The White Sox minor-league staff was packed into a trailer in Sarasota, Fla., early on the morning of March 31, 1994. Spring training was coming to a close, and the organization’s Double-A manager, Terry Francona, was “half asleep” until two words jolted him upright.
“We used to have a 7 a.m. meeting, and I kind of heard, ‘Jordan, Birmingham,’ and I was like, ‘Whoa.’ By the time I left the trailer, there was media waiting,” says Francona now — nearly 25 years after the White Sox announced Michael Jordan, the recently retired Chicago Bulls superstar and three-time NBA champion, would be assigned to the Birmingham Barons, managed by Francona.
“My whole life, as far as a Double-A manager, changed like that,” says Francona, snapping his fingers for emphasis. Francona would manage the Red Sox to a curse-busting World Series title a decade later, and he says managing a player like Jordan was an invaluable experience that helped prepare him for the Boston media and Red Sox Nation cauldron.
“Looking back, it’s the single greatest learning experience I ever had,” says Francona, the current Indians skipper. “Talk about prepping for a major-league job.”
Jordan, who had turned 31 that February, entered White Sox spring training with the fanfare befitting a royal family member, despite not having played organized baseball since high school. Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders had already mastered two professional sports — baseball and football — in the same era as Jordan’s basketball dominance, but those two men had the benefit of playing both sports during college.
“I think it’s a level where I’ll either make myself or break myself,” Jordan told reporters after he was assigned to the Barons.
Skeptics and the media had tried to break Jordan throughout spring training, and the criticism reached a peak when Sports Illustrated’s March 14 cover featured a photograph of Jordan whiffing at the plate. A tabloid-esque headline, “Bag it, Michael!” was emblazoned in bright yellow letters below his wrists. “Jordan and The White Sox Are Embarrassing Baseball,” the subhead barked.
“Embarrassing” was one word that had never been associated with Jordan the pro athlete, and the cover diss capped a tumultuous nine months for His Airness, starting with the Bulls’ third straight title the previous June.
Jordan was drained after a third straight Finals win, and the euphoria lasted just a few weeks — when Jordan’s life was forever altered following the murder of his father, James, in late July. That October, hours after he had thrown the ceremonial first pitch at Comiskey Park before Game 1 of the ALCS between the White Sox and Blue Jays, Jordan held an emotional press conference at the Berto Center in Chicago to announce he was retiring. His father’s death factored into his decision, although Jordan said he also had nothing left to prove on the court.
There were also rumors that Jordan’s gambling ways had played a part in him leaving the game. But both Jerry Reinsdorf, the Bulls and White Sox owner, and former NBA Commissioner David Stern scoff at any such claims now, the same way they dismissed such talk a generation ago.
“It’s idiotic,” Stern says. “It’s actually more idiotic than it was when it was first uttered.”
The ensuing Jordan odyssey had him signing a minor-league deal with the White Sox in February 1994, and everyone from Reinsdorf to sportscaster Bob Costas to “Bull Durham” director Ron Shelton (who directed the ESPN documentary, “Jordan Rides the Bus,” which chronicles Jordan’s minor league days) say Jordan was fulfilling a dream of his late father’s by pursuing baseball.
“It’s true that his dad’s favorite sport was baseball,” says Costas, who covered Jordan’s NBA Finals appearances on NBC. “Given everything, how best but to follow into baseball, which Jordan likes, and which is his own tribute to his father?”
Jordan’s arrival at spring training kicked off a circus-like atmosphere that continued through the Barons’ season. A crippling ’94 baseball strike eventually paved the way for Jordan’s basketball comeback, but all these years later, many of the people who had a connection to Jordan during his brief baseball stint marvel at his work ethic and drive, even if the results (.202 average for the ’94 Double-A season) never drew comparisons to Mickey Mantle or even Minnie Minoso.
