A look at Michael Jordan's MiLB career

NBA legend humbled by baseball while many watched in awe

Michael Jordan collected 88 hits and scored 46 runs in his lone season of professional baseball. (Birmingham Barons)

By Kelsie Heneghan / MiLB.com | April 8, 2019 10:30 AM

In baseball, everyone starts at zero.

Michael Jordan stepped into the box for his third professional game on April 10, 1994. He had three NBA MVPs and three championship rings to his name, but he also had a .000 average.

Facing a familiar foe in Double-A Knoxville starter Joe Ganote, Jordan claimed every edge he could as he stared back at the mound.

"He gives you a little grin at the plate and he tried to get in your head on the golf course," the former Blue Jays prospect said. "He likes to play that mind game."

A month earlier, Jordan and Ganote -- a UNC Charlotte product -- met through a mutual friend and played a round of golf in Sarasota, Florida, during Spring Training. Over those 18 holes, Ganote learned a lot about Jordan, studying his competitive drive and reactions to each shot, both good and bad.

At one point, Jordan shanked a ball into the woods at TPC Prestancia. Ganote figured he'd take a drop. But the reigning NBA Finals MVP wouldn't dream of it. While Jordan has always been known for his prowess on the links, Ganote knew this was about more than just skill.

"His mind-set, you could tell was very well honed; he's a champion and he doesn't let that negatively crawl in," Ganote said. "And when you start talking about baseball and a game designed around failure … the game is really unforgiving, but he has a well-built mentally for that because obviously of previous basketball challenges he's had from the time he was a kid growing up, all the way to the NBA and all his titles and everything else he's accomplished. So there was no doubt; when he stepped in the box, this guy was in there to compete."

Jordan won $60 on the course and notched his first professional hit on the diamond.

After a fastball got away from Ganote and a "flailing" 6-foot-6 frame invoked a chorus of boos, the pitcher decided to just throw the ball down the middle and let Jordan get himself out. Instead, he knocked the 1-0 offering to right field for a single.

"He's gonna tell you probably that he hit a rocket, a strong baseball hit," Ganote said. "Chris Stynes was our second baseman and he's probably 5-foot-8, and if he were 5-foot-10, he probably might have caught it. That's the way I tell the story. It was a little flare. But the at-bat was a legit at-bat."

En route to his own big league career, first base umpire Laz Diaz called for the valuable baseball that had made its way back to the mound.

"I didn't ask for it," Jordan told reporters after the game. "I'll save the ball. It's my first professional hit that counts."

Ganote tossed the ball to first baseman Chris Weinke. Now the University of Tennessee quarterbacks coach, Weinke was a two-sport athlete in his own right as he went on to win the Heisman Trophy at Florida State in 2000.

"I flipped the ball over to Weinke to give to him and I told him, I said, 'He can have it, but it'll cost him $60,'" Ganote recalled with a laugh. "I was looking to get my money back."

Jordan never returned the money, but the next day he approached Ganote with his own question: What do you think?

While a symbol of the first at-bat is still sitting on a bookshelf in one of Jordan's homes, Ganote was more impressed with the second at-bat, in which the basketball legend worked the count full before striking out.

"He made me throw a lot of pitches, he did his job and you could tell he was a quick study. So it was a good experience overall," Ganote said. "You look back at your career 25 years later, I never made it to the big leagues, but there were a lot of really great moments along the way and that ranks up there. It's humbling and it still follows me around."

The pitcher then asked Jordan what he was going to do with the ball.

"He looked me straight in the eye and he says, 'This is one of my biggest accomplishments in my dad's eyes. I just wish he was here to see it,'" Ganote recalled. "And I was like, 'Ya know what? You're pretty awesome.'"

Michael at the bat

In a late April game, Birmingham had an early 11-0 lead over Chattanooga. Three weeks into his pro baseball career, Jordan was starting to get the hang of things and ripped a double in the eighth. With the pitcher not paying much attention, he took off and stole third. Then-Barons manager and second-generation baseball man Terry Francona was not pleased.

