Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Jordan's effort a marvel 15 years later

By Scott Merkin /

"Every day at 7:30, Michael was there," said White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf. "Sometimes his hands were bleeding, that's how hard he worked." (Pat Sullivan/AP)

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- He's been known as 'His Airness' or 'Sir Michael' amongst many other nicknames bestowed upon quite possibly the greatest player to suit up in the NBA.

Michael Jordan's likeness also will forever live outside the United Center, the home of the Chicago Bulls, with his statue serving as a fitting honor to the incredible force who spearheaded six of the past seven major championships in Chicago. The mere mention of his name still draws an excited reaction from people all over the country who appreciate the game's greatest competitor.

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But a time existed where baseball, and not basketball, stood as the driving athletic force for Jordan. It was a somewhat controversial period, with critics pointing out everything from Jordan's star power usurping a spot that belonged to a more deserving young player, to the assumption that he didn't succeed in his attempt to reach the Major Leagues.

Many of those closest to Jordan's diamond gems couldn't disagree more fervently. Jordan was not only a hard-working Minor Leaguer, who fit into any clubhouse, but also an individual who handled a potentially crazy situation with class and dignity.

On the 15th anniversary of Jordan's arrival to Spring Training with the White Sox in Florida, takes a look back at this incredible effort from a man who hadn't played baseball in almost 15 years, exploring Jordan as a baseball player from a few different perspectives.

The Owner

For events that took place involving Jordan from 1993-94, White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf still can recall what happened with seemingly perfect chronological detail.

"Well, the story actually started on a Sunday in July," said Reinsdorf, speaking recently on the deck outside his office at Camelback Ranch. "Michael was at our game, up in a box with me and [then general manager Ron] Schueler. The two of them got me and said Michael has something he wants to talk about.

"He said he wants to go to Kannapolis and just play a couple of games. He had taken batting practice a couple of years before. What we didn't know was that at the moment we were talking, his father was dead. His father was dead -- we didn't know. Shortly thereafter, he found out his father was dead and that took care of the Kannapolis thing."

The next time Reinsdorf saw Jordan was in October, two months after James Jordan was murdered. Reinsdorf attended a charity dinner for Jordan's foundation, and invited Jordan to throw out the first pitch for the first game of the playoffs if the White Sox reached the postseason.

On that same night, David Falk, Jordan's representative, broke some news to Reinsdorf.

"David Falk got me there and said, 'I don't know how to tell you this but Michael wants to retire,'" Reinsdorf said. "We agreed to meet the following week, and we met at David Falk's house in Washington, D.C.

"Michael told me he needed to get away. The death of his father and all of the media attention and people saying it was because of his gambling, it had got to him. He was burned out. This meeting took place on the last Sunday of the baseball season, and the playoffs were going to begin that following Tuesday.

"I didn't try to talk him out of it, but I asked Michael, 'What do you want to do,' and he said, 'I want to play baseball. It was my father's dream that I become a baseball player,'" Reinsdorf said. "I said, 'OK, but, you have to talk to Phil Jackson. You can't just make this decision and walk away.'"

According to Reinsdorf, Jordan didn't want to speak with Jackson for fear that the Bulls coach would talk Jordan out of his decision. But the two men sat down on that following Monday, and the retirement announcement was to be made on that ensuing Wednesday so as not to upstage the White Sox playoffs.

"He didn't keep a secret," said a smiling Reinsdorf of Jordan, who attended the first playoff game and threw out the first pitch. "I think he told Ahmad Rashad and I don't know who else from there. It was all over the place during the game.

"People were trying to get into the box, and it did upstage the playoffs. It was terrible."

When the retirement announcement officially was made on Oct. 6, 1993, Jordan's plan to play baseball already was set in motion, although it wasn't announced. He signed a free-agent contract on Feb. 7, 1994, receiving a non-roster invite, as well, and setting the Spring Training circus in motion.

After Jordan's baseball move became public, Reinsdorf received a call from White Sox hitting coach Walt Hriniak. It's an understatement to say that Hriniak was stunned by the decision.

"Walter said, 'What the [heck] is this all about?' He said, 'We don't need this kind of publicity and what kind of gimmick is this?'" Reinsdorf said. "I said, 'Walter he's serious. Wait until you meet this guy.'

"On the first day of Spring Training, Walter goes up to Michael in the outfield and says, 'Are you serious about this or is it just a game?' He said, 'I'm dead serious.' Walter said to meet him at 7:30 tomorrow morning in the batting cages.

"Every day at 7:30, Michael was there," Reinsdorf said. "Sometimes his hands were bleeding, that's how hard he worked. You talk to Walter today and he'll tell you the hardest working athlete he ever had was Michael Jordan."

Reinsdorf recounted one night in Florida where Jordan and the White Sox chairman simply sat around his office for three hours talking about baseball.

"Michael really enjoyed the clubhouse and the guys," Reinsdorf said. "He liked to sit around, smoke a cigar and [talk]."

Judging by the reaction from a few of his teammates even 15 years later, they enjoyed having Jordan around just as much.

The Teammates

Ozzie Guillen led the 2005 White Sox to the franchise's first World Series title in 88 years. As a colorful manager, he is the face of the organization and one of the most recognizable figures around baseball.

