ST. PETERSBURG — You can count Terry Francona as a believer in Tim Tebow, the baseball player. Why? Because 23 years ago Francona was a believer in Michael Jordan, the baseball player.
“I lived through it,” Francona, now the Indians’ manager, said Thursday from his office inside the visitor’s clubhouse at Tropicana Field.
He lived through the media crush and the nightly crowds swelled by the curious.
He heard the hullaballoo from those who saw Jordan’s (now Tebow’s) turn at baseball in 1994 as nothing more than a money grab by the parent club.
He listened to the argument that Jordan (now Tebow) took a roster spot away from a more deserving prospect.
Francona laughed back in 1994 when Jordan played for the Double A Birmingham Barons, which he managed, and Francona laughs now.
“(People’s) first thought is to be critical of it. ‘Why is he playing?’ I didn’t feel that way with Michael, and I don’t feel that way with Tebow,” Francona said. “If (Tebow) wants to go back to A Ball to play, why not? He ain’t hurting anybody. By all accounts he’s a hard worker. I don’t see the harm in it. I didn’t see it with Michael, either.”
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The Summer of Jordan began the previous October when Jordan announced he was retiring from basketball after winning three straight NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls. The most popular athlete on the planet at the time was headed to baseball, a transition made possible because Jerry Reinsdorf, who owned the Bulls, owned the White Sox.
Jordan, 31, arrived in Sarasota in mid-February for a well-attended workout and press conference. Fans peered under an opening in the outfield fence at Ed Smith Stadium to get a peek at Jordan shagging fly balls. Photographers waited for that moment when Air Jordan would catch a ball in front of an advertisement for an air conditioning company known then as Unique Air.
Most in the media were not buying his move from basketball, where he was the undisputed king, to baseball, which he had not played since high school.
In mid-March, Sports Illustrated pounced, with a cover showing Jordan swinging way late at a pitch. The headline: “Bag It Michael: Jordan and the Whole White Sox are Embarrassing Baseball.”
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In Birmingham, it was a different story.
Fans flocked to Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in record numbers, where crowds of 16,000 where shoehorned into the park that was designed to hold 10,500.
“That year we shattered every Barons record imaginable from cars parked to hotdogs sold to beers poured to Cokes poured to you name it,” Barons general manager Jonathan Nelson said. “We shattered a record for attendance when the dust settled.”
Nelson was in his second year with the club that season, working in group sales.
Like everyone who worked with the team that summer, Nelson has his Jordan stories. Like the time Jordan pulled up in the parking lot before a Sunday afternoon game and helped team employees pull the tarp off the field.
Curt Bloom, the Barons radio announcer then and now, remembers playing 3-on-3 basketball with Jordan and some of the Barons one Sunday evening at a court near the stadium. He remembers how timed stopped when he realized he was on Jordan’s team. He remembers trying to set a pick for MJ.
The 6-foot-6 Jordan looked down at the 6-0 Bloom and said, “CB, I don’t need that.”
Then Jordan took a step back and drained a 30-footer.
“That whole season was incredible to say the least,” Bloom said.
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Media from around the world showed up. So did athletes and celebrities.
Jordan lived in a house on a tony golf course. He parked his Porsche in a different spot near the stadium each day to confuse autograph seekers. He had a police escort into and out of stadiums.
Other than that, Jordan was a typical Baron, staying at the same hotels with his teammates and eating at the same restaurants, albeit after calling ahead so they could be seated in a special section.
Jordan rode the team bus, though that bus was a new, 45-footer that had more leg room than the standard charter buses of the time. And there was a card table in the back.
Jordan didn’t buy the bus, but he paid the difference for the upgrade. It became known as the Jordan Cruiser.
“Everything was a little different with Michael,” Francona said. “He made it so much easier with how he reacted. He was so respectful to our game and to our players. If it looked like from the outside that it was a circus, it never was, and that was because of him. I learned a lot that year, media, being organized. It was a great learning experience.”
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Jordan hit .202 that season. He stole 30 bases and drove in 51 runs.
The Southern League drew 2.4 million.
Jordan’s teammates loved playing in front of packed houses, and Francona reminded them the attention could work to their benefit, as well.
Jordan loved just being one the of the guys, which Francona said he could, “never, ever, ever, ever” be in the NBA.
And then it was over.
Jordan went back to the Bulls the following year, and Barons returned to being just another minor league team.
Francona, who texts with Jordan on a regular basis these days, was reminded of that summer when he heard of Tebow’s plans to play baseball.
“I just don’t see with Tebow what the problem is,” Francona said. “If he doesn’t make it, OK. But I don’t think you can fault a guy for trying.”
Francona said Tebow is not taking a roster spot away from a prospect, since most minor league teams, especially those in the Florida State League, include just a handful of players with big league potential.
Francona wondered how good Jordan could have been had he given baseball more time. He wonders what Tebow will be like if he gets 1,000 at-bats.
“I’ll be pulling for him,” Francona said. “I don’t want him to beat us some day, but I’ll be pulling for him.”
Contact Roger Mooney at email@example.com. Follow @rogermooney50