On opening day I find myself having breakfast with Ken Fagan. Ken, a retired and celebrated Air Force veteran, was probably Gene Michael’s best friend during the last ten years of Gene’s life.
They used to have breakfast or lunch daily at the same restaurant in Springhill, Florida. When possible, I used to join them. It was quite entertaining to watch Gene “get all over” Ken about his lack of knowledge about professional baseball however, “the Stick”, as Gene was affectionately known, took pride in the fact that Ken had learned so much about the game. Gene used to say, “I guess I’m still a pretty good teacher” when Ken would have intelligent theories about the game. The two of them reminded me of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the odd couple. They were a riot together and the trust that they had for each other was beautiful. Today we sat at the same table that these two old timers used to share and we even left a placemat where the Stick would have been sitting.
I decided to do a little Q&A with Ken so that he could talk about his pal that we all miss so much. I know that without Gene Michael, I would not have been signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates because of how much Gene taught me about playing shortstop. Even though I never made it to the big leagues, I can always say that I was a professional baseball player. I owe that to one of my child hood hero’s, Gene “The Stick” Michael.
Here is my interview with Ken Fagan:
Negron: Kenny, this is the restaurant that you used to eat at everyday with Gene Michael. What’s the thing you miss the most?
Kenny: Probably the brilliance of listening to him talk about baseball. Even at my age, I have learned so much from him over the last few years. Particularly how he looked at on-base percentage, he thought that was one of the most important things when looking at baseball players.
Negron: Now, Gene Michael was dealing with analytics before it was even called analytics. What’s your opinion on that?
Kenny: Well, that’s one of the reasons why there are a lot of people that think that he was the architect of the dynasty, and he just had foresight. He’s looked at baseball and he looked at it as what can you do and who can you trust, and he was very analytical about that. Trusting a ball player to perform was one of the things that he thought was important when you select a ball player to play that next hundred plus games.
Negron: Why was it that you had such a relationship with Gene Michael? I mean, people had no idea how close the two of you were. Why was that Kenny?
Kenny: God’s will, because who am I? We met about ten years ago when I was working at the Yankees and he forgot his credentials and they wouldn’t let him in. I went over there because I recognized him, and I escorted him up to the suite and we made friends and he says, “can we have lunch sometime?” I said, “yes!” It just became a relationship that only one person can treasure.
Negron: Kenny how does one get over that? I mean you guys had scheduled to have lunch the very next day when he had the heart attack. How do you get over that?
Kenny: You don’t. We were supposed to meet the next day, and earlier in the morning I got the call from New York; he died and I just couldn’t believe it. I was only 6 months older than him.
Negron: Unbelievable. Kenny, he was so involved with the Yankees for so long, how do they go on without him?
Kenny: I lost my wife the year before, and it’s the same thing; it’s a void there. You don’t live this long and not have relationships that you just never get over. But the importance of it is that when you do think about people every day, that just tells you what kind of a relationship you had; that’s going to be difficult.
Negron: Do baseball and the Yankees truly understand the significance of what Gene Michael really was?
Kenny: I’m not sure. I think the ones that had been around during the building of his dynasty, they understand. He thought that any year would be his last year, but he just kept going. When the time came, I asked him when he was going to retire and he said “Eh maybe next year”, that was like four years ago.
Negron: Does a Brian Cashman understand the aspect that his mentor is no longer there and how does he continue?
Kenny: Funny you should ask, because just a few weeks before Gene passed, he said that the best move that he ever made was hiring Cashman, because it worked. Gene gave a lot of credit to Cashman over the years for making the right decisions. Gene respected all the difficult things that Cashman had to deal with and he came through with flying colors.
Negron: Well listen I want to thank you, because I wanted to talk to you since you were one of the guys that really knew him best. You got very intimate with him and you really knew him better than most people in all of baseball. I’m grateful that you’ve shared this time.
Kenny: I’m just proud of the fact that he thought he could tell me things that would never be repeated.
Negron: Will you ever write a book about Gene Michael?
Kenny: First of all, I don’t think I’m capable of writing the book. But if I wrote the book it would be about all of the wonderful times that I had with Gene and the stories that he told me about how much he loved Mr. Steinbrenner and the entire Yankee organization.
Negron: Thank you so much for sharing a few things about Gene Michael. I know that you still feel the pain of loosing Gene, however I am happy that you had ten exceptional years with a good friend. Most people don’t get that.
Kenny: You’ve got that right, thank you so much.