The Oral History of Michael Jordan's Minor League Baseball Career

Michael Jordan's attempts to play professional baseball got off to a slow start, but if the G.O.A.T. had stuck with it, he may have made the majors.

Michael Jordan No. 45 Birmingham Barons Illustration
Complex Original

Michael Jordan No. 45 Birmingham Barons Illustration

Michael Jordan No. 45 Birmingham Barons Illustration

It shocked the world. On the 6th of October, 1993, the world’s most famous professional athlete announced his retirement. But people close to Michael Jordan were not completely surprised. Because for more than a year, he’d been talking about it.

A few months prior, in June, Jordan’s Chicago Bulls had wrapped up their third straight NBA championship. Just over a month later, Jordan’s father James went missing—he had been murdered by two strangers, who stole his Lexus with the UNC0023 license plate. On August 3, a badly decomposed body was found in a swampy South Carolina creek; two days later, the Lexus was found abandoned in Fayetteville, North Carolina. The connection was quickly made, and the Jordan family prepared for a funeral service.

In September, Jordan’s agent informed Bulls (and White Sox) owner Jerry Reinsdorf that Jordan would probably retire. According to Jordan biographer Roland Lazenby, the wavering superstar asked coach Phil Jackson “how the coach would get him through another 82-game regular season, because he had absolutely no motivation, saw no challenge in it. Jackson had no good answer.”

So, in a televised press conference, Jordan announced his retirement from the NBA, saying he’d lost his “sense of motivation, the sense to prove something as a basketball player.”

Reinsdorf said of Jordan, “He’s living the American Dream. The American Dream is to reach a point in your life where you don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna do, and everything that you do wanna do.”

But what did Jordan want to do? He wasn’t saying, yet. But he’d already told Reinsdorf, “I want to play baseball”—James Jordan’s long-held dream for his son.

Sure, Michael had been an outstanding baseball player—as a kid. At 12, he’d been named North Carolina’s “Mr. Baseball” by the Dixie Youth Association. He played Babe Ruth ball, and in high school. But he’d quit baseball two games into his senior season, when he was 18. Now he was 31.

A few other superstar professional athletes had quit while still at the top of their games—most famously, the NFL’s Jim Brown—but none had quit to pursue a career in another professional sport. But that winter in Chicago, Jordan worked out for several weeks with White Sox trainer Herm Schneider and various White Sox players. On February 7, he signed with the White Sox and held another press conference. “This is something that has been in the back of my mind for a long time,” Jordan said, “and something that my father and I talked about often.”

What happened over the next year-plus, on baseball diamonds and in pickup basketball games and during long bus rides, will never be forgotten by the players and coaches and broadcasters and front-office workers who were there, just hanging on for the wild ride that would be Michael Jordan’s baseball career, so brief but no less spectacular, in its way, than his basketball career.

Michael Jordan Oral History Baseball Press Conference

Spring Training

Jordan reported to spring training in Sarasota, Florida. On March 4, wearing No. 45 on his jersey, he got his first (unofficial) professional at-bat, grounding out to Rangers pitcher Darren Oliver. Ultimately, Jordan would collect only seven hits in 46 spring-training at-bats, both before and after his demotion to minor-league camp. Midway through spring training, Sports Illustrated published a highly skeptical take on Jordan’s baseball future. The story was titled “Err Jordan” butthe cover was even less subtle, with a photo of Jordan flailing at an off-speed pitch, accompanied by the headline “Bag it, Michael! Jordan and the White Sox are embarrassing baseball.”

Steve Noworyta, White Sox farm director: The thing that really surprised me? When he flew into Sarasota for spring training, I picked him up. It was obvious that he never wanted to be above us, but always amongst us. I showed him where he would be living, and we went to the grocery store. I asked him, “Are you sure you want to go inside a grocery store?” The whole spring, [he was] never above anybody, treated everyone the same..

