Jor­dan base­ball stint all pos­i­tive

Te­bow can learn from leg­end’s time in mi­nors

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - SCREEN CHECK - Ted Berg @OGTedBerg USA TO­DAY Sports

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.

EX­CIT­ING AT­MOS­PHERE

“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.’ ”

UN­DER­RATED EF­FORTS

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.”

AP FILE PHOTO

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.”

JASEN VINLOVE, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Tim Te­bow is try­ing to work his way through the Mets’ farm sys­tem.

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