Hard-working Jordan left quite an impression on his Barons cohorts
Michael Jordan's decision to play baseball was an incomparably odd move
Despite fishbowl existence, Jordan wanted to work hard, be one of the guys
Mediocre skills, media bashing sent Jordan back to true home on the court
It was Tom Cruise doing dinner theater, Chris Rock performing at open-mike night and Justin Timberlake singing in the church choir. And yet it was none of those things, because when Michael Jordan announced in February 1994, just weeks before his 31st birthday, that he would attempt a career as a baseball player, it was a move so unheard of, so controversial, so odd, there was almost nothing with which to compare it. The greatest basketball player who ever lived, and one of the most famous people on the planet, was opting for a completely different outlet for his competitive fire.
For Jordan, it would be a chance to try something new, pursue a long-lost ambition and perhaps find a different way to deal with his father's recent murder. For the mostly anonymous people suddenly sucked into his orbit, it became a year unlike any they had experienced before, or since. Jonathan Nelson is now the general manager of the Birmingham Barons, but at the time he was entering his first full season with the club. And thinking back, Nelson puts it best: "It was like that REM song: the end of the world as we know it."
Almost overnight, the Barons, for who Jordan played his first game on April 8, 1994, became a staple in SportsCenter highlights. Birmingham and the other small towns of the Southern League -- like Zebulon, N.C., Greenville, S.C., and Huntsville, Ala. -- became destination stops for tourists (and even a few celebrities) all summer.
"We played in front of packed houses all year long," says Glenn DiSarcina, a shortstop on the '94 Barons and the brother of ex-big leaguer Gary DiSarcina. "We'd pull up to a stadium at 2 p.m. and there would be lines out the door to buy tickets. But they weren't true baseball fans. If a pitcher had a no-hitter going in the seventh inning and Jordan made the last out, fans would get up to leave because they knew it was his last at-bat. We couldn't believe it."
That was the common sentiment throughout Jordan's one year of beating the bushes. With his longtime fame, Jordan was fully acclimated to the circus that accompanied his every movement, but it was a new experience for everyone else unaccustomed to watching a teammate schedule a Gatorade commercial shoot around a ball game. Terry Francona, now the Boston Red Sox manager, but at the time the Barons manager, says the craziness began even before Jordan arrived in Birmingham. "We were told about it in the trailer at a 7 a.m. meeting. I was half asleep. It didn't dawn on me yet the magnitude of his life and how much people cared about him. By the time we got outside the trailer people already knew [he was coming]. I remember thinking, 'That's interesting.' "
Even dinners out required special planning. "We would go into restaurants after games and we'd have someone reserve a spot for us because we couldn't just go somewhere with him because it would be a mob scene," says DiSarcina. "The whole place would just be staring at him, like he was a rare zoo animal."
DiSarcina and his teammates sympathized with their new teammate over his fishbowl existence, but they had fun with it, too. "A couple times we would pull into a McDonald's at 11 or midnight and walk in with 25 guys, one of them being Michael Jordan, who was the face of McDonald's at the time," says DiSarcina. "He'd order a Big Mac and people would just stop in their tracks. People were totally amazed. We'd always say, Let's wait and see the reaction when he walked into a room."
Perhaps Jordan's greatest accomplishment that season was the ease with which he assimilated himself into the clubhouse, even as everyone around him struggled to give him his space. "I was amazed at the way he handled things," Francona says. "[Acting like a superstar] is not what he was about. He tried hard, was a good teammate who respected the game and respected other players."
Jordan didn't want the circus. He wanted to be one of the guys. "It was so hard because the public and the media wanted more, they wanted the NBA superstar, they wanted the entourage, the Hollywood stuff, but that's not what he wanted," says Curt Bloom, the team's play-by-play man. "He wanted to be a big-league ballplayer."
DiSarcina echoes that sentiment. "I thought he was just going to hang around and not take it seriously, but he always did," says DiSarcina. "Even though he wasn't a baseball player, he was a great role model."
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