Gene Lamont, White Sox manager: When I heard about Michael playing baseball, I didn’t really know where it came from, why he wanted to do it. But he was great, didn’t want to be treated any differently than the other players. He couldn’t have been any better. The one thing that came up: The original plan was for him to talk to the media every third day. But I went to him and said, “You need to talk to them every day.” Because it wouldn’t have been fair for Frank Thomas and Robin Ventura and Ozzie Guillen to be getting all the questions about Michael Jordan on the other days. We were coming off winning our division, playing Toronto in the playoffs. We had the MVP in Frank Thomas, the Cy Young in Jack McDowell. So I wanted spring training to be about those guys, not about something else.

George Koehler, author Driven From Within: Michael Jordan (Simon & Schuster, 2012): What Michael did to get himself ready to play baseball was grueling. He would get up every morning, way ahead of the other players.

The hitting instructor was Walt Hriniak. Michael would go into the cage and take what baseball players called flips. He would do that for an hour to 90 minutes. Then the team would show up, and Michael would go through the regular practice, which ran about three hours. Then he would talk to the media for a few minutes before going back out for another half-hour to an hour, taking more flips.

If you haven’t swung a baseball bat in a while and decided to pick one up and swing it for 15 minutes, your hands would have blisters. His hands were so raw from taking flips that the calluses would rip open every day.

When he came off the field, I don’t know how he could have held anything, much less a bat. The trainers would put a clear, rubberized patch over the inside of his hands. Then they would wrap his hands in gauze and tape. He looked like a prizefighter.

"The first time I saw him fielding, he looked like a five-year-old going for fly balls, catching everything on the run with two hands."

He’s coming to Birmingham

Throughout spring training, there was a great deal of speculation about where Jordan—assuming that he and the White Sox continued this strange experiment—would open the baseball season. Finally, on the last day of March he was officially assigned to the Class AA Southern League’s Birmingham Barons, managed by Terry Francona.

Wayne Martin, reporter with The Birmingham News: I was in Sarasota when they announced he was coming to Birmingham. That’s when I had my first meeting with him, sitting there in the clubhouse alone, eating a Big Mac. I said, “What are you doing eating a Big Mac?” And he said, “Hey man, McDonald’s pays me.”

Terry Francona, Barons manager: I remember that morning so well. We would have minor-league meetings every morning at 7:30, just to sort of go over the day, talk about the players. That morning I was tired, barely listening. Then somebody said Michael would be with the Birmingham work group, which meant he was coming to Birmingham. Well, I still didn’t think much about it.

By the time I got outside, the media already had the news. I realized my world had been turned upside down, and it was the best learning experience I could ever have been placed in. All of a sudden you’re dealing with Ted Koppel and Hard Copy is following the bus, and you’re walking a line like you’re supposed to.

Bill Hardekopf, Barons president and general manager: That was one of the most thrilling days in anybody’s career. It was March 31, a week and a day before our first home game. I knew I was going to find out that morning, one way or the other. There was going to be a staff meeting at eight o’clock, one way or the other. At a quarter to eight, my phone at home rang. It was Ron Schueler and he said, “He’s coming. We’re going to make an announcement at eight, and just wanted you to know.”

My home was 10 minutes away from Hoover Met, so I’m there at eight o’clock for our staff meeting. We’re in a room on the ground floor that overlooks the parking lot. We’ve got no idea how long Michael’s going to stay, I told everybody, but here’s the plan we’ve been talking about. At 8:05, someone looks outside and there are six cars entering our parking area. The ticket office wasn’t open yet, but the cars kept coming and coming. It was like the last scene in Field of Dreams.

Life With Michael

Michael Jordan could never just be one of the guys. Not with his fancy cars, his big rental house in an exclusive neighborhood, and the thousands of fans who showed up for every one of his games. Early on, he laid claim to one of the best seats on the team bus, too. But Jordan worked harder than anyone and did his best to fit in with his much younger, much poorer teammates…

Scott Tedder, Barons outfielder: We didn’t realize how crazy things would be until we got on the road and it was like traveling with a rock star, with people wanting to glimpse him, to touch him.

