In late 1993, Chicago White Sox outfielder Michael Huff got a strange call from the team’s owner, Jerry Reinsdorf. “He said, ‘We want you to teach someone how to catch and throw a baseball,’” Huff remembers. When Huff asked who his student would be, Reinsdorf wouldn’t say.
It turned out to be Michael Jordan. Unbeknownst to not just the public but his future teammates, the retired three-time NBA champion wanted to give baseball a shot, despite not having played the sport in more than a decade, when he was in high school. For months, Huff, the trainer Herm Schneider and others quietly worked Jordan into baseball shape before he announced in February that he would be reporting to White Sox spring training. From there, Jordan played a season with the Birmingham Barons, the White Sox’ AA minor league team, and then in fall league with the Scottsdale Scorpions before coming out of retirement to return to the Bulls, amounting to one of the oddest sagas of his labyrinthian career.
This unexpected detour is covered in Sunday night’s episode of The Last Dance, the ESPN docuseries that has become a cultural phenomenon since its debut in April. In a socially distanced era in which sports and culture fans alike hunger for new entertainment, the show quickly became the most-watched documentary content in ESPN’s history, and has dredged up all sorts of micro-histories and controversies, from postgame handshake snubs to political endorsements to pitching quarters.
But Jordan’s short-lived baseball career stands out for its peculiarity. And while The Last Dance features interviews with coaches Terry Francona and Mike Barnett, it doesn’t include the voices of the Birmingham Baron players and trainers who spent nearly every day of 1994 alongside him, on long bus rides, late-night McDonalds runs and at scorching afternoon games. More than a quarter century later, TIME caught up with several of them to hear about their experiences.
“It’s like we were in a circus the whole summer,” Barons shortstop Glenn DiSarcina tells TIME. “It was craziness on a daily basis.”
‘Blisters on his hands’
In October 1993, Jordan announced his retirement from basketball after a tumultuous summer. He had just won his third championship, but had come under intense scrutiny for gambling during the playoffs, and he was grieving the death of his father James, who was murdered that July.
In The Last Dance, Jordan says that one of the last things his father had told him was to follow his childhood dream of becoming a baseball player. After his father’s death, Jordan needed an emotional reset, and he became even more motivated to fulfill his longtime ambition. He quietly told his plan to Jerry Reinsdorf, who was the owner of both the Bulls and the White Sox; the owner agreed to help him and gave his number to the longtime White Sox trainer Herm Schneider.
Without telling anyone else, Jordan and Schneider got to work the day after Thanksgiving to transform his basketball body into a baseball one. Weeks before he picked up a bat or a glove, Schneider had Jordan do weeks of weight lifting and conditioning to strengthen his shoulders, elbows and hands. “He was putting stresses on joints in a way he had never done, maybe other than high school,” Schneider says.
Once Jordan had bulked up, Huff and former White Sox slugger Bill Melton were recruited to teach Jordan baseball fundamentals in all-day training sessions at Comiskey Park and the nearby Illinois Institute of Technology. Huff initially bristled at Reinsdorf’s request. “As a backup outfielder, it was a little bit unnerving to have the chairman ask you to teach someone how to do your job,” Huff recalls. It didn’t help matters that Jordan’s baseball skills were raw. “It was pretty rough at the beginning,” Huff says. “He had basketball athleticism and basketball IQ, but there was really none of that baseball-wise.”
But Jordan quickly won over Huff and Schneider with his determination to learn and improve. They would often have to nearly drag him off the field after a long day of practicing his swing or chasing fly balls. “He would hit and hit and hit until literally there were blisters on his hands,” Schneider recalls. “They would be bleeding, and we’d have to patch them up.”