"Tito turns to Michael, was just like, 'What're you -- '" then-hitting coach Mike Barnett said. "Then [Francona] turns to [the Lookouts] dugout and goes, 'I'm sorry! I'm sorry, I'll take care of it.'"

After the game, Jordan was called to the skipper's office to learn the unwritten rules of baseball.

"'OK. I didn't know. In the NBA, if we get up by 30, we try to get up by 40,'" Barnett remembered Jordan saying.

Playing baseball for the first time since high school led to many hiccups for the then-31-year-old. But from Day 1, he was ready to learn.


Michael Jordan plays at Nashville


Barnett talked with scouts and coaches who were at big league camp with Jordan and they all said he was too far off the plate and was diving in, leading to a lot of fastballs middle-in that would jam him. Now the Indians replay coordinator, Barnett witnessed much of the same when he first got in the cage with Jordan, so he suggested he get a little closer to the plate to square himself up. The White Sox prospect trusted the advice and they went from there.

"Everyone was throwing him fastballs middle-in, but now he was more in a position where he could work his stride straight ahead, he wasn't getting blocked off and he could put a fairly free swing on it," Barnett said. "So he was getting balls through the five-, six-hole, between the shortstop and the third baseman and get a double or two down the third base line.

"I think he was thinking, 'Well, this is pretty easy.' Well, but that's the only thing they were doing was throwing fastballs middle-in. But he was in a good position; he's a great athlete that he was able to adjust."

As Jordan started hitting his stride, Barnett was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"And eventually, it did. He didn't see a fastball in the strike zone for probably a month and a half," he said. "They started throwing him nothing but breaking balls, and he was so competitive that he was gonna prove he was gonna hit them, so he was swinging at all of them."

From cage work to batting practice to games to postgame with a breaking ball machine, Jordan was hitting five to six times a day. To this day, Barnett has never seen the same work ethic and dedication that Jordan showed that summer. He was a living example of working until your hands bleed.

Barnett saw the hard work and fundamentals that famed UNC coach Dean Smith instilled in him. Jordan expected to do well, but when he went 0-fer, it just fueled him more. Being less than great was unfamiliar territory.

"You could tell, the game humbled him at that point. And that's what the game of baseball is, it's a very humbling sport," Barnett said. "You watch him play basketball and you think he's superhuman or superman. You watch the game of baseball, it will humble you in a heartbeat."

Watch: Youtube Video

Although Jordan typically didn't have the upper hand against pitchers, he always kept the competitive edge off the field, especially when playing cards with teammates. When he won, Jordan wouldn't let them forget. And when he'd lose?

 "Typically, he wouldn't lose because he found a way of being, he would basically be the bank. And the person with the most money when you're playing blackjack and all those types of things, he found a way to always win," former teammate Randy Hood said with a laugh. "I don't know if it was cheating, I just call it intimidation factor."

While Jordan developed as a hitter, his other tools shined. The outfielder began flashing the leather and showcased his speed with 30 steals. Although he only hit three homers in his career, Jordan was belting 10-12 long balls a night in batting practice.

Barnett saw glimpses of Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, given the body type and multi-sport pasts. He said he can't help but wonder how Jordan would have turned out if he spent is whole career in baseball.

"I think he could've been a guy who could've done just about everything. He could've had the speed, the power and the ability to hit for average," the replay coordinator said. "You put him on the basketball court and he's a defensive player of the year, he understands people's tendencies, everything like that, tremendous aptitude and smart. He would've found a way to get base hits and beat the guy on the mound. I've never been around a better competitor anywhere."

Center of the baseball universe

For August 1994, Birmingham was the biggest team in baseball. While Jordan drew national attention all season long, the attention reached another level when Major League players went on strike.

Suddenly, Double-A ball was center stage.

"We were a baseball destination, whether it be April, May or June. But when baseball went on strike, we really became the center of the baseball universe, to the nth degree," said Jonathan Nelson, the Barons' current general manager who worked in ticket sales 25 years ago. "There was no more MLB and people wanted to see baseball."

