So there Birmingham sat, minding its own business, content with what it was -- a major banking center, the rapid heartbeat of the state's obsession with University of Alabama football and a testament to what heat and humidity can do to otherwise straight hair.
Sure, there had been talk in 1994 that
might end up here while he scratched his silly itch to be a baseball player. But nobody in his right mind believed it, or at least nobody in his right mind allowed himself to believe it. His Airness playing here in Hoover, Ala., for the Birmingham Barons, the
's Double-A affiliate.
was going to emerge from the grave to sing show tunes on Broadway.
"He goes to
with the Sox and he starts hitting and people start to think this might happen," said Curt Bloom, then and now the Barons' radio play-by-play announcer. "I said there's no way. It's going to get to the last day, and he's going to say, 'Experiment over with.' There's no way I'm going to be watching this guy play. It can't happen. I think a lot of the city was as doubtful, as skeptical, as disbelieving as I was.
"It instantly, unquestionably, unfathomably changed the second we knew he was coming. Then the phone started ringing, and the story began."
The story. What an absurd story it was, when you think about it. Arguably the most famous athlete on the planet decides to retire from basketball at the height of his career with
. Not only does he quit the game he dominates -- the game that has brought him three
titles and three MVP awards -- but he decides to take up baseball, a sport he hasn't played since high school. A crazy story about a 31-year-old man going through a midlife crisis about a decade too soon.
Crazy, but it happened. And it happened here, as if the finger of God had reached down, tapped the Birmingham area on the shoulder and indicated, "You're not going to believe this one."
"It was like the R.E.M. song," Barons general manager Jonathan Nelson said. "It was the end of the world as we knew it."
Jordan's father, James Sr., had been killed while being robbed the year before, and MJ said he wanted to honor his dad's love of baseball. James had always said he thought his boy was going to become a major-league player. But like this? It was such an audacious move. What kind of person believes he can quit his job and become an elite performer in another line of work -- a line of work he has had nothing to do with for 14 years? A kind of person like Michael Jordan.
The Sox didn't want to insult him by assigning him to a lower-level minor-league team, and they weren't going to put him in
and watch him get chewed up by hardened veterans. Birmingham, full of top young prospects, made perfect sense. The Sox announced the move March 31, 1994.
"For the first couple weeks, we could not make an outbound phone call," said Nelson, who was a 24-year-old member of the Barons' ticket office at the time. "We had six phone lines. People were calling for tickets, jerseys and everything under the sun. They wanted to be part of it.
"It was the most incredible experience, and nothing can hold a candle to it to this day. This is my 17th year in baseball, and it was one of those seasons where everything was out the window. It was like going to a
game because you had celebrities show up --
, the singer.
was a fixture. Cornelius Bennett.
"It was a roller-coaster ride. There were some great days and some not-so-great days."
A great day was the day the news arrived that Jordan would be spending the season in Birmingham. A not-so-great day arrived a few days later, when Barons officials remembered that a local sponsor had handed out 65,000 free tickets to area schools to be used for the first Sunday home game of the season. It was a promotion that had been going on for many years, and historically, less than 5 percent of those tickets had been used.
They had been dispersed well before there was talk of Jordan coming to Birmingham, and now the Barons faced the prospect of 65,000 children and their angry parents descending upon the ballpark for his third game as a minor-leaguer. The stadium seats 10,800.
Team officials called a news conference after stories began to appear about the baseball team that snatched tickets away from kids. It was about this time that the Barons realized they were in for more than a season-long swoosh of happiness. They resolved the mess by allowing the free tickets to be used for any game Monday through Thursday until late June.
Jordan's first game was actually the Barons' second. He played for the Sox in the Windy City Classic exhibition game against
at Wrigley Field, going 2-for-5 with two runs batted in, then headed to Birmingham for his April 8 debut. He started in right field against the Chattanooga Lookouts, wearing No. 45, his high school number. The radio announcer was ready.
"I didn't want to overdo it -- 'Oh, my God, it's Michael Jordan!' -- and then I sound like a fool," Bloom said. "I said real slow and clear, 'That will bring up Michael Jeffrey Jordan.' "
It might have been the last understated thing about the Barons for the next five months. Jordan flied out in his first at-bat and finished the game 0-for-3. Attendance was 10,359, not including the 130 national and international media members.
