Before Tebow, Jordan Was The Minors’ Biggest Draw

Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan (Photo by Cliff Welch)

On Tuesday, Tim Tebow and his agency announced his intention to try his hand at professional baseball. Tebow, a superstar quarterback in college with Florida and a below-average NFL quarterback, played baseball in high school but had dropped the sport entirely for football and broadcasting. He hasn’t played competitively in a decade, but has begun working out  in an attempt to knock the rust off his old skill set. It’s a long shot, of course, but it wouldn’t be without precedent.

There are, of course, examples of players who’ve made it to the highest level of baseball and football. Bo Jackson played in the NFL and the MLB, as did Deion Sanders and Brian Jordan. Jeff Samardzija was a standout wide receiver at Notre Dame and has pitched in the big leagues for the past nine seasons.

But the best analog to what Tebow will try to accomplish—re-learning one sport after thriving in another for an extended period—is what Michael Jordan did in 1994. After his first retirement from the NBA, Jordan announced he was going to make an attempt to play pro baseball.The White Sox—owned by Bulls owner Jerry Reisdorf—gave him a chance, and assigned him to Double-A Birmingham. That’s an aggressive assignment for any player, but exponentially more for someone who hadn’t played since high school.

If Tebow does land a pro contract, the media circus will rival anything seen in the minors in recent years. As Frisco Roughriders general manager Jason Dambach said:

"I think it would be unlike anything any of us have ever seen, at least those of us who have worked in minor league baseball since 1994, when Michael Jordan was on the scene in the Southern League," he said. "I think if Tim Tebow were to play minor league baseball, I can only imagine in today's age of social media and the video element that those in minor league baseball have now that we didn't have in 1994, I think it would be unlike anything we've ever seen in professional baseball."

UNC-Wilmington assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Randy Hood played on that 1994 Birmingham Barons team with Jordan, and he recalls a crazy atmosphere that lasted all year.

“The media requests that opening weekend, I think it was over 250 credentials for that opening series,” Hood said. “And then every time we went on the road, or even at home, it was pretty much sellouts. It was just really crazy. When it was all said and done, it wasn’t as much true baseball fans as it was just Michael Jordan fans being there. You could tell at the ballparks that it was just, it was just crazy.”

Having the stands full all the time isn’t a common occurrence for teams in the minor leagues. There are some teams that consistently draw better than their competitors, but most clubs experience ebbs and flows that coincide with variables such as weather, promotions, rehab appearances and prospect power.

The 1994 Barons didn’t produce much in the way of impact major leaguers. Atlee Hammaker, at the tail end of his 14-year big league career, pitched 13 games for the Barons that season. Other than that, the roster was littered with players who got cups of coffee but little else. Even so, Jordan kept the fans in Birmingham and throughout the rest of the Southern League piling through the turnstiles all summer long. And although the players knew that the crowds, for the most part, weren’t there for anyone but No. 45, they didn’t mind one bit.

“Most of us weren’t what you would say were high prospects,” Hood said. “We were doing everything we could to try to make it to the big leagues. Having it packed every night at home and on the road was just an awesome experience for the whole summer.”

There were other perks of having Jordan around, too, of course. The post-game spreads were a little better than the standard fast food. There were occasional pop-ins from future Hall of Famers such as Charles Barkley and Chris Chelios. There was the opportunity to pal around and hear stories from an athlete at the peak of his sport. And, every once in a while, there was a little bit of an equipment upgrade from the Sultan of Swoosh.

“We played basketball several different times, but the very first time that we played basketball he didn’t like the shoes I was wearing because they weren’t Nikes,” Hood said. “There was a pair of Air Jordans sitting in my locker the next day.”

The odds that Tebow signs a pro baseball contract after a decade away from the game are long. But if he does latch on with a team this fall or next spring, fans, players and executives can expect a circus of epic proportions. Even so, it’s hard to imagine Tebow, for all his click-generating power, can maintain the same level of cachet that Jordan did for five months in 1994.

“It’s going to be crazy. I think he has a tremendous amount of following that it is going to go crazy for a while,” Hood said. “Michael’s lasted all year long. All year long it was full houses non-stop. We’d get to hotels at 2 or 3 in the morning after driving all night. If he rode the bus that trip, there’d be people out there waiting at the hotel.”

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