Jordan baseball stint all positive
Tebow can learn from legend’s time in minors
CHICAGO Look: Tim Tebow is not Michael Jordan, for a lot of reasons, and a mega-famous pro athlete switching sports to play minor league baseball in 2016 comes with a host of particulars that never affected Jordan’s 1994 pursuit — the Internet, most notably.
But Tebow’s foray into baseball has brought criticism at every stop, from his announcement to his initial workout to his signing with the New York Mets and arrival in the instructional league: He will be a headache, he will be a distraction, he will take away opportunities from some minorleague guy fighting for a job. And because we have precisely one example before Tebow of a hugely renowned athlete taking up baseball after a long layoff, Jordan’s case seems like the closest thing to a precedent.
To hear it from those around Jordan in the Chicago White Sox organization in 1994, none of the concerns expressed about Tebow’s career switch proved a problem during Jordan’s.
“It was a treat for everybody to get to see probably the best basketball player that ever was,” said White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, a veteran of nearly three decades in the organization who worked in player development in 1994. “I think people can see and learn stuff from that — he wanted to win at everything, I don’t care if it was basketball, ping-pong, golf, Yahtzee. I mean, we got a chance to be around a guy who reached the heights that he did in basketball, and he wants to be with us now.”
Jordan played for Class AA Birmingham (Ala.).
“We were trying to get somewhere that he had been before,” said Scott Tedder, an outfielder for the 1994 Barons who works in sporting goods in Birmingham. “It was a great experience.”
Terry Francona managed the Barons in 1994. Now a two-time World Series champion manager piloting the Cleveland Indians toward the postseason, Francona still maintains a friendship with Jordan and spoke glowingly of his time managing perhaps the most famous minor league player in baseball history.
“It was never a headache,” Francona told USA TODAY Sports last week. “It had all the makings of it, but I think the way M.J. handled himself, it never, ever got there. He was never late. He rode the bus. He did everything you could humanly do.
“It wasn’t his fault that everybody wanted a piece of him. But he made it so easy for me . ... It certainly had all the makings of a circus-like atmosphere, yet it never turned into that. I always think it’s because of the way he handled it.”
Life in the minors isn’t easy: Players make very little money to work very hard in front of very tiny crowds for the slim chance of a massive major league reward. According to Jordan’s teammates, his presence electrified Birmingham baseball, and they even benefited from it professionally.
“It was definitely a big-league atmosphere, with the media, the people, the excitement around the game,” Tedder said. “It made you want to play harder. It was like playing with a rock star. They always talk about the dog days of August and playing in front of few people. But that year we played in front of sold-out crowds all year long, and it kept us motivated through the summer.”
“In minor league baseball or minor league spring training, there’s really not much energy as far outside the fence,” said Chris Snopek, who played for the 1994 Barons en route to spending parts of four seasons in the majors. “With Michael, it brought a lot of fans. Instead of 500 or 1,000 people at a minor league game, there’d be 8,000. And so obviously the environment and atmosphere was very different.”
But it wasn’t only fans who came to see Jordan. For his popularity, perhaps, or for the novelty or for the possibilities, Jordan drew baseball decision-makers to Birmingham and, as a byproduct, gave his teammates more opportunities to get noticed.
“It gave people like myself more exposure,” Snopek said. “Especially within the organiza- tion, a lot of people wanted to see Michael play and a lot of executives wanted to come see Michael, so it gave us a platform to show off our skills just because they wanted to see him play. It was a blessing.”
Jordan, of course, brought hordes of media, as Tebow certainly will. But as Snopek pointed out, that represents something a minor league player will need to become accustomed to at the game’s highest level. Snopek called it a “dry run to get a sense of the major leagues.”
The overwhelmingly positive memories from those around Jordan in 1994 reflect his virtues as a teammate and his approach to baseball. That’s a lesson to Tebow: Work hard and be cool, and no will mind that you’re around.
“He respected the game, his teammates, the way of doing things,” Francona said of Jordan. “He was so eager to learn, and, again, I got to see it first-hand: He was doing it for the right reasons, so it made it fun.”
Said Tedder: “We saw his work ethic, as far as getting to the park early, one of the last ones to leave, putting in extra work before the games, taking BP after games — just the way he handled it professionally, with the media, with the players. In the clubhouse, he was a great teammate. He always took care of us. We knew he thought it was a burden, especially with all the media and all the attention he was getting, but he would tell reporters, ‘You don’t need to talk to me, you need to talk to Scott Tedder, because he had two hits and four RBIs.’ ”
To this day, many snicker at Jordan’s performance in his single season in pro baseball. After establishing himself as perhaps the greatest player in NBA history, Jordan mustered only a .202 batting average across 127 games in Birmingham in 1994. But diminishing or dismissing Jordan’s limited success discredits the level: Hitting .202 in Class AA is enormously difficult even for people who haven’t been away from the sport for more than a decade.
Asked if Jordan got enough acknowledgment for his impressive (in context) performance, Francona was unequivocal:
“No. No. No. Never. No. It was kind of fashionable, even in Sports Illustrated, to kind of be critical of his wanting to play baseball. He went straight to Double-A, which is not easy for anybody. But he drove in 50 runs and stole 30 (bases). That’s saying something. And you could see he was getting better. Early on, they were trying to throw fastballs in, then he started making adjustments, then came breaking balls. It was a constant adjustment..”
As to the notion that Tebow would be taking away opportunities from a more deserving minor league player, there’s probably no one better than Tedder to weigh in: Though he typically played left field and Jordan played right, Tedder was, at that point, a 1988 21st-round draft pick who had played his way up through the minors. He got released by the White Sox late that season, despite significantly outperforming his more famous fellow corner fielder at the plate. But Tedder doesn’t see it that way at all.
“I’ve got no hard feelings at all about that situation,” he said. “Not at all. It was a business decision they made.”
And Cooper, with a lifetime’s worth of experience working for major league organizations, heartily dismissed the notion that Jordan or Tebow might prevent anyone from playing or developing en route to a big-league career.
“If you’re good enough, you’re going to get a chance,” Cooper said. “People can be crybabies. Listen: Why be a hater? Why not just pull for this guy? Pull for Jordan; pull for Tebow . ...
“A lot of people are saying it’s a publicity stunt . ... I’m sure that’s not the case for Tebow. I know it wasn’t the case for Michael Jordan. He wanted to play. He wanted to see how he could do. He was competing. Trying to compete the best he could. And I’m sure Tebow’s going to do the same.”
Playing with basketball legend Michael Jordan, right, had many benefits, his former teammates with Class AA Birmingham (Ala.) in 1994 say. “It made you want to play harder,” Scott Tedder says. “It was like playing with a rock star.”
Tim Tebow is trying to work his way through the Mets’ farm system.