Fans didn't know what to do without the big leagues. Your favorite players going on strike is not an easy concept to grasp. But the Minor Leagues were there. And Jordan was a part of the game fans could feel good about at a time when baseball wasn't providing a lot of cheer about.

ESPN aired several Barons games to fill the void. The Reds sent their broadcast team down at one point just to have some games to cover. With the extra spotlight, Hood felt like it was a crash course in how to handle Major League media for when they all made it to The Show. He remembers playing a game at Memphis on Sunday Night Baseball. Suddenly, Joe Morgan and Jon Miller were talking about the Southern League. The outfielder was sure to record the game.

"You had always heard the way the music plays and you'd get excited and it's ESPN. And then they go, 'From Memphis, Tennessee, Double-A baseball,'" he recalled. "So it was something to fill in but also the talk of baseball."

Hood served as the Barons' fourth outfielder, entering the lineup when Jordan had a day off. So besides the crash course in media attention, he also experienced what it was like to have 10,000-plus people boo him.

"I had to wear it. You just hope you didn't [stink] in the game. Let's just say that," Hood said with a laugh.

Barons ticket sales associate-turned GM Jonathan Nelson poses with Michael Jordan at the end of the year.

The circus had grown all season long, with celebrities like Charles Barkley popping up at any time. Curt Bloom, who has been the Barons' broadcaster since 1992, credits the front office as well as Francona, Barnett and pitching coach Kirk Champion with keeping the team grounded and making sure everyone felt respected.

And while Jordan brought the spotlight and would hop on a private jet on an off day for a prior commitment, Hood felt like he was generally "one of the guys." Jordan would come over to Hood's apartment complex and shoot hoops with a few of the players and occasionally some lucky onlookers.

One thing that comes up a lot with current two-sport star Tim Tebow as he attempts to reach the Majors, is that he's potentially taking the spot of a "more deserving" Minor Leaguer. Both Ganote and Hood remember hearing people say the same about Jordan.

"I would say at the very beginning it crossed my mind and I'm sure it crossed other people's minds. But the more as time passed, I realized you can control what you can control as a person and as a player and to embrace that whole situation," Hood said. "That didn't have anything to do with me being in the big leagues, I just wasn't good enough. I look back on it and it was great and an honor to be a part of the whole scenario."

From the opposing dugout, Ganote had nothing but respect.

"A lot of people said 'He's taking a roster spot and he doesn't deserve it,'' he said. "All that might be true, but in my opinion, after getting to meet him on the golf course and watching him compete... he deserved that opportunity because he put the work in and was trying to do everything he could to be a -- and he really, truly wanted to be a good player in my eyes."

***

Jordan finished that summer with a .202 average, 21 extra-base hits, 51 RBIs and 11 errors in 127 games. He went on to play in the Arizona Fall League, where he became close with Derek Jeter and hit .252 in 120 at-bats.

Of course, the following spring, Jordan announced he was returning to basketball with a famously brief two-word press release. Then he filmed "Space Jam," with one last nod to his baseball career. And he went on to win three more NBA championships and two more MVPs.

His time in baseball became the butt of jokes and material for parodies, but the people who were around him understood what it meant.

"The world needs to know this is not a failure, that this was a success," Bloom said. "For him to do what he did on the field was beyond comprehension. And we all admired it."

The Barons franchise dates to 1885. Birmingham played home to greats like Willie Mays, Satchel Paige, Reggie Jackson and Rollie Fingers. But the team never experienced a season like 1994.

"As great as those players are and the contributions they make to the game of baseball and being in Cooperstown and all those great things, the player that will always be the most famous will always be Michael Jordan," Nelson said. "Regardless of what happens from here on out, he will be the most recognizable player always associated with the Birmingham Barons.

"To be a part of that historic season was beyond special."

Kelsie Heneghan is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kelsie_Heneghan. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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