Mar 31, 2020
Steve WulfESPN Senior Writer
- Senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine
- Around long enough to have written about athletes from Hank Aaron to Ben Zobrist and Super Bowls from VII to XLVI.
- Joined ESPN The Magazine as a founding editor in 1998.
- Also wrote for Time, Sports Illustrated, the Fort Lauderdale News and The Evening Sun in Norwich, NY.
This story was originally published on April 5, 2019.
He has made it very exciting tonight. With the Barons leading 5-1, Jordan steps in for the fourth time … two of his three at-bats were near homers … he skied deep to left center when he hit the ball to the wall in the fourth, and then in the sixth, Jordan pulled the ball a little bit more and missed by 2 feet … Fly ball deep to left again, Ratliff going back, back to the warning track, looking up … IT IS GON-ZO JORDAN! He’s done it!
— Curt Bloom, Birmingham Barons play-by-play announcer, July 30, 1994
The Barons don’t play at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium anymore. But until they moved to Regions Field in downtown Birmingham in 2013, the facilities at the old ballpark south of the city paid homage to some of the greats who had passed through. There was the Rollie Fingers Bullpen Deck, named for the Hall of Fame reliever who had pitched for the A’s farm club there in 1967 and ’68, and the Robin Ventura Pavilion, honoring the third baseman who had been a Baron in 1989 before getting called up to the Chicago White Sox, and the Frank Thomas Picnic Area, dedicated to the Hall of Fame slugger who put a Double-A Hurt on Southern League pitchers in 1990. The dining facility? Well, that bore the name of a certain, .202-hitting right fielder for the 1994 Barons.
There was a certain delicious irony to calling it The Michael Jordan Banquet Hall. After all, he started quite a feeding frenzy on the night of April 8, 1994, at the Hoover Met when he made his official professional baseball debut. Wearing No. 45, his old Laney (North Carolina) High number, the 31-year-old émigré from basketball drew a crowd of 10,359, as well as 130 members of the media. They watched him fly out in his first at-bat against Chattanooga starter John Courtright. For the night, and for the record, he went 0-for-3 in a 10-3 loss to the Lookouts. The crowd went home mildly disappointed.
Jordan is long gone from Birmingham, and so are most of the players and coaches who wore the Barons uniform that year. The skipper, Terry Francona, is now in his 20th year of managing in the bigs, with Hall of Fame credentials that include the breaking of the Boston Red Sox‘s 86-year curse in 2004, another World Series trophy three years later and another trip to the Fall Classic with his current team, the Indians. Of the players on that ’94 roster, 20 were either coming down from, or going up to the majors. Jordan never made it to the bigs, but at least he could console himself with his and the Chicago Bulls’ second NBA three-peat.
Nowadays, sports fans look upon his foray into baseball as a whim, and when they look up his numbers and see that he batted .202, they conclude that his baseball career was a bust. Just like that opening night crowd in ’94, they walk away from the memory mildly disappointed.
They could not be more wrong.
I could not have been more wrong.
Just ask Curt Bloom, who’s still in Birmingham, calling Barons games for the 27th straight season. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about that ’94 season,” Bloom said. “I spent 150 days with Michael Jordan. I played basketball with him — I remember trying to set a pick for him in a pickup game, only to have him tell me, ‘I don’t need that.’ Our daughter Chloe will turn 25 this August — she was born right after Michael rubbed my wife’s belly for good luck. I saw him struggle for a few months, but I also saw him become a ballplayer right before my eyes. He worked his butt off, but he enjoyed himself and bonded with the team.
“I swear, he was going to the majors.”
Or ask Mike Barnett, who was the batting coach for the Barons that season and is back with Francona as both the Cleveland Indians‘ replay coordinator and an organizational hitting instructor. “Michael would go after it five times a day,” Barnett, aka Barney, said. “In the cage before breakfast. Regular batting practice. Soft toss. Game BP. Then, after the game, he was back in the cage. His hands were blistered and bleeding, his intensity was off the charts. Don’t look at his batting average. Look at his 51 RBIs — he was never overwhelmed by the moment. He could fly — look at the 30 stolen bases. He hadn’t played since high school, and he was holding his own in Double-A, which is filled with prospects. By August, those routine fly balls in BP were starting to go out. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen something as beautiful on a baseball field as the time Michael Jordan hit the ball into the gap and raced around to third for a triple. Two more seasons, he would’ve been a legitimate extra outfielder for the White Sox, maybe even a starter.”
