our Red Sox caps stuffed in our pockets, my brother and I said nothing, just trudged. I remember seeing one young sunburned and well-lubricated Red Sox fan flailing against the Beast.
“Fuck Bucky Dent!” he kept shouting as he stumbled through the heckling throng. Veins stood out in his forehead and his voice cracked. “Bucky Dent sucks!”
You poor crazy bastard, I remember thinking, not without some admiration. It was like watching someone try to start a fistfight with an oncoming train.