He worked so hard. He would come in for early work in batting practice. Then if he didn’t have a good game, he’d stay for BP after the game. He’d still be out there hitting at 11 p.m.

He made all the bus trips, nine, twelve hours to Zebulon, North Carolina; Orlando, Florida. Now you look back and, wow, it was Michael Jordan out there. But after a while he was just another teammate. Michael just liked being around us. He was a unique, great guy. Nothing bad to say about the guy. He was an awesome teammate.

Kenny Coleman, Barons infielder: The lady that took care of him, cooking and cleaning for him, she’d have us over to the house. We’d just sit around and chew the fat. I never heard him say, but I think baseball was his getaway from the bright lights. Hell, he just wanted to go out and get away, just like the rest of us. Mike was just one of the guys. We’d all just hang out and play dominoes, spades, whatever, in the locker room or on the bus. I still say I thought he cheated—he was so competitive; if he needed to hide an ace to win, he would.

Francona: We played a lot of Yahtzee. Was he competitive? He’s competitive in everything.

I’ll tell you a story. We were in Zebulon, North Carolina. This is the first time he’s back in Carolina to play baseball, so it’s a big deal. Everybody wants to talk to him. Some pretty big-name guys were there.

This was before they built the clubhouses there, so we were out in this trailer. After the game, me and the coaches were in there playing Yahtzee. Michael came by and saw us and said, “Hey, what are you guys doing?”

And I said, “Fuck, man, weren’t you ever a kid? We’re playing Yahtzee.”

“Well, teach me.”

“Sure, Mike. Any time.”

“No, teach me now.”

So I had to run out and tell all the media that Mike was in the cage, working with Barney on his swing, while we taught him how to play Yahtzee. We played the rest of the season. Do you know how many games of Yahtzee you can play on a 12-hour bus trip?

LaTroy Hawkins, Nashville Xpress pitcher: I remember the first time I ever saw him. I was out early, went for a run around the ballpark. I had my Walkman on, was listening to music. Then this black Porsche rolls up; I could hear the sound system through my headphones. It was playing “Sweet Sadie,” by R. Kelly: Don’t you know I love you, Sweet Sadie. I knew it had to be him.

So I looked at my watch: 2:30. The next day, I made sure I was back there at exactly the same time. Here comes the Porsche again, and this time I went up to the car. The window rolls down and it’s him and I said, “How are you doing, Mr. Jordan? My name is LaTroy Hawkins, and I play for Nashville. You think I could get an autograph?”

And he said, “Nope.”

And I said, “Aw, that’s all right. I just wanted it for my mother anyway.”

He said, “I’m just messing with you, man. Sure.”

I’ve still got that autograph, back home in my grandparents’ house somewhere.

Michael Jordan Swinging Missing Oral History of Baseball Career

When Michael Almost Quit

Early on, Jordan almost made professional baseball look easy. After going 0 for 7 in his first two games with the Barons, he reeled off a 13-game hitting streak that gave him a .327 batting average in late April. Then things started looking...hard.

Kirk Champion, Barons pitching coach: I think he had a tough night in Memphis, really scuffling. And that night he was talking to Tito [Terry Francona]. You know, the discussion was, Can he get it?

Mike Barnett, Barons hitting coach: You have those periods with any player, really. Especially young players, trying to develop. He was so used to things coming to him easily. You just gotta battle through it, continue to work. We just kinda eased his mind, you know, “This isn’t something that’s going to come over night.” The changes he’d made, progress he’d made, the feel for his body, his athleticism, made them come faster than they would for most guys. But it’s not just flipping a switch and suddenly you’re going to be a good hitter. Don’t expect there won’t be bumps in the road, because there certainly will.

Francona: Yeah, it was in Memphis. I think he was pretty down. It was probably three months into the season, and it was hard for him. He wasn’t seeing the games he wanted to see. I finally said to him, “Look, you’re here for these reasons. So why would you be miserable? If you’re here for these reasons, you should be enjoying it.”

