#TBT: When Air Jordan soared at Wrigley Field

April 7th, 2016

It was the boldest experiment imaginable. Michael Jordan not only dreamed it up, but he was willing to give it a try.
Take the best athlete in the world and switch his sport in the middle of his career. How would he do?
Twenty-two years ago Thursday, on April 7, 1994, Jordan played right field for the White Sox against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. He hit sixth in the order for manager Gene Lamont, listed alongside Robin Ventura and Ozzie Guillen in the lineup. I was among those with an assigned seat in the packed press box, which included reporters from seemingly every major media outlet.
This was an exhibition game, to be sure. But the storied old stadium was sold out for this version of the Crosstown Classic, the annual scrimmage between Chicago's two Major League teams, one that in 1997 would be rendered extinct by the addition of Interleague Play.
I had covered the three-time NBA Most Valuable Player Award winner's shocking retirement the previous fall. It was announced on the day after Jordan had thrown out the ceremonial first pitch for Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, between the Blue Jays and the White Sox. Like a lot of baseball reporters, I returned to Chicago that offseason after the Sox agreed to Jordan's request to try baseball.

Jordan's early-morning work with legendary hitting coach Walt Hriniak in Sarasota was the biggest story in Florida that spring. Yet nothing prepared me for what I saw at Wrigley Field.
The rivalry between the Cubs and White Sox has always carried weight, even when the games counted only to settle barroom bets, and with the stadium buzzing, this game felt like the regular season.
But here's the shocking part.
Jordan not only looked like a ballplayer, but he did a lot more than just look good in uniform. He went 2-for-5 with a double, and both of his hits brought in runs, the second of which tied the game at 4-4. That would be the final, with the game called after 10 innings. This tie was no small thing, either. The White Sox somehow never lost the Crosstown Classic to the North Siders, finishing 10-0-2 in an exhibition series that ran from 1985-95, with two games played the last year.
Jordan did his share, and more.

Before the game at Wrigley Field, the 31-year-old Jordan had turned the table on reporters, asking them a question.
"What if I got a hit today?" he asked. "You guys would fall over, wouldn't you?"
Jordan had played baseball as a kid growing up in North Carolina. He had spent a lot of time around Comiskey Park -- both the old one and the new one -- while helping the Bulls win the first three of the six NBA titles they would eventually win with him wearing No. 23.
Jordan knew hitting fastballs and sliders from Major League pitchers was tougher than advanced calculus. Yet he wasn't afraid to try.
In a pregame interview on WGN, a star-struck Harry Caray had asked Jordan how he would handle it if he found out he couldn't hit advanced pitching.
"What it does is really gives credibility to the game of baseball as a whole," Jordan said. "A lot of people view me as a decent athlete, but to come out here and find out these professionals are athletes. It takes an exceptionally talented person to [be a Major League player]. I really am having a good time trying. Hopefully I can get better at it. If I don't succeed, at least I can learn about the game and watch it with a little better interest."
Hitless in his first two at-bats, Jordan hit a high chopper on a 3-2 pitch from lefty Dave Otto in the sixth inning. The ball bounced off the top of the third baseman's glove for a single, which scored a run.
Jordan would come up again in the seventh. This time, he shot a double past the third baseman for an RBI double.
Because this was his first and only time to play in one, Jordan can forever say that he hit .400 in Major League stadiums. He had the biggest smile on his face afterward.
"It was a great feeling just to come out and do well," Jordan said.
During Caray's interview, he asked Jordan how he would handle the life of a Minor League player.
"I will be taking a bus," Jordan said. "It may be a nicer bus, but I will be taking a bus."
Jordan left Wrigley and joined the Double-A Birmingham Barons. He would gamely go the distance, playing 127 games for Terry Francona's 65-74 team, which included 20 future and past Major Leaguers.
At Birmingham, Jordan was an ideal teammate and representative of the game, seemingly treating everyone he met with respect. He played a lot of golf in the mornings -- 36 holes many days -- but never slacked off in his attempt to become a better hitter.
Jordan knew from the start that baseball was tough, and he was right. Facing pitchers like Brad Radke, Esteban Loaiza, LaTroy Hawkins, Jason Schmidt and Derek Lowe, he hit .202 with three home runs in 497 plate appearances.
Through it all, Jordan grieved the loss of his father, who had been murdered the year before. He was ready to get back to his NBA career when the Southern League season ended. The White Sox couldn't have called Jordan up if they had wanted to, as players went on strike in mid-August and didn't return until the following April.
Consider this baseball's ultimate fantasy camp.
"Just being given the opportunity is something I can feel very privileged about," Jordan said that day at Wrigley Field. "The White Sox gave me the opportunity to go out and see what type skills I have. If I develop the skills to be up here, great. But if I don't, at least I fulfilled a dream trying."