NEW YORK -- The worst-kept secret in baseball was made official early yesterday afternoon when New York Yankees general manager Gene Michael pulled the plug on Stump Merrill's managerial respirator.
Merrill, 47, poised to be fired since late July when his team went into a horrid tailspin, was fired with one year remaining on his contract. His standing in the organization is unsettled. No replacement has been named, and the front office insists there is no timetable to name one.
Although the team improved marginally from a 95-loss last-place season in 1990 to a 71-91 fifth-place record this year, most observers felt Merrill had lost the respect of his ballclub. In addition, many of his players felt Merrill was "overmatched," a statement candidly made by pitcher Greg Cadaret.
Certain incidents "made the whole ballclub feel [Stump] was overmatched. We almost felt we had to win in spite of him," Cadaret said.
Merrill, who did not return phone calls last night, was informed of the firing at Yankee Stadium late Sunday after the Yankees' final game. Michael said he made the decision 3 1/2 weeks ago when he "felt we were in a rut." Michael said Merrill "wasn't happy [when informed]. He didn't feel it was his fault."
The GM also fired most of the coaching staff. Only hitting coach Frank Howard was spared in the purge. Michael also said none of the coaches would be considered for the managerial position.
Michael said he fired the coaches -- first base coach Graig Nettles, third base coach Buck Showalter, bench coach Mike Ferraro, pitching coach Mark Connor and bullpen coach Marc Hill -- to give the new Yankees manager the opportunity to pick his own staff. The chance remains that any or all of the coaches could return with the new manager.
American League sources say Showalter is coveted by several GMs and is considered a managerial star in the making, but Michael insisted yesterday he's looking for a manager with "major-league experience."
Michael said he has a list of "15 or 20" candidates but refused to elaborate. White Sox manager Jeff Torborg and Reds manager Lou Piniella are thought to be on top of Michael's wish list, but Piniella has said he will serve the remaining year on his contract with Cincinnati. As for Torborg, the Yankees might have to battle the Mets in what may amount to a bidding war.
Michael said the selection would be made some time after the World Series and before the December winter meetings.
In explaining Merrill's dismissal, Michael said: "He didn't get fired because of the players. I think we're a little bit better than we showed. I think this ballclub can be righted."