I don’t know if you can just push a button and somebody’s happy. But when you’re the manager, part of the job is at least trying.

Pitching Against Michael

Leaving aside the autograph opportunities, pitching against Michael Jordan was a no-win situation, because every Double-A pitcher was expected to overwhelm him at the plate. In his first at-bat with Birmingham, he faced Chattanooga’s John Courtwright and flied out. In his eighth at-bat, he stroked a single off Knoxville’s Joe Ganote for his first official, professional hit.

Hawkins: I knew there was a chance I’d pitch against him, because Birmingham was in our league. When I was still in Fort Myers, I heard about him from some of our rovers, and I thought that pitching to him would be one of the coolest things that could ever happen. I grew up 35 minutes away from [Chicago Stadium], watched every game on TV, was a huge Bulls fan.

I think I started against them twice. Jordan got a hit off me, and then I picked him off first base. I also punched him out at least once—I think I faced him five times total. One game at home, one at their place. I told him later, “My mom told me to throw you all fastballs. That’s why you got that hit off me.”

C.J. Nitkowski, Chattanooga Lookouts pitcher: I made 14 starts with Chattanooga, two of them against the Barons, and faced Jordan for a total of five at-bats. Of course everybody asks me, “How’d you do?” Well, I struck him out twice…and me being me, I also walked him three times.

I also tell people that with all the great hitters I faced in my career, I was nervous on the mound only twice: facing Michael Jordan that first year, then later facing Frank Thomas.

You should get Michael Jordan out. It’s a situation where you’ve got nothing to gain and everything to lose. So if anything, it’s about not embarrassing yourself. The idea was basically just to throw fastballs he couldn’t catch up with, get ahead, and then he’d have no chance on a good breaking ball.

Jeff Ware, Knoxville Smokies pitcher: Everybody did their best to get him out. I wasn’t going to throw him any cookies, that’s for sure. With Jordan’s long arms, the idea was to pound inside with fastballs. Well, I didn’t get in there far enough and he hit it out in left-center [Ed. note—one of Jordan's three home runs that summer]. I was a little pissed off at myself.

I talked to Jordan the next day in the outfield. Before our BP, he was shagging fly balls and I went out and shot the breeze with him, said, “Why do you gotta take me deep like that?” He was great, seemed like just another guy on the baseball team. I got two baseballs signed, which I still have.

"Without the strike, I think he would have been in Triple-A in ‘95, and in the major leagues as a fourth outfielder by the end of the year."

The JordanCruiser

The Barons’ team bus—unofficially immortalized as the JordanCruiser—might have been the newest team bus in professional baseball, and it might even have been the nicest. But it wasn’t, despite popular opinion, the result of Michael Jordan’s largesse.

Curt Bloom, Barons radio broadcaster: I’ve been on a lot of buses, and here’s what made this one different: Michael sat on it. The bus is the greatest story ever. The bus itself needs a 30 for 30.

Michael never bought the bus. All his name did was arrange for and help three companies to put the bus together, and make it a little bit nicer than your average bus. I guess he thought we were flying, and then he found it was a bus and he goes, “Ooohhh.”

Chris Pika, Barons media relations: No, Michael did not buy the bus. And we did not lie about that. I remember a national TV show wanted to come out, and they wanted to get someone on camera with the check that bought the bus. When we told them Michael wasn’t actually writing a check, they called back and said we’re not coming. We tried to correct it at every turn. Really, the bus wasn’t anything special. A little more leg room, and a card table in the back.

Alan Thrasher, Thrasher Brothers Trailways: So they announce he’s coming to Birmingham, and pretty soon we get a phone call: “Hey, Michael’s a little worried, and he’s wondering if there’s something we can do here.” See, guys in spring training are telling him every nightmare story about bus rides, just to terrify him. “Can we get a new bus?”