And if you don’t believe them, ask Tito. “He had it all,” Francona said one morning during spring training in Goodyear, Arizona. “Ability, aptitude, work ethic. He was always so respectful of what we were doing and considerate of his teammates. Granted, he had a lot to learn. I remember once, we’re up 11-0 against Chattanooga, and Michael doubles. Then he steals third! I’m pantomiming an apology to Pat Kelly, the other manager, and he’s laughing. After Michael comes in, ‘I’m like, ‘What are trying to do, get us killed?’ And he says, ‘Well, in the NBA, when you’re up by 20, you try to go up by 30.’
“I do think with another 1,000 at-bats, he would’ve made it. But there’s something else that people miss about that season. Baseball wasn’t the only thing he picked up. I truly believe that he rediscovered himself, his joy for competition. We made him want to play basketball again.
“And he made me a better manager.”
Stat lines can tell you a lot. But in the case of Michael Jordan’s 1994 entry, it doesn’t say anything about the nice bus he got for the Barons, the Yahtzee and Spades games, the pingpong battles and English lessons with catcher Rogelio Nunez, the homage to the Birmingham Black Barons, the night Charles Barkley took over the clubhouse, the thousands of baseballs he signed, the hundreds he hit out of the park in BP, or the epic 4-on-4 pickup game at Rime Village, the players’ apartment complex in Hoover.
The standings that year also leave out a lot. They don’t tell you that the ’94 Barons had a miraculous season.
After all, how many last-place Southern League teams can claim they’re responsible for winning two World Series and three NBA titles?
THE NARRATIVE OF Michael Jordan’s brush with baseball has never quite jibed with the reality, which is a little surprising given his visibility as the greatest of all time. There was always an inscrutable quality about him — he was both above the rim and down to earth — but that doesn’t fully explain how we messed up. When he announced his retirement from the Chicago Bulls on Oct. 6, 1993, he was still in mourning over the murder of his 56-year-old father, James Jordan. So when Michael called another news conference on Feb. 7, 1994 to announce his intentions of going to spring training with the White Sox, a team that happened to be owned by Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, people jumped to all sorts of conclusions. The decision, many felt, was a tribute to his father, who loved baseball and thought his son could follow in the footsteps of two-sport stars Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson. Or, for the suspicious, it was a way to play and lay low while waiting to get clearance from the NBA after a gambling red flag. Or, for the cynical, it was a vanity project that could sell a whole new line of Jordan merchandise.
In reality, Jordan had started to think about giving up basketball for baseball even before the summer of 1992’s Dream Team. He was tired of the basketball grind and all the great expectations, and he wanted to see if he could still play baseball, like his father told him he could. Hey, Mr. Basketball was once North Carolina’s “Mr. Baseball,” as chosen by the Dixie Youth Association. Never mind that he was 12 at the time.
But baseball is hard, and it was made even harder for Jordan by the winds of skepticism. That spring in Sarasota, as fans flocked to see him in a baseball uniform, trigger-happy judges rendered their verdicts. Seasoned ballplayers, journalists and traditionalists curled their lips. I was one of the doubters. I wrote a cover story for Sports Illustrated (“Err Jordan“) that mocked his swing, questioned the sanity of the White Sox and ended with, “Somewhere men are laughing.” The SI editors upped the anti-ante with a cover billing that read, “Bag It, Michael: Jordan And The White Sox Are Embarrassing Baseball.”
The only saving grace of the story was that it noted that he was working really hard. For most of that spring, his batting tutor was Walt Hriniak, whose hit-to-all-fields philosophy worked well with some, but not all players. Because Jordan hadn’t played since he quit baseball two games into his senior year of high school, the lessons were a little like Einstein teaching a sixth-grade student arithmetic.
