February 16, 2013
The P.R. guy for the visiting minor-league team was clear: His right fielder would only do interviews if he made an impact on the game.
So as the fly ball headed toward the left-field wall in Zebulon, N.C., on that sticky night in July 1994, you can forget the rule about no cheering in the press box. It came up a few yards short, as too many of them did for the 31-year-old rookie with the Birmingham Barons that summer, but it was good enough for a sac fly.
And good enough for us.
“I’d like to put in that request for Michael Jordan!” I said.
Maybe the first thing you remember about Jordan is the shot that propelled North Carolina to the national title over Georgetown in 1982, or the mesmerizing layup when he changed hands in midair against the Lakers, or the iconic shot that gave him his sixth and final NBA title.
Jordan turns 50 Sunday. He authored far more than 50 transcendent moments in his career, all of them still as fresh now as when they happened – and plenty of them filling the ESPN airwaves and Sports Illustrated pages this week because he is still among the most popular athletes in the world.
That sac fly in tiny Zebulon, home of the Carolina Mudcats, will not make any of these lists. Still: This is how I often remember Jordan now, standing outside the squat cinderblock building where the visiting team dressed with about 200 fans pushing so hard against a nearby fence I worried for their safety.
It couldn’t have been more surreal. Here was a team of so-so prospects and washed-up former big leaguers, all riding a bus – a specially outfitted bus, thanks to him – with a multi-millionaire superstar from another sport who was as famous as anyone on the planet.
Here was Michael Jordan, less than an hour from where his basketball career first exploded, giving interviews about a meaningless sac fly in a Double-A baseball game on the edge of nowhere.
“My teammates – I told them I was going to come out here and play a practical joke that I was going back to basketball and retiring from baseball,” Jordan said, cracking a smile. “But for me to do that, you guys would take it an extra step. And I don’t want to do that.”
That was all that mattered, of course: Getting back to basketball. Jordan leaving the sport was especially hard to comprehend in North Carolina, where he led Dean Smith to his first national title as a freshman in 1982.
His retirement and baseball dalliance wasn’t just a curiosity in his home state. For many, it was a betrayal. I was an intern at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., that summer, assigned to the minors because they were the lowest rung on the ladder. Fans weren’t waiting for him to stop chasing a curveball, but to stop chasing this weird baseball dream, period.
He was 31 and in the prime of his career, and the reasons he stepped away from basketball were real. He was burned out after winning three straight championships with the Bulls. He was emotionally drained after his father was murdered on the side of a highway the summer before.
Still, regardless of the motivation, piling on became fashionable. “Michael Jordan has no more business patrolling right field in Comiskey Park,” Sports Illustrated wrote, “than Minnie Minoso has bringing the ball upcourt for the Chicago Bulls.” Wasn’t he wasting a chance to add to his legacy?
Looking back now, though, that summer only added to it. A lot of athletes have dominated a sport the way Jordan did. A lot were as hungry to win or as feared in the clutch or even successfully returned from retirement.
None was brave enough to try to master another sport entirely – and this excludes two-sport stars such as Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders, because Jordan hadn’t played baseball since he was a teenager. He might have been a failure in a baseball uniform, with a Mendoza-line .202 batting average in 127 games that summer. But returning to basketball after a year-and-a-half absence and winning three more titles confirmed his greatness.
The time away, in hindsight, made the legacy stronger. Even if it felt like a bad sports movie at the time.
“There was a lot of speculation made about my announcement of retirement and going back to basketball, and it wasn't started by me,” Jordan said that night in Zebulon. “I think that’s some of the media pressures trying to get me back in the game. That's totally not going to work.
“No, I’m not going back to basketball, as I heard you guys say on the television and the radio,” he said. “I’m here, I’m happy to be here, and I will remain here.”
He played three games that weekend, going 1 for 9 with three strikeouts and two RBI that nobody remembers. Then, as his teammates filed out of that cinderblock clubhouse, he hopped into a Lexus and drove away.