This was the ‘90s, and in the motor-coach industry in the ‘90s, Birmingham was where old buses came to die. But, you know, they say Michael Jordan’s got the golden touch. We’d always used old equipment, buying from Trailways. But if Michael wanted a new bus…

When this first came up, we got the word that Michael would be willing to help, if need be. Meanwhile, it became known that Michael Jordan wants a new bus. And it just so happens that MCI [Motor Coach Industries] has this new bus, this 45-foot demo. Well, they fell all over themselves; and Michael’s people worked out all the details. We wound up getting the bus at 1 a.m., and at 7 a.m. we’ve got a press conference, presenting the bus to Michael.

What we always said was something like, “Michael was responsible for arrangements being made for the Barons to have a nice new bus.” Which was 100 percent true.

It sold at a premium [in 2006]. I don’t know the exact figure, but I’ll say we sold it for something like $250,000. Without the two [Michael Jordan] signatures on the bus? More like $150,000.

The First Home Run

With the Barons hosting the Carolina Mudcats on July 30, Jordan had played in exactly 100 games without hitting a single home run; his batting average stood at .186. There were 13,751 fans in Hoover Met—a new record for the stadium—including Jordan’s mother, wife, brother, and sister. In the eighth inning, Mudcats right-hander Kevin Rychel shook off his catcher’s sign for a slider, and instead threw a fastball. With a 1-and-1 count, it was just the pitch Jordan was looking for...

Noworyta: I was there for his first home run. I was there with my wife and my son (who was just a baby then). My wife had a video camera and was recording everything, every at-bat, and I told her, “Look, there’s no reason to do that.” And then I’ll be damned if he didn’t come up and hit that home run.

Bloom: The magic of that first home run, you can’t make that up. That game, he had come close in the previous two at-bats. The whole place is going crazy, and first he hits it to the warning track, then he hits one off the wall. And then he cleared the wall. You can hear my call: He did it! I wanted to say, Holy shit, he did it! He did it!

As he rounded the bases, I kept my eye on him. When he got between third base and home, he pointed to the sky. It was his father’s birthday. How about that?

Michael Jordan, from Barons press release: Ironically, it was the day before my father’s birthday and it is a great tribute to him. That is the best birthday present I can give him. Once I got to the plate, I just kind of paid tribute to my father, which I was planning to do. I was going to point up to him and say that was for you. It was a great feeling. It still makes me kind of emotional because I wish he was here to see it, but I know he saw it.

Michael Jordan Oral History Baseball Career Home Run

Hanging at Sammy’s

For the most part, Jordan avoided any controversy during his season in the Southern League. But then there was that time he was looking for a good place to hang with Charles Barkley...

Doug Segrest, reporter with The Birmingham News: We’d gotten a tip in the newsroom: “Hey, I’m at Sammy’s Go-Go and you wouldn’t believe who’s here.” I was already working on a story on Jordan's life away from the ballpark. So I headed there late, late at night. But when I arrived, they were gone. A manager who called himself Sammy Jr.—which was obviously a pseudonym—confirmed that Michael had been there. He said the funny thing was, there were 20 naked girls on the stage and 200 men, and all the men were staring into a corner, where Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley were talking—oblivious to the surroundings. I think they just wanted to talk, and figured that was the one place they could go where no one would bother them. You know, in Birmingham the strip joints are very average, not really something that Michael Jordan would find particularly enticing.

Wayne Martin, The Birmingham News: Doug Segrest wrote a story for the paper about what Michael Jordan did when he was away from the ballpark. So Doug finds outs Michael spends time in this sports bar, and also a strip club. The paper says, “Hey, we don’t want to give any of these places free advertising if he didn’t actually go there.” And they called me to verify with Jordan that he actually went there. So Jordan’s shagging flies before the game, and he comes in, and I tell him we want to verify these places he goes. He says go ahead, and I say this sports bar. Sure, he says. And I say, also Sammy’s Go-Go. And he says, “Man, you’re not going to quote me as saying I go to Sammy’s Go-Go.” It came out later, though.

