This A's coach went one-on-one with MJ

March 22nd, 2023

This story was excerpted from Martín Gallegos’ Athletics Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

MESA, Ariz. -- Ever wonder what it would have been like to go one-on-one with Michael Jordan? A’s pitching coach Scott Emerson has lived it -- on a baseball field.

Nearly 29 years ago to the day -- March 21, 1994 -- Emerson squared off on a back field at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Fla., against the man widely viewed as the greatest basketball player to ever lace them up.

After Jordan signed a contract with the White Sox and attended big league Spring Training for a few weeks in 1994, he was reassigned to the club’s Minor League camp. The plan was to send him to Double-A Birmingham, but Chicago wanted to keep the superstar in a more controlled environment with its own security team and decided to have him first play for Class A Prince William.

Prince William’s first game with Jordan on the roster came against Class A Frederick, an affiliate of the Orioles at the time. Frederick’s starting pitcher? Emerson, who also happened to be a local basketball standout at Shadow Mountain High School in Phoenix.

Michael Jordan readies for a pitch during a Spring Training game in 1994. (Photo via Getty Images)

It was a day that Emerson will never forget, and he took some time on the 29th anniversary of the game to recount the experience: When did you find out you would be facing Michael Jordan in that game?

Emerson: I was warming up in the bullpen and masses of people just started coming to the back field. I was like, "What’s going on?" I put two and two together and I’m like, "Michael Jordan is in this game." Sure enough, there he was. Just imagine being at [A’s Minor League Spring Training complex] Fitch [Park] and at least 1,000 people jamming in trying to watch one of the greatest athletes of all time playing baseball. You were a pretty good basketball player yourself back in high school, correct?

Emerson: Yeah. Don’t quote me on the exact quote of this, but whoever wrote the article that day said something like, "The guy on the mound was All-State and the guy at the plate was All-World: Scott Emerson, an All-State basketball player, was facing an All-World basketball player in Michael Jordan." I’ve tried to Google and look for it. I’ve got the article somewhere at home. I’m sure there was a star-struck-type feeling. At the same time, you’re competitive and trying to make it in pro ball. What goes through your mind as you’re seeing Jordan step into the box?

Emerson: Big man. They had a guy named Jimmy Hurst and they had similar bodies. I tried to envision facing Jimmy Hurst because I faced Jimmy the year before. I’m trying to figure out what am I going to do to him. I figured I’d throw him all fastballs. That’s what I did the first at-bat. In the offseason, I was telling all my buddies that I’m going to face Michael Jordan. They were laughing. But I was like, "No, I’m going to face Michael Jordan." I teased everybody that I was going to drill him. But when he got up there, the guy’s trying to play the game that I love. First AB, he beat me. He hit a ground ball into right field for a base hit. Second AB, I got him. Some of me always says I wish I could get on the basketball court with him for some redemption. I tell this story living in North Carolina, now that anybody that knows MJ over there in Charlotte, tell him I need my redemption. I haven’t got it yet. Maybe I will one day. Obviously, he was an athletic guy. On the baseball field, how did he look and move as a baseball player?

Emerson: We all thought, "Wow, this guy can play a little bit." He could run. Later in the game, he hit a ball to short and got down the line really well. This guy floats. He’s got some power. Line-drive stroke probably. We all thought he would develop into a power hitter. If he was, like, 20, he probably would have been a Hall of Fame baseball player. He just didn’t give himself enough time. He was in his 30s at the time. But just watching that guy and being on the same field and being able to say I competed against Michael Jordan is a cool feeling. This guy, the Jordan brand, you say "Jordan" and everybody knows what you’re talking about.

Michael Jordan takes in a Spring Training game from the dugout. (Photo via Getty Images) Did you guys have any interactions on the field?

Emerson: A little bit. I was running poles in the outfield. My brother ran Desert Mountain Golf Course as a superintendent and Jordan played a lot of golf there. I told him and he said it was one of the best courses in the world. We just had a little small talk. Did you follow at all or check in on how he was doing in his baseball venture?

Emerson: I followed him a lot. He ended up playing in the Arizona Fall League that year and the Orioles guys were on the team, so all of my friends were with him. I’d see him out every now and then with my buddies. They would invite me to some places and he’d be there every now and then. It was cool. This guy was trying to be a stud baseball player. All our guys that played with him on the Scottsdale Scorpions, Terry Francona was the manager, they all said he was one of the hardest working guys ever and really wanted to succeed in baseball. I think if he would have given himself more time, he would have been a better player. Obviously, he went back to basketball and won three more championships.