Yet, he's still no Michael Jordan in terms of world-wide popularity. Guillen readily admits that when Jordan was part of Spring Training, he got an autograph from the legend. But one of the most endearing attributes about Jordan the baseball player became that he was just one of the guys.

"You walk into the locker room and you are like, 'Wow, it's Michael Jordan,'" said Guillen with a laugh. "But the next day, he's a normal guy. I love every minute of it, and I think this guy finally has fun in his life besides being on the golf course. He had a real life, were he was treated like just another person.

"Jordan had fun with the other players. To me, it was a privilege to be around one of the best."

Guillen recounted a story of how he regularly kidded Jordan about being the best athlete in the world, but not nearly as good as Guillen on the baseball field. Guillen also told a tale of a young woman who ran on the field during an exhibition game in Miami, trying to get a kiss from Jordan.

"Until that lady was chasing him, I'd never seen a woman on the field in my life," sad Guillen with a laugh.

"I came to realize just how big of a personality he was during that spring," said White Sox radio announcer Darrin Jackson, who also was involved in the 1994 Spring Training as a White Sox outfielder. "When you get off team buses, and the girls start to cry because Michael Jordan is in the vicinity, it was pretty special to see."

Playing with Jordan naturally involved a bit of a media frenzy. As Guillen said, Jordan just wanted to be one of the guys, playing cards and smoking cigars with teammates on the bus.

"When he was there, he never tried to be Michael Jordan with us," Guillen said.

"It was different than any other Spring Training I've ever been a part of as a coach or player," said White Sox bench coach Joey Cora, who was the team's second baseman in 1994. "He was Michael, and Michael is Michael, whether he's playing baseball, ping pong or basketball."

The Coverage

On the day that Jordan held his first press conference at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Fla., Scott Reifert can remember lining 38 television cameras up and down the first-base line as a White Sox media relations staff member. Jordan and Schueler sat on top of the dugout to have the press conference.

"I didn't try to talk him out of it, but I asked Michael, 'What do you want to do,' and he said, 'I want to play baseball."
-- White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf

"The media just filled in the seats," said Reifert, now the White Sox vice president of communications. "I also remember the range and volume of media in attendance, and this is before the media explosion. It wasn't just sports guys.

"It was entertainment, everything you can imagine. And it was global. Japan, France, Europe, any place where the Bulls, Michael or the NBA were world-wide brands at that time."

Reifert remembers the bright red car driven at the time by Jordan, and how the kids "would stream down the street" after Jordan when he left the facility and how Jordan would stop to sign autographs. Of course, Reifert also remembers Jordan's famous competitive streak.

Not just from baseball or basketball, mind you, but even with ping pong.

"Someone bought a ping-pong table, and they had a big, clubhouse tournament, where they had pairings," Reifert said. "I think it ended up being Michael and Kirk McCaskill as the finalists, and I think Kirk beat him.

"I'll never forget watching Michael Jordan play ping pong. If you think about his wing span from left to right, it was stunning to watch this guy cover a table. The other thing was competitiveness. Baseball players are competitive, every single one of them, but Michael took it to another level over a ping-pong game."

The Player, The End

Jordan was sent to Double-A Birmingham out of Spring Training on March 31, 1994, and hit .202 with 51 RBIs, 30 stolen bases and 114 strikeouts in 127 games. He also took part in the 1994 Arizona Fall League, where he posted a .252 average for the Scottsdale Scorpions.

Reinsdorf believes that if not for the ongoing Major League Baseball strike in 1995, which sort of "soured him on the whole thing," Jordan might have made it to the big leagues as a fourth or fifth outfielder. One thing was certain: when Jordan retired from basketball, Reinsdorf never envisioned him coming back to the hardwoods on March 19, 1995, first wearing jersey No. 45 as he did on the baseball fields, and then switching back to the familiar No. 23 and leading the Bulls to their second NBA title three-peat.

Numerous pundits consider Jordan's run at baseball a mistake, nothing more than a side show involving one of the world's most recognizable figures, who couldn't consistently hit the curve like many other struggling Minor Leaguers. Those who witnessed Jordan's intense work on a daily basis, along with his amazing talent, know this period was anything but a joke for Jordan. They also realize what might have been if he continued the pursuit of this dream.

After all, even the top prospects out of the First-Year Player Draft don't get sent to the talent-rich Southern League, as Reinsdorf mentioned. And Jordan more-than-survived in Birmingham, playing to sold-out crowds every night.

"I thought he needed another two full seasons of at-bats to be fair to him," said Boston manager Terry Francona, who managed Jordan at Birmingham and praised Jordan for how he handled a situation where the Barons 'were covered like a Major League team with all the media.' "But the first time you tell him no, the answer is going to be yes."

"If he would have started earlier, maybe he had a shot," Cora said. "He was a great athlete, but you don't pick up baseball at 30. It was tough, but he accomplished a lot in a little period of time, which shows how great of an athlete he was."

"This is a guy who with more time, he had a chance," Jackson said. "Because of his determination, he would have probably made it. I've never seen anyone work harder than him."

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