Rubin Grant, reporter with Birmingham Post-Herald: It was late in the year. I wrote a column saying essentially what I thought of his playing, and that if he stays in baseball next year, he should come back to Birmingham and maybe he’ll get to Triple-A later in the season. And at the end of the column, I said that if he does come back, maybe he can find his way to the inner city. If he has time to visit nightclubs—yeah, I probably mentioned Sammy’s Go-Go—he could visit kids in the inner city, too.

That night, he was really upset about it. He dropped a couple of f-bombs, and said he would not talk to me one-on-one again. So that was maybe the last Tuesday or Wednesday of the last home stand. Well, the last home game was Sunday, and I went up to him and we kinda hashed it out. He said he would have done some stuff in the city, but nobody asked him.

"the funny thing was, there were 20 naked girls on the stage and 200 men, and all the men were staring into a corner, where Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley were talking."

The Fall League

In the Barons’ last Saturday home game, they drew 16,247 fans, setting a new attendance record. Jordan played in five more games, his last coming on Sept. 3 in Huntsville, Alabama. He finished with 12 hits in his last 40 at-bats, lifting his batting average from .192 to .202 at season’s end.

After taking a few weeks off, Jordan reported first to Sarasota to get back in game shape, then to the Arizona Fall League’s Scottsdale Scorpions, where his teammates included various White Sox, Red Sox, and Royals prospects, all of them far younger than him. And just as he’d been in the Southern League, Jordan would become a hard-working, crowd-drawing, sensation in Arizona, too.

Steve Cobb, executive vice president, Arizona Fall League: He had a dramatic impact on us. The non-Scottsdale games that season averaged roughly 225 people per game. For Scottsdale games, home and away, the average was 1,788 fans per game. So roughly 1,500 more fans per game, on average. All walk-ups, because in those days we didn’t sell tickets in advance.

The previous year, our largest single crowd was roughly 3,100. When Michael Jordan came, we topped that mark six times. I remember three of those in particular.

First, there was Opening Night. October 6, Tempe Diablo Stadium. There were more than 6,100 people at the game, and you would look out and see lines of cars trying to get into the parking lot. October 19, the game was nationally televised by Prime Sports Network. Scottsdale at Peoria.

And then there was the biggest crowd we’ve ever had in the history of the league. It was a Monday night in Tucson; we went down and played one game at old Hi Corbett Field. The Scorpions played the Rafters down there. It might have been 45 degrees that night, and we had 7,800 people in the stands.

Bob Herold, Scorpions hitting coach: Walt [Hriniak] came in for a week. Mike Barnett came in for a week. So yeah, I stayed away from [Jordan]. He was battling. But, you know, any port in a storm. So maybe a month in, he came over and said, “Hey, would you work with me?”

And I said, “Well, my family just showed up.”

He said, “That’s fine. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

I went and told my wife and she said, “What are you doing? This is your chance to share the gospel with this guy.” So I went back and found him and we got to work, while my daughter’s running around in the outfield under the sprinklers.

The next morning, he shows up early. I was working with three other guys: Larry Sutton, Joe Randa, and Gregg Zaun. That first day, these guys all defer to him. And I said, “Nope, whoever got here first, goes first.” And from that day on, he was always the first guy there.

Barnett: I wasn’t on the coaching staff, but after a week or two, he calls me and says, “When are you gonna come out?” So I went out there for 10 days, two weeks, and worked with him. The Fall League then was the cream of the crop from Double-A; teams were still sending their best pitchers. He ended up hitting .255 out there. Most players take three or four years to get to that point.

Herold: I was the outfield coach, too. The first time I saw him fielding, he looked like a 5-year-old going for fly balls, catching everything on the run with two hands. I told him, “A big man like you has to catch those on the side, with one hand.” And he said, “That’s how my dad taught me, catching everything with two hands. That’s how you play the game right.” Sure, if you’re standing still. And I’m wondering, I’m really the first guy to tell this guy how to catch the ball right?