On March 31, Jordan was assigned to Double-A Birmingham, a pretty heady stop given his inexperience. They started lining up right away — Barons fans wanting to buy tickets, reporters wanting a word with Tito. But the season was still a week away, so Mike Barnett went to work. “Walt was a great batting coach,” Barnett said now, at the Indians’ spring complex. “But his school of hitting wasn’t quite right for Michael. He was standing way off the plate and diving into the pitch. I moved him closer to the plate and got him to stride forward into the ball and use his hips and those long arms of his. I figured the pitchers were going to challenge him to hit their fastballs.”
Jordan also got a quick lesson in minor league life from Francona. “He wanted to know if we flew between cities. I had to tell him that we rode buses. Birmingham to Orlando? 12 hours.”
Jordan did get one last look at the big leagues in the April 7 Windy City Classic between the White Sox and the Cubs at Wrigley Field. The batting lessons seemed to be paying off: he went 2-for-5 as the crosstown rivals played to a 4-4, 10-inning tie.
He went hitless in his first two official games, but got two hits against Knoxville in his third. By the end of the opening six-game homestand, he was batting .250. He had also been working behind the scenes with the Thrasher Brothers transportation company to get the Barons an upgrade from the old Trailways bus they had used the previous year. Said Francona: “Michael had asked me, ‘What if I get us a bus?’ I don’t want to get fired, so I got permission, and the next day, four new buses showed up in our parking lot. The first one must’ve been a bus for a rock group — really nice for Michael and me and the coaches, but no room for the other players. We ended up choosing a really nice bus that could’ve been for The Partridge Family. Michael autographed the outside, and the Jordancruiser was born.”
So while it’s true that Jordan did “get” them the bus, contrary to popular legend, he did not buy it. The Thrasher Brothers got what they were looking for — publicity. As for the players: “I wanted to kiss it,” said Kenny Coleman, a utility infielder on the team. “Our old bus had no temperature control. It was either too hot or too cold. The new one felt like a spaceship.”
On that first road trip, Jordan took off like a spaceship. He went on a 13-game hitting streak that left him with a .327 batting average. He looked like GOAT 2.0. But, as Barnett said: “It was bound to end. I kept waiting for the pitchers to stop challenging him with fastballs and start throwing him breaking balls, and by the end of April, they were.”
It was around this time that a freelance writer from Portland, Oregon, named Jim Patton showed up to do a book on Jordan’s first season. The trouble was that he didn’t get clearance from David Falk, Jordan’s agent, so he quickly discovered that his access was going to be severely limited. Still, that didn’t stop him from hanging around all season and writing “Rookie” (Addison-Wesley 1995), an amusing and observant look at that season.
“It didn’t sell at all,” Patton said during a telephone call from Italy, where he’s working on a book about sex trafficking. “A lot of the reviewers were like. ‘It’s no good because Patton didn’t have access,’ but that was sort of the point. Anyway, I did get one rave review. [The reviewer] called it ‘smart, funny and totally ignored.'”
In the book, the reader meets the Barons’ dog mascot, Babe Ruff, and hears “Sirius” by the Alan Parsons Project, the Bulls’ theme song and Jordan’s walk-up music. Patton’s description of the time Jordan lost his bejeweled necklace in right field, necessitating a search party every half-inning, is a study in irony, ending with its discovery and “the biggest ovation of the night.”
Although Jordan refused to sit down with him, Patton was there when he gave a revealing postgame news conference in Orlando the night after the Bulls were eliminated from the playoffs. Asked how he was fitting in, given the age difference between himself and his teammates, he said, “I feel older than these guys in a sense, like their big brother, and I try to tell ’em what’s right and wrong in certain situations, like dealing with the press. In other ways, I feel like their little brother: they’re teaching me to play the game of baseball. In terms of who I hang out with, I hang out with everybody.”
It’s immeasurable and overlooked, but the ability to get along is an essential tool in baseball, especially given the long and arduous schedule. And Jordan had that knack. “He was great with everyone,” said Coleman, who’s now a senior executive with the Southern Company utility. “We had this pingpong table in the clubhouse, and the best player was Rogelio Nunez, our Dominican catcher. He and Jordan would go at it all the time, but almost every day, Michael would give him a different English word to learn — and $100 for each word he did. By the end of the season, Nunie’s English was much better, he was richer, and Jordan was beating him in pingpong.
