Eppler reflects on mentor Michael's passing

Eppler reflects on mentor Michael's passing

ANAHEIM -- Just across his desk, on top of a bookshelf, Angels general manager Billy Eppler keeps a photo of him and Gene "Stick" Michael on the field at Yankee Stadium after the 2009 World Series.

It's one of the few pictures in his office that doesn't include a family member, though his relationship to Michael, who died Thursday from a heart attack at 79, was akin to that.

"First and foremost, he was a big mentor to myself and a lot of people within the Yankee organization," Eppler said. "He was just such a genuine and caring human being, but also an extremely brilliant baseball man. He had worn so many different hats in his career, from player to coach to manager to GM to special advisor, and he just had a knack for identifying talent and being able to project on that talent.

"The thing that sticks out the most to me was how he would accept the younger generation of evaluators and a younger generation of executives with open arms. He was always willing to teach, he was always willing to lend advice."

Eppler was among that younger generation that Michael embraced and nurtured. They first met shortly after the Yankees hired Eppler as a scout in 2004, and Eppler came to lean on Michael for his endless supply of baseball wisdom and insight. Though Michael was widely known as "Stick" for his slim frame, Eppler and his colleagues in New York coined another nickname for him: "The Oracle."

"For myself, he was almost metaphorically like a life preserver," Eppler said. "He was someone I could hang on to and soak up as much information and as much of his experience and his overall outlook and philosophy."

Michael became an advocate for Eppler as he rose through the Yankees' front office, earning promotions to director of professional scouting after the 2005 season and to assistant general manager after 2011. During meetings, Eppler would have Michael sit in the chair next to him so they could "sidebar" together as needed.

"Stick was one of the first people who told me, 'You're going to be a GM,'" Eppler said. "Just to hear that endorsement from somebody I idolized, it meant a lot."

When Eppler first interviewed for the Angels job after the 2011 season, Michael spoke with former Halos general manager Bill Stoneman about him, though the team ultimately hired Jerry Dipoto. Four years later, after Dipoto resigned, the Angels chose Eppler to be their new general manager. When Eppler shared the news with Michael, he said, "I knew it. Thatta boy, Billy Boy. I'm going to miss you."

Still, Eppler kept in touch with Michael after leaving the Yankees and brought some of his baseball philosophy to Anaheim, such as the value of strong defense up the middle. The 2017 Angels are a classic example of that ethos, with Martin Maldonado behind the plate, Andrelton Simmons at shortstop and Mike Trout patrolling center field.

Michael's influence on Eppler also manifests itself in other ways. During meetings with his baseball operations department, Eppler frequently uses an expression he picked up from Michael: "Don't lose your objectivity."

A couple of weeks ago, Eppler had the opportunity to speak with Michael over the phone. At the end of the conversation, Eppler took a moment to thank Michael for the role he played in spurring his own development in baseball.

"I told him how much he meant to me and how thankful I was for all of his work and support and growing me," Eppler said.

Last Thursday, around 6:15 a.m. PT, Eppler was awoken by the sound of a text message from Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, who wrote, "Call me as soon as you get this." Alarmed by the urgency of the message, Eppler called back and received the devastating news about his longtime mentor.

"He was just one of the most genuine people I've ever been around," Eppler said. "I was very lucky to call him a mentor, very lucky to call him a friend. I'm going to miss him. I'm going to deeply miss him."

Maria Guardado covers the Angels for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.