I was back in Sarasota’s Ed Smith Stadium last week for a spring-training game and thought back, way back, all the way to 1994 and another visit to that ballpark.
I made the roughly 150-mile round trip from Fort Myers 20 years ago to see the world’s greatest basketball player attempting to become an adequate professional baseball player.
That would be Michael Jordan, who recently turned 51. On Feb. 15, 1994, he was still 30, two days shy of turning 31, a supreme athlete still near the peak of his wondrous, high-flying best.
One of the vivid memories of watching Jordan working out with the Chicago White Sox was comparing his batting practice with that of a journeyman major-leaguer, Dan Pasqua. Jordan, I recall, hit some balls well, some all the way to the warning track.
Pasqua, though, ripped batting practice pitches over the ball with regularity. Boom! Boom! Boom! Not Jordan.
Jordan never reached the majors. Pasqua played in the majors from 1985 to 1994 and hit 117 homers in his career.
Jordan played one year of Double-A ball. It was with Birmingham of the Southern League, hitting .202 with three homers and 30 stolen bases. At first blush, other than the stolen bases, the numbers seem pretty lackluster.
But for a 31-year-old rookie in pro ball who had last played baseball in his teens those numbers strike me as pretty darn good.
On the morning of Feb. 15, 1994, about 250 of my closest media pals and I gathered in Ed Smith Stadium. It was the unveiling of Jordan in a White Sox uniform. We didn’t know what the baseball future held for the world’s greatest basketball player.
I recently dug up the clip of the story I wrote about Jordan’s workout for The News-Press.
Fans able to sneak peeks at Jordan from under a fence were kinder than many in the media.
When the 6-foot-6 Jordan snagged a fly ball hit to him by a coach, a fan shouted, “Show that Gold Glove you’re going to have.”
Well, Jordan never got to the majors and never earned a Gold Glove.
But I can still see Jordan sprinting around the bases, taking long, loping strides, strides that reminded me at the time of Olympic hurdler Edwin Moses.
Jordan was swift afoot when he got on base but getting on base was the tricky part for Jordan. As it’s been for anybody who played baseball at any level.
He struck out 114 times in 436 at-bats that year in Double-A. His on-base percentage was a sub-par .289.
Nobody knew for sure 20 years ago, though, how Jordan would do in baseball. But in that pre-Twitter and Facebook and Google world, people wanted to know.
The amount of interest can be gauged by the media frenzy that day. There were 34 television cameras and 11 satellite trucks on the premises. That horde of reporters included ones from Britain, France and Japan.
Although the workout was closed to the public, fans were able to sprawl on their stomachs that Tuesday morning and peer under a stadium outfield sign advertising the Florida lottery.
The lottery slogan: “Best Play of the Day.”
The fans were in his corner. One shouted, “I want to be like Mike.”
Many of the media didn’t think Jordan had the goods to be a big-league baseball player.
As Ben Walker of the Associated Press wrote at the time, “Jordan took three rounds of batting practice today. He didn’t look good.”
The fans, though, shouted encouragement.
“You the man,” one shouted from beneath the Florida lottery billboard. “You can do it.”
Jordan was aware of the fan support. When he walked in from left field for another round of batting practice, a fan shouted, “Hey, Mike, give me a wave!”
Jordan accommodated the fan, giving a small wave with his right hand.
“He did it for me!” the fan shouted.
That fan still likely treasures the wave from Michael Jordan.
Jordan didn’t talk to the media that day.
White Sox manager Gene Lamont sat atop the White Sox dugout there in Ed Smith Stadium on that day 29 years ago after the workout and addressed the 250 media people.
Could Michael Jordan go from being a Chicago Bull to a Chicago White Sox?
“If Michael goes with us it won’t be to make us a good basketball team,” Lamont said. “It’s to have a good baseball team.”
Michael Jordan never made it to the majors but he went back to the NBA, as you may recall. And he did a little better than he did in minor-league baseball.
He led the Bulls to three more NBA titles. He was the NBA Finals MVP three more times. He was the NBA MVP in 1996 and 1998.
He was, indeed, the man in basketball. In baseball? Not exactly.