When Michael Jordan turned 50 on Sunday, Indians manager Terry Francona sent him a happy birthday text and Jordan responded almost immediately.
So what is the connection between the manager of the Indians and the greatest basketball player in history?
It goes back to 1994, when Jordan “retired” from the NBA to play baseball for Birmingham, the Double-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. Francona was his manager.
Jordan batted .201 with 17 doubles, one triple and three home runs in 436 at-bats, stealing 30 bases in 48 attempts.
The numbers are not impressive until they are put in context. Jordan was 31 at the time and hadn’t played baseball since high school. Keep in mind that the majority of players who sign baseball contracts out of high school or college never make it to the Double-A level.
“The criticism he was getting bothered me,” Francona said Monday. “He had so much respect for the game. He respected so much what we did. I’m pretty crazy about him.”
Francona never bought the speculation that NBA Commissioner David Stern forced Jordan to take a year off from basketball because of some vague gambling issues.
“No way,” Francona said. “I thought he was playing for the right reasons.”
Francona recalls the first time he saw Jordan on the field, not long before the start of the season.
“He was standing in the outfield,” Francona recalled. “I could see the look in his eyes that said, ‘Here comes another coach,’ because everybody wanted to coach him. So I told him, ‘Why don’t I just leave you alone for a few days?’ ”
It was widely publicized that Jordan purchased a new bus for the team, which isn’t exactly true.
“He asked me if the team flies to road games, and I told him that we took a bus,” Francona said. “The next day there were four new buses in the parking lot. One of them looked like it was made for a rock band. I told Jordan, ‘My seat looks OK and so does yours, but what about the other guys?’ ”
A less lavish bus was eventually chosen. Francona thinks Jordan made a deal — possibly with one of his endorsement partners — to allow the team to use the bus during the season.
“He didn’t buy it, though,” Francona said.
According to Francona, Jordan never complained about taking the long bus rides or staying in modest hotels.
“He was good to every player and every coach,” Francona said. “And we got to see him with his guard down.”
Baseball didn’t come easily to Jordan, and he made the effort to get better.
“I’ve never seen a guy whose tank is never on empty,” Francona said. “All day long he could just go.”
Sometime during the season, it probably was inevitable that a pickup basketball game would break out. It happened at an outdoor court in Birmingham, and word spread quickly that Jordan was playing. When one local player began to challenge Jordan with some physical play, he reacted.
“He told the guy he was going right there [pointing to where the man was standing],” Francona said. “Then he took off and slammed the ball so hard that he tore the rim off the backboard.”
That’s when Francona called off the game.
“I wanted to be a Triple-A manager someday,” Francona said, smiling.
Baseball provided Jordan with obstacles he hadn’t faced before. For one thing, he felt the strain on his arm from having to throw every day.
“His arm always hurt,” Francona said. “He played left and right, and if you told him no, he’d find a way to make it yes.”
Before spring training, Jordan was tutored by the White Sox’s controversial hitting coach Walt Hriniak, who instructed players to swing with a distinctive follow-through that many coaches and players thought suited only batters looking to make contact but not drive the ball.
“Jordan developed that style before he knew how to hit at all, which is kind of backward,” Francona said. Usually, a player is permitted to develop his own swing before coaches try to make changes.
“I remember a trip to Memphis,” Francona said. “Jordan was having a tough time at the plate and making himself miserable. I told him, ‘You’re not like the rest of these guys [accustomed to hot streaks and slumps]. You have to quit beating yourself up.’ ”
Jordan returned to the NBA the following season with a fresh outlook on basketball.
“He told me that the year before, all he wanted to do was play the [NBA] game, get dressed and go home,” Francona said. “I think for the one year he was in baseball, playing in Birmingham and Memphis meant as much to him as the NBA. When he went back, he called and said he really enjoyed the league now.”
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.