I was coaching in the Royals organization. I didn’t have a problem with him at all, but I can tell you there were definitely a lot of guys in baseball who were hoping for him to fail. Just because they didn’t like the idea of somebody who hadn’t played in 14 or 15 years jumping right in and doing better than them.

Steve Gilbert, Arizona Fall League media relations: Terry Francona and I were supposed to have dinner one night and instead he tells me, “Some of the guys are going to play basketball over at Club SAR. Why don’t you come with me? Michael will probably be there.”

So we’re playing, and I’m on the team with Francona and Jordan and the coaches, against these young Fall League players. I’m covering Curtis Goodwin, who I think stole 59 bases that season in the Eastern League. I played some basketball in high school, but these guys were real athletes. I must have spent the whole game just hanging on to Goodwin’s shirt.

Apparently I was so nervous about being in a game with Michael Jordan that I didn’t really take any deep breaths, and could not catch my breath after the game. The trainers and everybody were there—they all wanted to see Michael Jordan playing basketball. They checked me out and said, “We’d feel better if you went over to the hospital to get checked out.” I really didn’t want to go. I mean, how embarrassing. But they insisted. So one of the security guys drives me over, and the hospital’s packed with people. But a few minutes later I’m in my own little room, and I’m getting oxygen. And all these people are coming in and out, all asking, “So what was it like, playing basketball with Michael Jordan?” His security guard, I guess, told them who I’d been with, to get me bumped to the head of the line.

After being asked that a few times, I finally told someone, “What’s it like? What’s it like? I’m in the hospital—that’s what it’s like playing fucking basketball with Michael Jordan!”

The next day I walked into the clubhouse and Michael sees me and motions me over. “You can’t play basketball with us anymore,” he said. “Because I can’t have fun if I’ve got to worry about you keeling over.”

Cobb: It’s the last day of the season. Scottsdale did not win their division. You can imagine that guys wanted to get out of Dodge yesterday. Well, Michael taps me on the shoulder. I turn around, look up at him, and he says, “Steve, I just want to thank you for my time here.”

I’ve now been doing this for 24 years, and I’ve never, ever had another player thank me for being in the Arizona Fall League. Not anyone. Except Michael Jordan. Are you kidding me?

Michael Jordan Oral History of Baseball Career Pickup Basketball Hospital

“I’m Back”

The 1994 strike had cost Major League Baseball the last six weeks of the ‘94 season and the entire postseason. Nonetheless, in February 1995, Jordan reported to spring training in Florida and got right back to work. Spike Lee had filmed an Air Jordan commercial with Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Stan Musial, and Junior Griffey—plus Chicago Cubs first baseman Bill Buckner, with both Buckner and Jordan winking at their shaky fielding. The spot debuted during Saturday Night Live on March 4—only to be pulled from the air six days later. Because on the 10th, with no end in sight to the strike, Jordan announced his retirement from baseball and return to the NBA with a two-word press release: “I’m back.” He started for the Bulls just nine days later, and nine days after that he scored 55 points in an epic performance against the Knicks.

Noworyta: In 1995, I picked him up again in spring training, and I remember telling Ron Schueler, “He’s got a baseball body.” In ’94, he still looked like a basketball player. But when he walked off that plane in ’95, he looked like a baseball player.

We never had any inkling that he was leaving. The day he left us for basketball, he had his jet fly over low, and the wings tipped. I felt that was his way to let us know his time in baseball was over, and to thank us.

Reinsdorf, in USA Today (2014): I think he would have definitely given it one more year if not for the strike. When the strike hit and we decided to go with replacement players, Michael could not be part of that.

Jordan, from Driven From Within: Michael Jordan (Simon & Schuster, 2012): I had no idea of coming back. I don’t think I would have come back if there hadn’t been the baseball strike. They started throwing me into that dispute, something I had nothing to do with. I was having fun down there playing baseball. And it was an opportunity to prove something. I was getting better all the time. All I needed to get that urge back was to hang around the basketball court for a while.

Would He Have Made It?