“I was rooting for him actually,” Stern says of Jordan’s foray into baseball. “I actually thought it was great that he had the ability economically to follow what was apparently a dream of his. I was not lamenting his [retiring] at all. He had served us and basketball so well. I’ve always been NBA-centric: ‘We’re gonna survive it, and good for Michael.’ ”
Dressed in street clothes, Michael Jordan flashed his trademark megawatt smile atop the Comiskey Park mound, then proceeded to bounce his pitch into the dirt. Jordan waved to the crowd, then adjourned to Reinsdorf’s suite to take in Game 1 of the ALCS. Turns out, Reinsdorf already knew the mother of all secrets.
“The Michael Jordan Foundation had a fundraising dinner on a Saturday at the end of September, and when it was over, [Jordan’s agent] David Falk came up to me and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but Michael wants to retire,’ ” says Reinsdorf. “We were stunned obviously.”
Reinsdorf says he flew to Washington a week later to meet with Jordan and Falk at Curtis Polk’s house to discuss the matter further. (Polk is Jordan’s longtime business manager and is now managing partner of the Hornets, the NBA team Jordan owns).
“Michael repeated what [Falk] had told me. I said, ‘You can’t make a final decision until you talk to [then Bulls coach] Phil Jackson,’ ” says Reinsdorf. “Michael said, ‘I don’t want to talk to Phil because he’ll try to talk me into changing my mind.’ ” (Jordan and Falk both declined interview requests for this story. Jackson couldn’t be reached).
But the Zen Master was unsuccessful in swaying Jordan, and during his televised press conference on Oct. 6, 1993, Jordan told a media throng, “There are still a lot of things out there for me to achieve.” Just like that, Jordan exited basketball, stage left.
Bill Wennington, the St. John’s product, had just signed with the Bulls as a free agent before the ’93-’94 season, and he says now that when the Bulls broke camp a few days after Jordan’s announcement, he and fellow newcomer Steve Kerr wondered what they were getting themselves into now that Jordan left a mammoth void.
“At the time, I was shocked,” says Wennington. “When you lose a piece like Michael, it obviously changes things. But Phil spun it very well. He said there was still a lot of talent on the team. He was right. We just had to work differently.”
The Knicks had lost to the Bulls in the ’93 Eastern Conference finals, and Jeff Van Gundy, then a Knicks assistant coach under Pat Riley, says the playoff boot still smarted months later. But Van Gundy also says that though Jordan’s retirement “caught me totally off guard,” he didn’t think then that Jordan’s departure “opened the door for us to get to the NBA Finals,” even though that’s exactly where the Knicks landed the following June.
“I didn’t feel within our [Knicks] team we ever said, ‘Now, this is our opportunity.’ I think we were still smarting from the lost opportunity the year before, when we thought we had the best team in basketball,” says Van Gundy.
Gene Lamont was entering his third year as skipper of the White Sox when he was met by the Jordan Invasion at spring training. Social media was light years away, but Jordan’s every move was still in high demand, even if there wasn’t a means to document everything instantaneously.
“The PR department said that Michael would meet with the media every third day,” says Lamont, now an adviser to Royals GM Dayton Moore. “I said, ‘No way, Michael talks every day.’ I didn’t think it was fair to veterans like Frank Thomas to have to speak for Michael.”
Jordan’s spring training got off to a bumpy start. Reinsdorf says the Sox’s hitting coach, crusty Walt Hriniak, had called Reinsdorf and “used quite a few expletives and asked, ‘What kind of publicity stunt is this?’ ” Jordan referred to an umpire as “ref” early on, and he went 3-for-20 in Grapefruit League games.
“Not really,” says Lamont now, when asked if he thought Jordan had the talent to eventually reach the majors. “His quickness didn’t play in baseball.” Lamont was impressed by Jordan’s approach, and he says Hriniak admired Jordan’s religious work ethic to improve at the plate.
Jordan also got some friendly advice from one outfielder that spring — the Indians’ Kenny Lofton, who had played hoops and baseball at the University of Arizona. Lofton reached the Final Four with the Wildcats in 1988.
“I told him there were going to be struggles, which he said he understood,” says Lofton. “Even though Michael Jordan didn’t ever struggle at much of anything, now he was going to see what it was like to struggle in another sport.”
