Former Yankees general manager Gene Michael, who died Thursday at age 79, is being remembered—correctly—as the man most responsible for building the team's late-1990s dynasty through a series of shrewd drafts and trades. In the span of just a few years, he traded for David Cone and Paul O'Neill, signed Wade Boggs and Jimmy Key and, most significantly, drafted Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter and signed a teenaged Mariano Rivera out of Panama.
Even importantly, Michael resisted the pressure to get rid of those players for established major leaguers while they were still developing. The closest he came to dealing any of them may have come in 1995, when New York found itself in the hunt for the first American League wild-card but in need of starting pitching help. Michael had his eye on David Wells, whom the Tigers were looking to unload.
According to the book Champions: The Saga of the 1996 New York Yankees by John Harper and Bob Klapisch: "Michael offered [pitcher] Brian Boehringer, but the Tigers weren't interested. [They] asked about Rivera, and Michael said he was willing to discuss the possibility.
" 'I never said yes, and I never said no," Michael recalled a year later, smiling sheepishly. I'm glad I never had to. They thought they could get more than that for Wells. Then when Rivera started throwing 95, it was too late. Nobody was going to get him.' "
As the authors noted, Rivera's increased radar gun readings in the minor leagues caught Michael by surprise when he saw the reports. The same pitcher who had never thrown that hard before was indeed clocked at 95 and above by both Yankees scouts and those from other teams. Officially off the market, Rivera emerged as a star during the 1995 ALDS loss to the Mariners, striking out eight and giving up three hits and no runs over three outings. The next year he finished third in the AL Cy Young Award voting as a set-up man and then took over the closer's role in 1997, embarking on a Hall of Fame career.
By then Michael had left his job as GM to be a scout for the Yankees, a role from which he could watch with pride as the team he assembled rolled to four championships and five pennants in six years.