Jordan turned 32 during his second spring training with the White Sox. If he’d stuck with baseball, would he eventually have earned a real job in the majors? It’s difficult to find someone who was around him back then who says no.

Barnett: When we started in April, his best bolt was a fly ball to left field. When he took BP in August, he’s hitting 11 or 12 balls over the wall. On the 20 to 80 scale, his arm in April was a 20; by the end of the year, it was a 50.

Without the strike, I think he would have been in Triple-A in ‘95, and in the major leagues as a fourth outfielder by the end of the year. He had the ability, the aptitude, and the work ethic. All three, off the charts. You wish you could get everybody with the same work ethic and tenacity. I think if he’d stuck with baseball as a kid, he could have been another Dave Winfield.

The prettiest thing was when he would hit a ball to right-center field and beat it out for a triple. You’d watch him round first base and it was like seeing a thoroughbred horse. It was pretty. It really was.

Noworyta: You know how good the pitching is in Double-A, and those adjustments were tough. I think his numbers would have been better the next year. And he handled himself well in the Fall League, too. In the outfield? Yeah, he struggled with his jumps; that was tough in the beginning for him. But he worked at it, and got better. Again, that next year would have been interesting. He never wavered; he knew these were the things he had to do.

Francona: If you tell Michael no, he will find a way to make the answer be yes. When people ask me if he’d have gotten to the majors, I say if you give him a thousand at-bats, he will find his way to the big leagues. I don’t know if he’s an every-day player or a bench guy or what. But he will find a way.

"there were definitely a lot of guys in baseball who were hoping for him to fail. Just because they didn’t like the idea of somebody who hadn’t played in 14 or 15 years jumping right in."

The Legacy

Michael Jordan has appeared on 22 Sports Illustrated covers since “Bag It, Michael!” … but he still has not spoken to the magazine since then, not even for the issue that marked his 50th birthday with his 50th cover. His moratorium continues to this day, nearly 23 years later.

The beloved movie Space Jam, filmed in the summer of 1995, opens with Jordan retiring from basketball to play baseball, and he appears wearing a Barons jersey.

Meanwhile, Michael Jordan’s brief stay in the Country of Baseball continues to occupy a large and largely fond place in the hearts of those who were there. In Sarasota, in Birmingham, in Scottsdale…

Coleman: During spring training, there was a picture in the New York Daily News of me sitting next to Michael Jordan. That picture was hanging in my barbershop for a number of years. Look, it was big league all the way. Security, media, coaching. For those of us who never made the big leagues, this was as close as we got.

Thrasher: Dad said we could never afford a new bus, but the Jordan thing turned his attitude around. Turns out it’s better to get new equipment, then turn it around every seven or eight years, than to buy an older bus. It’s better for the customers, and we save on maintenance. The Jordan bus started that whole process. It was probably the greatest marketing lesson we’ve ever had.

Gilbert: One time when we were driving in his car from practice, Michael looked over at me—I didn’t have much hair, was already kind of combing it over some—and he said, “Why don’t you just shave that? Shave your head.”

I said, “I don’t know, man.”

“You know, it works for me.”

“Yeah, but you’re Michael Jordan.”

“That’s not the point,” he said. “The point is, don’t be afraid to be who you are.”

It took me a few years to come around and finally shave my head. But he was right.

Hardekopf: Did anybody tell you the story about him playing basketball with a kid?

So one day he’s driving to the stadium from where he was living, and saw some kid playing basketball in his driveway. So he stops, gets out of his car, and just starts shooting baskets with this kid. And when it’s time to leave, he gives the kid a big hug.

Well, the kid goes inside and tells his mom he was playing basketball with Michael Jordan and she says, “Sure you did.” But later that afternoon, she called our office and talked to me. She asked if that could have possibly happened. I went down to the locker room, asked Michael if he stopped to play hoops with a kid on his way to the park, and he said yes. I told the mom, and she screamed with excitement.

I’m sure that kid is still telling that story. To me, that symbolizes Michael. His impact was phenomenal.

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