“Because I played basketball at the University of New Haven, I loved getting on the court with [Jordan],” Coleman said. “But it wasn’t just the play that bonded him to us. When he needed baseball advice, he leaned on us. Kerry Valrie basically taught him how to play the outfield. We saw how good he could be, and we became invested in making him better.”
Jordan also hung out with the coaches a lot. There was the age factor, of course, and the shared life experiences, but there was also Yahtzee, the dice game that Francona taught him back on the first road trip. “We played it all the time,” Francona said. “This still makes me laugh. One night, he’s in the office after a game in which we got only four hits, and I look at the box score while we’re playing Yahtzee and see that he had two of them. I say, ‘Michael, you were half our offense tonight.’ And without missing a beat, he says, “Not the first time in my life that’s happened.'”
Jordan would occasionally deign to play hoops with the mortals. “I can safely tell you this now,” Francona said, “but if I told you back in ’94, I might’ve gotten fired.
“We had just come back to Birmingham after a Sunday morning game in Huntsville [a 5-4 win on May 22, in which Michael went 0-for-5]. We decide to play a 4-on-4 game at Rime Village, where a lot of the players stayed. The three coaches plus Michael versus four of our better basketball players.”
Scott Tedder, a 6-foot-4 outfielder who was the all-time leading scorer as a shooting guard at Ohio Wesleyan, was one of the players. “Let’s see,” he said from his office at Hibbet Sports in Birmingham, where he’s a real estate manager. “It was me, our catcher Chris Tremie, outfielder Kevin Coughlin and pitcher Brian Givens, who was like 6-6. The game was to 16, win by two. One point for a basket, two points for a three.”
“Nobody was watching us at the start of the game,” Barnett said, “but by the end, there were hundreds of people ringing the court.”
“This was back in the day before cellphones,” Tedder said. “Word traveled fast.”
“Me and Barney were just along for the ride,” said Kirk Champion, who was the pitching coach and still works in the White Sox organization. “Once you gave the ball to either Tito or Michael, you weren’t going to see it again.”
“Scott was a really good shooter,” Barnett said.
“I hit maybe four 3s,” said Tedder, who’s now in the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame. “But you could tell Michael was holding back. When we get up 15-11 — one more basket to win — Michael says to me, kind of matter-of-fact, ‘Kid, you’re not going to score any more.’ The next thing we know, we’ve lost, 17-15, and the coaches are celebrating.”
That oh-fer earlier that day had dropped Michael’s average to .221. His batting average for May was just .165. While he couldn’t hit curveballs, he did get a chance to hit golf balls with two of the best and one of the worst. The day after his average dropped below the Mendoza Line (.200) for the first time, Jordan played in a charity tournament in Birmingham along with Lee Trevino, Arnold Palmer and Barkley. Later that night, Barkley and Bills linebacker (and Birmingham native) Cornelius Bennett enlivened the Barons’ clubhouse after a 4-1 defeat.
To honor former Black Barons Satchel Paige and Willie Mays, and maybe change his luck, Jordan began wearing his pants high in the style of the Negro Leagues. That didn’t help his average, but Barnett assured a reporter that “his average has gone down, but he’s actually a better hitter than he was during his 13-game hitting streak.”
Looking back 25 years, Barnett sees the challenge for Jordan as twofold. “Before you can hit breaking balls, you have to recognize them, and that takes time and experience,” he said. “But even then, after you have the epiphany, you have to learn how to act on it, how to pounce on the hangers. He was getting to that stage.”
As best as they could, the coaches tried to keep Jordan’s spirits up. They pointed out that every aspect of his game was getting better. Said Barnett, “On a scale of 20 to 80, his throwing arm went from 20 in spring training to 50 by August.” But there was no doubt that he was getting down on himself, especially after his average dropped to .186 on July 29.
That’s why that first home run was so important. It came on Saturday, July 30 on his 354th at bat of the season, in front of the Barons’ largest crowd (13,751) since the Hoover Met opened in 1988. With the Barons leading the Carolina Mudcats 5-1 in the bottom of the eighth, Jordan hit a 2-0 fastball from Kevin Rychel over the left-center field fence. He slowly circled the bases and then was mobbed at home plate as he pointed skyward, mindful that he had just given his father, born on July 31, an early 58th birthday present. “It still makes me emotional because I wish he was here to see it,” Jordan told reporters afterward. “But I know he saw it.”