The Last Dance covers Jordan’s near-maniacal competitiveness, which sometimes bordered on bullying lesser Bulls players in order to motivate them during practice. But that winter, Huff says that Jordan asked to be on the opposite end of such pressure. “The first couple times when I sheepishly said, ‘Mike, that wasn’t very good, let’s do it again,” he would look at me and say, “It’s okay, Huffie. You can get more forceful if I’m doing it wrong.’ He very much humbled himself to say, ‘I am the low man on the totem pole,’” Huff says. “We got into a very quick rhythm of literally getting better week by week.”
During that time, Huff remembers asking Jordan why he was trying to become a baseball player. “He said that before his father passed away, he had said to him, ‘You might be the one person this decade that can truly do anything you want,” says Huff. “If there’s anything you want to do, promise me you’re going to do it.’”
When Jordan reported to the White Sox spring training in Sarasota, Fla., a media circus followed. And while there was plenty of excitement, there was also a pervading skepticism. By this point, it was clear to everyone that Jordan lacked the skills to make it to the major leagues that year. In March, Sports Illustrated ran a scathing cover article—penned by future TIME senior writer Steve Wulf—about Jordan’s progress, re-dubbing him “Err Jordan.”
Jordan was placed in AA-ball, the third highest of the four minor league levels. Someone who hadn’t played baseball since high school—even if he’s the best basketball player in the world—should have started in rookie ball. In The Last Dance, Reinsdorf says that he would have started Jordan at a lower level, but rookie ball or A-ball lacked the media facilities to handle the crowds that would swarm around Jordan.
“AA is future major leaguers, plus guys that are throwing hard,” Chris Snopek, a third baseman on the Barons that year, says. “You gotta be really disciplined at the plate.”
If there was any resentment over the idea that Jordan’s celebrity status had allowed him to cut in line, it dissipated once he demonstrated his work ethic and attitude. “A lot of times, Michael was at the field before anybody, working on his swing. He would come to us for advice,” Snopek remembers.
Glenn DiSarcina says that the first time he met him, Jordan came up to him and called him by his nickname, “DiSar.” “I was totally caught off guard that he would know who I was before even meeting me,” says DiSarcina. “That showed he probably did his homework on some of the guys he would be playing with.”
Jordan started off hot in April, at one point stringing together a 13-game hitting streak. But soon, opposing pitchers figured out that he was unable to hit curveballs and other off-speed pitches. His batting average sank. “At a certain point he could catch up to the fastball, but you saw him lunging a lot at breaking balls and being off-balance,” says DiSarcina, whose brother Gary is a 12-year MLB vet who now coaches third base for the New York Mets.
Mired at the bottom of a steep learning curve, Jordan worked even harder to learn the intricacies of the game. In The Last Dance, Barons hitting coach Mike Barnett recalls Jordan’s daily routine: “He would hit early in the day, then off the breaking ball machine, then come in after regular batting practice, hit some more before the game, and then would hit again after the game.”
“He was the bank”
Double-A baseball is far from glamorous. Teams travel by bus, not plane; they get dressed in shabby locker rooms, play in sweltering heat and subsist on fast food or hotel spreads. Jordan’s teammates, who were much younger and less financially stable than he was, say that he embraced the modest lifestyle. “He was one of us. He didn’t ask for special stuff—he did everything we did,” the catcher Chris Tremie says.
“It was unreal, going into a McDonalds at Huntsville at one in the morning, watching the workers behind the counter in total amazement as Michael Jordan orders a Big Mac,” DiSarcina says.
Jordan also eagerly participated in group activities, albeit sometimes to his own financial benefit. He was a notorious gambler, and DiSarcina learned of his prowess the hard way on an early road trip. “We had just gotten our meal money, which was probably $15-18 bucks a day. That meant a lot to guys like us,” he remembers. “Unfortunately, I handed it all to Michael when he was dealing blackjack on the bus ride. I never played with him again the rest of the summer.”