Jordan’s adventures at the plate and in the outfield sparked SI’s infamous “Bag it, Michael!” cover, but the reporter who wrote the accompanying story, Steve Wulf, says now that he was “mortified” when the issue was released.
“Jordan and the White Sox embarrassing baseball is not what I wrote,” says Wulf. The blowback for SI from Jordan was swift — from that point on, Jordan forever boycotted talking to the magazine that had put him on dozens of covers and had in large part made him an international icon. The freezeout remains in effect.
“That was the end of the relationship,” says famed SI photographer Walter Iooss Jr., who shot many of Jordan’s famous aerial displays on the hardwood. “And it was a fabulous relationship. But SI was public enemy No. 1.”
Iooss says his relationship with Jordan didn’t sour, but even so, when Iooss went to Birmingham to shoot Jordan later in ’94, he says he got a Time magazine credential so Jordan wouldn’t snub him.
“Bag it? Why? I thought [Jordan’s] motives were pure,” says Costas, now an MLB Network analyst. “I’m not a fanboy, but I thought that [SI cover] was over the top.”
But where SI may have overstepped its bounds, Jordan had no problem when Nike, one of his sponsors, teamed up with Spike Lee in an ad that poked fun at Jordan’s baseball pursuits. Featuring cameos by Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr. and even Bill Buckner, Lee reprises his character Mars Blackmon from “She’s Gotta Have It,” and tells each baseball player that Michael is not them. Jordan is seen whiffing at the plate multiple times and has a ball dribble through his legs, a la Buckner. “But he’s trying,” each player replies.
When Jordan joined the Barons, it was like an Elvis sighting on repeat.
“Michael’s appeal was much like Elvis’ appeal. People wanted to tear his clothes off and touch him and get next to him,” says Reinsdorf, who took in several Barons’ games in ’94.
But fellow Barons outfielder Kevin Coughlin says Jordan was just “one of the guys” throughout the season, except when it came to anything competitive. “It didn’t matter what it was, ping pong, shooting pool, [Jordan] hated to lose,” says Coughlin.
Francona, whose son Nick was an occasional Barons batboy, likened Jordan’s competitiveness to that of Pete Rose, with whom Terry played in Montreal.
“He and Pete are similar in a lot of ways. Michael worked with Barney [Barons hitting coach Mike Barnett] so much in the cage,” says Francona. “I thought it was actually kind of amazing that he went to Double-A after not playing since high school and stole 30 bases and drove in  runs. And he was getting better.”
Coughlin says Jordan “was so long, he could beat choppers off the plate,” and that his size was imposing. “Being 6-6 on the field is a huge human.”
Jordan played in the Arizona Fall League after the Barons’ season and was managed by Francona again. His Airness even crossed paths with a young Derek Jeter, who had been drafted by the Yankees two years earlier. But the baseball strike that dragged into 1995 demolished any chances of Jordan continuing with baseball. He announced his NBA return via fax, with two words in the spring of ’95: “I’m back.”
The Bulls were booted from the ’95 playoffs by Orlando, but not before Jordan delivered a regular-season dagger to the Knicks, when he detonated for 55 points at the Garden on March 28. Wennington caught Jordan’s pass at the buzzer for the winning points in the 113-111 Bulls victory. “That’s when Michael and I combined for 57 points,” jokes Wennington.
“To have a world-class transcendent star dropped into your lap, because we had assumed he was gone forever, was just an incredible boost for the entire organization and the league for that matter,” says Stern.
Jordan would reach the NBA mountaintop the following season, ‘95-’96 — he won his fourth ring on Father’s Day in Chicago and was in tears as he cradled the Larry O’Brien trophy afterward — and so began a second Bulls’ three-peat. Could Jordan could have reached similar heights in baseball? It remains a forever question.
“I don’t think it’s fair to really say, ‘Can he play [in the majors], can he not?’ He needed like 1,000 more at-bats. But the one thing I did find out is if you told him, ‘No,’ he’d find a way to make the answer be ‘Yes,’ ” says Francona. “ I would never bet against him.”
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