It was the summer of '94, another hot one in Birmingham, Ala., and rock stars flooded the city.
Pink Floyd played a concert at Legion Field Stadium. Three months later, the Rolling Stones played the same venue.
Seventeen miles south, in a summer-long engagement at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, 31-year-old Michael Jordan played right field.
The local baseball team, the Southern League's Birmingham Barons, wasn't very good. Many of the Barons were young men who would fail to reach the big leagues or former big leaguers who never would return, so what a lot of minor league teams look like.
But, they had a nice bus. And they'd more than double the season attendance record at Hoover Met, which sat 11,000 and, turned out, stood several thousand more.
A former high school pitcher and NBA burnout, Jordan had traded his high-tops for a pair of spikes. Shaken by his father's murder and emotionally frail after three consecutive NBA titles, Jordan retired from basketball in the fall of '93. He'd instead chase those dreamy last conversations he'd had with his father, the ones where they'd muse over leaving basketball, playing baseball, discovering a fresh thirst for an unconquerable game.
On March 31, 1994, Jordan was assigned to the Barons of Birmingham, of Hoover Met, of bus stops in Chattanooga and Huntsville and Greenville, of a life of sliders and wind-blown fly balls. By the standards of his previous job, Michael Jordan was going to fail – wholly, miserably and publicly.
He arrived with a bat bag and an outfielder's glove. In 127 games as a Baron, Jordan batted .202, struck out 114 times and committed 11 errors. He also stole 30 bases, drove in 51 runs and hit three home runs.
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To those who watched from the dugout, from the bus, from the clubhouse, this was nothing short of remarkable. Where a national magazine saw the nightly humiliation of an icon, those in the game stepped back, folded their arms and saw a 31-year-old man commit to it, survive it, even gain on it.
"The good thing was he was eager to learn and he respected the game," said Terry Francona, who managed the Barons. "You remember back, it was really kind of fashionable to be critical of him. That really bothered me. It was anything but. He was actually very refreshing. All the things you ask of young players, he did. He was never late for a bus. He stayed in the same hotels. It had all the makings of being a circus and it never happened. I would think for the very most part it was because of him."
Jordan had come from a sport in which the rim never moved, to a sport in which the ball was never in the same place twice. In which his body – 6-foot-6, long, approaching gangly – was all strike zone. Baseball rewarded a lifetime of dedication, not a summer getaway.
Francona was four years removed from a journeyman's decade in the big leagues when the Chicago White Sox assigned Jordan to him. Or, perhaps, him to Jordan. Then 35, Francona had managed in rookie ball, A-ball, and the previous season in Birmingham. The game is quiet in the low minors, where development of the most talented players trumps winning and few pay it much mind. A small local radio station might broadcast the games and a couple newspaper writers might tag along. A decent crowd might just reflect a bobblehead giveaway, discount beer night or slow night on television. Otherwise, a team is alone in its journey, 25 men trudging toward an ambition that a handful at best will reach.
For a single summer 19 years ago, Jordan attached himself to the game. To its thrills. To its hopelessness. Tens of thousands came to witness one of the great athletes of his generation loop a single into right-center field. Tens of thousands more, perhaps, came to see him strike out. Often, they left happy.
From his place on the top step, Francona would eye Jordan's leggy slog from the batter's box after another fatal curveball. He'd listen to the cackling from the crowd and almost feel the next round of schadenfreudian columns being penned. What he'd see, however, was a man who'd gamely reached for the unattainable, humbling himself at the knee of a hitting coach, or a teammate or the memory of his own father.
There was a night in Memphis. The game had been cruel again. Jordan was unhappy, vulnerable. Francona sat down beside him.
"Hey, man," he said. "Look, you're at a point in your life, you're doing this. And if you're miserable doing this, that's not good."
Jordan nodded. There'd be another one tomorrow and the day after, whether he was miserable or not.
"He took it so serious," Francona recalled. "He was so used to dominating. I honestly believe at that point in his life, trying to get a hit in Double-A Birmingham meant just as much as hitting a jump shot the year before."
By the end of that summer, Francona believed two things. One, that Jordan, given another couple years in the batter's box, could be a big leaguer. Maybe not a great one. Maybe not even a good one. But a big leaguer.
Two, that Jordan wouldn't ever play again. He'd started practicing basketball again, talking about it more. They'd grown close over that summer, and Francona believed that Jordan was ready – physically, emotionally and spiritually – to go be a superstar again. It was a great summer. Crazy, cranky, exhausting, but great. Jordan had not simply attached his name to baseball, but his heart and soul too. Francona was sure of that. He admired Jordan for his relentlessness and humility. He admired the hell out of him for hitting .202. He was glad he came.
"He was so respectful of the game that I was really proud of him," Francona said. "There were so many times I was so proud of him. I guarantee I learned more from him than he learned from me about baseball."
Nineteen years later, Francona couldn't help but smile. What a summer it was.
"He was hungry to play," he said. "It was fun."
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