Over the course of the season, DiSarcina and others had plenty of opportunity to wager with Michael on all kinds of things. “He thought he’d win anything: pool, ping pong, cards,” Snopek remembers. “Whatever we were playing, he was the bank; he would always talk smack and mess with us. He’d play Yahtzee all the time with [manager Terry] Francona, trying to keep us up in the middle of the night when we were trying to travel 12 hours to Orlando.”
Jordan developed particular bonds with Francona—who was just four years older than him, and whose own relentless drive would lead him to win two World Series titles as the manager of the Boston Red Sox—and the catcher Rogelio Nunez. Nunez was from the Dominican Republic and was just learning English. Over ping pong marathons, Jordan pledged to give Nunez $100 for each new English word he learned. “By the end of the season, Nunie’s English was much better, he was richer, and Jordan was beating him in ping pong,” infielder Kenny Coleman told ESPN last year.
Of course, Jordan’s competitive nature extended to basketball. Huff says that during games of H-O-R-S-E, “the minute anybody got a letter up on him, it was a dunk, it was a shot none of us could do—he would quickly get ahead of us.”
Tremie remembers playing a game of basketball against Jordan in the middle of the season, in which he and three of the Barons’ better players matched up against Jordan and three coaches. “We were doing OK for a little while, and we had a chance to beat his team,” Tremie says. “But when it came close to the number we were playing for, he took over. We were all just on the court watching him: I’ll never forget how explosive he was, and with finesse, too.”
Meanwhile, the season was also enlivened by the huge interest Jordan drew everywhere he went. Snopek says that while a game might otherwise draw 1,000 fans, 10,000 would show up their games. “It was a miniature version of what we felt like the majors was going to be with the crowds and the media,” Snopek says. “He made it an incredible year.”
Bit by bit, Jordan improved his game. By the end of the season, his average had crept back up to .202; he had hit three home runs, driven in 51 runs and stolen 30 bases. Jordan then signed up for the fall league in Arizona, where he batted a respectable .252. Tremie was impressed by his progress: “He got better as an outfielder, more instinctual on the bases. He wasn’t as susceptible to breaking balls,” Tremie says.
DiSarcina says that if Jordan had entered baseball as a teenager, he could have made it to the majors. “Just seeing his professionalism and the way he improved that one summer—and knowing the athlete and the drive—no doubt if he came in at 18 or 19, he would have made the big leagues,” he says.
Snopek agrees. “If he played for two and a half or three years of baseball, just think about his athletic ability,” he says. “I’m not saying he would be George Springer—but I think because of his athleticism and his mind, he would have had a good shot to make it.”
In the spring of 1995, however, baseball was still mired in a strike. Jordan refused to cross the picket line to become a replacement player, and he instead went back to the Bulls, where he won three more championships and cemented his already widely-accepted status as the greatest basketball player ever. In Space Jam, filmed that year, Jordan lampooned his own baseball efforts, portraying himself as a gullible hack surrounded by yes-men.
But Jordan’s Barons teammates say his impact persisted long after the summer of 1994. “It was a blessing to me and our teammates just because of the exposure we had, even with the front office from the White Sox coming to our games,” Snopek says. The next year, Snopek was called up by the White Sox and would play in the majors for four seasons.
For Chris Tremie, it wasn’t Jordan’s triumphs on the diamond, but his attitude in the midst of failure that made the biggest impression. “I learned from him how to conduct yourself when things aren’t going well,” he says. “To see his worth ethic, and really get after it after he had already accomplished so much, has always helped me in my career and life.” Tremie now works as a minor league field coordinator for the Cincinnati Reds.
Throughout the years, many have speculated that Jordan’s turn to baseball had a hidden nefarious element that had to do with getting secretly suspended by the NBA. DiSarcina doesn’t buy into the theory. “I think a lot of people thought it was a sham or a result of his gambling the year before,” he says. “From my perspective as a teammate, I honestly believe that he gave a hundred percent effort and wanted to be there. He worked as hard as anybody else I’ve ever seen in order to get better.”