“What a moment,” Bloom said. “It still gives me chills. Yes, I’d been hoping I could use my ‘Gonzo’ home run call for Michael before the end of the season, but I was mostly happy for him because I know how hard he had worked to earn it.”
The first two Barons to congratulate Jordan were the batters coming up behind him in the order, Troy Fryman and Kenny Coleman. “I’m the little one,” Coleman said. “Number 25. It was like watching history. It felt like a scene from “The Natural.” I kept expecting the light tower to explode.”
For the record, the ball was retrieved from beyond the fence by two young fans, Eugene Stancil and Nick Parker, who returned it to Jordan in exchange for two autographed baseballs.
Two autographed baseballs are also what Knoxville Smokies pitcher Jeff Ware got the day after he gave up Jordan’s second homer on August 8, a three-run blast that helped the Barons to an 8-6 victory at the Hoover Met. As Ware described it for Rob Neyer in his oral history of the season for Complex two years ago, “I talked to Jordan the next day in the outfield. … He was great, seemed like just another guy on the baseball team. I got two baseballs signed, which I still have.”
THAT AUGUST, during the Major League Baseball strike, I took a trip to Birmingham to see for myself. Jordan was still well below the Mendoza Line, but as I watched him hit rope after rope in a darkened cage at the Hoover Met, I realized I had been wrong. He had a big league swing with bat speed, and he was working his butt off with Barnett. I decided to write a mea culpa. The SI editors read the piece, then told me to bag it.
Jordan hit his third home run on August 20, a solo shot off Glen Cullop in the seventh inning of a blowout 12-4 win over the Chattanooga Lookouts at the Hoove. He was hitting .195 at the time, but closed out the season with one three-hit game and a pair of two-hit games that raised his average above .200. In his last official game, a 4-2 win at Huntsville on September 3, Jordan went 0-for-4 to finish at .202.
That’s not bad for someone who hadn’t played organized baseball since his senior year of high school. Then, in the Arizona Fall League, against even better competition, he hit .255. “He was on his way, I thought,” Barnett said. (Barnett certainly was — he would later become the hitting coach for the Toronto Blue Jays, Kansas City Royals and Houston Astros.)
More important, he had fallen in love with baseball. “I know how he felt,” said Tedder, who was once one of the top salespeople in the country for Jordan apparel. “In basketball, you’re in a hurry to get out of there. In baseball, you hang around and make friends for life.”
There was just one problem, though. Jordan didn’t want any part of the MLB work stoppage. So, in March 1995, when there was no end in sight to the strike, he announced he was returning to the NBA. The White Sox lost a fifth outfielder. The Bulls gained three more titles.
Through an intermediary, Jordan politely declined to be interviewed for this story or respond to a few questions. One of them was about his affection for baseball. But his answer comes through loud and clear in “For The Love of The Game: My Story,” which he wrote with the assistance of sportswriter Mark Vancil in 1998. Here’s Jordan on his season with the Barons:
How would I describe my baseball experience? I would describe it now the same way I described it then. Every moment was a warm one. I remember looking up in the sky from time to time and being amazed at how much my life had changed. I had no fear. Just a warm feeling. I can’t describe the sense exactly, but now it seems like I was living a dream.
Would he have made the majors? Jim Patton is still skeptical. “Yes, his hitting was improving,” the author said. “But he was 31 and running out of time. Maybe Francona and Barnett have a sentimental thing there. I just don’t see it.”
One thing is certain. That summer did Jordan a world of good. “It was like a spiritual retreat,” said Vancil, now the managing partner of Williams Inference, a business intelligence concern. “It was a chance to turn down the volume and go back to a place where he was a 19-year-old kid again. He came back to basketball a different player.”
Twenty-five years and five titles later, Michael and Tito still stay in touch. “We meant a lot to each other,” Francona said. “Managing him was the best learning experience I’ve ever had. I loved that season. He showed us grit and courage and grace under pressure. And in return, we made him feel young again.”
Gonzo Jordan. He’s done it.