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How 1980s manager Gene Michael eventually helped Cubs win World Series

Gene Michael as Cubs manager in 1986.

Two years after Jim Frey’s 1984 playoff team and three before the “Boys of Zimmer” Cubs playoff team in 1989, then-general manager Dallas Green shook up his slumbering club in June.

Frey was fired. Pitcher Jamie Moyer and outfielder Dave Martinez were called up from the minors. And Gene “Stick” Michael was hired by Green to manage.

Martinez, now the Cubs’ bench coach, said his first big-league manager was a significant factor refocusing the Cubs’ competitive direction and setting the stage for Don Zimmer’s largely homegrown ’89 team.

“He was unbelievable, a really good baseball man,” Martinez said. “His way was tough love — but a good man. I appreciated everything he taught me, and his influence was huge.”

Michael, who found wider recognition and success with the Yankees over the next three decades than in his two partial seasons managing the Cubs, died Thursday of a heart attack at 79.

“He was superinsightful, superengaging, and he loved the game — all facets of it,” said Cubs strategist and catching coach Mike Borzello, who spent a decade with Michael in New York. “Just kept teaching. He kept teaching just by talking out loud.”

Michael is best known as one of the game’s best talent evaluators and credited with building the last Yankees dynasty around the homegrown core of Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera — often protecting the core against the impulses of then-owner George Steinbrenner.

If he had an influence on the Cubs — beyond the narrow managing opportunity to teach a handful of young players breaking in — it was in Borzello’s training, which resonates in the club’s recent, historic success.

Borzello joined the Yankees as a bullpen catcher and batting practice pitcher in 1996, the year Michael moved from GM to scouting executive. Borzello spent the next five spring trainings at Michael’s side for every game, charting, operating the radar gun and listening.

“Back then we didn’t have all this data and access to information, so the eye test was much more important, and his eyes were better than most,” Borzello said. “He’d show me things to look for, and he taught you the game at a higher level that not many people really understand.

“You think you know the game and then you sit with a guy like that and start seeing things that you never looked for before.”

Borzello was part of Dale Sveum’s original coaching staff brought in when Theo Epstein took over the baseball operation before the 2012 season, and has remained through four managers as an integral part of the Cubs pitching infrastructure.

One additional influence: When the Red Sox looked for a new GM in 2002, they asked to interview Michael, but the Yankees refused to allow it.

The Sox eventually promoted an assistant named Theo Epstein. The rest is Red Sox — and Cubs — history.


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