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Memories of MJ, the baseball player

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  • Michael Jordan did his best in his brief attempt to play baseball for a living before going back to the Bulls to repeat his three-peat.

      Michael Jordan did his best in his brief attempt to play baseball for a living before going back to the Bulls to repeat his three-peat.
    Associated Press File/April 1994

 
 

Twenty years ago, I packed up the Radio Shack laptop and headed down to Sarasota, Fla., for spring training and my first season on the White Sox beat.

The memories are as clear as yesterday.

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I remember an outfielder named Tim Raines making his first throw playing long toss on the first day of full-squad workouts and announcing: "I'm ready."

I remember a shortstop named Ozzie Guillen harassing a first baseman named Frank Thomas. "You've got to scoop those balls out of the dirt," Ozzie said. "No wonder I don't win any Gold Gloves."

I remember a third baseman named Robin Ventura pulling a nice prank on a young prospect named Chris Snopek. Before a game Snopek was, let's just say, using the lavatory in the Sox' clubhouse. Well, his wallet fell out, Ventura found it and there were about 100 pizzas waiting in the clubhouse at day's end.

There were plenty of storylines in the spring of 1994 with the White Sox coming off a playoff appearance the year before. But one player in camp attracted more attention than Raines, Guillen, Thomas, Ventura, Julio Franco, Jack McDowell, Alex Fernandez, Wilson Alvarez, Jason Bere and Roberto Hernandez combined.

His name was Michael Jordan.

As a basketball player, Jordan is arguably the greatest to ever grace the hardwood. But after retiring from the Bulls (he would later return) and joining the White Sox, Jordan's baseball pursuit was widely laughed off before he first stepped into the batter's box.

Two decades later, here are some of my most memorable memories of MJ, the baseball player:

• On the first day of spring training in 1994, I headed to Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota for Jordan's introductory news conference.

Considering there were 300 reporters from all over the world and 31 TV cameras, Jordan sat on top of the dugout while fielding questions.

"I didn't ask for all the attention, certainly, but I can't control it," he said. "With all the media, I guess there could be some jealousy. Hopefully, my teammates will judge me on my work."

• I wrote a daily "Jordan Watch" for the Daily Herald, and many of the entries chronicled the daily wave of reporters that camped out in front of his locker. On one particular day, a Japanese reporter had his credential pulled after committing the ultimate media no-no -- asking Jordan for his autograph.

• Former Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andy Van Slyke was one of several established major leaguers to criticize Jordan for thinking he could play a new sport at the age of 31.

"Baseball has as good a chance of having a salary cap as Michael Jordan has of wearing a White Sox cap; neither is going to happen," Van Slyke told Sports Illustrated right before spring training. "Baseball looks like the simplest sport to play, but it's the hardest. Golf is easier to pick up than baseball. An average guy who works at IBM can become a 10 handicap, but an average guy at IBM can't play baseball. In baseball, Michael is an average guy."

Jordan did a good job of shaking off all the criticism, and he understood where it was coming from.

But one morning, before the White Sox were scheduled to play the Pirates in an exhibition game, a clubhouse attendant brought a box of baseballs over to Jordan to autograph.

It was another daily routine, and as he grabbed his Sharpie, Jordan asked whom they were for.

"Andy Van Slyke," replied the clubbie.

"Get these (bleeping) balls out of here," Jordan said.

• Ted Koppel visited camp for a Nightline feature on Jordan, which was expected. After all, this was a major news story, not just sports.

And while I give Koppel credit for trying to figure out a game he didn't understand and going to the beat writers for information, his barrage of questions (Why are they called shortstops? Why don't the White Sox wear white socks? Why does the manager wear a uniform?) were not spring highlights.

Jordan made it through spring training and played the 1994 season with the Class AA Birmingham Barons, who were managed by Terry Francona. He batted .202.

He came back again in the spring of 1995 but wanted no part of baseball's labor dispute. Jordan returned to the Bulls and won three more NBA championships.

sgregor@dailyherald.com

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