His first hit came in his eighth at-bat, against Knoxville, on that Sunday when all the schoolchildren might have been fighting each other and security officers for seats at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. It was the beginning of a 13-game hitting streak.
The streak gave life to the idea that perhaps Jordan was the real thing, that rare human being who can take one set of skills and transfer them to another arena and succeed. Well, no. He couldn't hit a slider. But one thing could not be argued: The man could run. He stole 30 bases that season and covered a lot of ground in right field.
There was something else about him: He might go 0-for-4 in a game, but he seemed to have a knack for driving in a man from third with less than two outs.
His first home run arrived July 30 against the Carolina Mudcats. It traveled about 380 feet before landing over the left-center-field wall. It came in his 354th at-bat and raised his average to .189. The homer was impressive because the ballpark (it's called Regions Park now) is not a hitter's park. It's a big field, and hard-hit balls tend to lose interest in the thick humidity.
When Jordan rounded third base, he pointed to the sky. His father's birthday was the next day.
here were rules. Staff members were not allowed to ask for Jordan's autograph. Then-manager
fined players $5 for using the words "circus" and "rock star" to describe the MJ phenomenon. Jordan was to be treated like one of the guys, because that's what he wanted to be.
The Barons learned as they went along.
"There was one time that year where there was a guy who posed as
," Nelson said. "He actually got to just about opening the clubhouse doors because he had talked his way down there. The guy looked nothing like Scottie Pippen. It was a pretty good attempt."
Jordan brought George Koehler, his longtime assistant, with him to Birmingham. The Barons added security personnel, assigning two off-duty Hoover police officers to Jordan if he went out to a restaurant or a bar. At least one person didn't think it was enough.
"His mother got upset because we didn't have a lot of officers out here to cover him," said Billy Fields, the Barons' head of security. "I think she wanted more people around him all the time, where nobody could see him. But he didn't want that."
Jordan lived along Greystone Golf & Country Club in Hoover, the Birmingham suburb where the Barons play. Fifteen years later at Regions Park, a taped public-address advertisement from a local real estate agent lets fans know she found Jordan his home.
Few Michael-philes will bat an eye at the news he played a lot of golf while a Baron.
He also picked up a basketball once in a while.
Barons players, coaches and staff members often played pickup games at a court outside Francona's apartment complex.
"Sure enough, one August day, up comes the Mercedes," Bloom said. "It just so happens that, absolute stroke of luck, I'm on the court three-on-three, and he's on my team. I said to myself again, 'This is absolutely not happening.'
"I'm 6-foot and he's 6-6. The ball comes to him. I'm thinking, 'OK, what do you do?' So I go over and pick his man. He looks down at me and waves me off. He says, 'CB, I don't need that.' Then he hits a 30-footer.
"I know Michael really enjoyed that. He said, 'You're going to tell a lot of people about this, aren't you?' "
Yes, Michael. The answer is yes. Bloom would tell the story over and over.
Word had spread that Jordan was playing that day, and people from the apartment complex lined the court to watch. Francona took the last shot for his team and missed, allowing the other squad to hit the winning basket. Unfortunately, Jordan was his teammate.
"Don't you know I always take the last shot?" he said to Francona.
n 1994, the franchise set records for anything that involved counted numbers: attendance, cars parked, hot dogs sold, goose bumps, you name it. The Barons averaged almost 3,000 more fans a game that season than they did in 1993, when they won the Southern League championship. Little Leaguers in Birmingham fought to wear No. 45 in honor of Jordan the Baseball Player, not 23 in honor of Jordan the Basketball Player. When the baseball strike hit in August, ESPN did what every network did when it wanted to increase ratings. It turned to Jordan, televising several Barons games.
Hanes, Gatorade and Ball Park Franks shot commercials in Birmingham.
It was a five-month-long tornado. What was left in the wake of Jordan's celebrity?
"I give a lot of speeches to civic clubs and a lot of organizations here," Nelson said. "This organization has been around since 1885. Some great players. But the No. 1 question is not really about whether Michael Jordan was good or not. It's, 'Do you still have the bus?' "
Ah, the bus. The Jordan Cruiser. It became the embodiment of the miracle that had been visited upon Birmingham. It was living proof that Air Jordan had descended and was moving about among the people. He rode the bus with teammates and coaches most of the time, except when he had prior commitments involving endorsements or appearances.
Mostly, he slept in the back of that bus.
Three companies spent $337,500 to custom-build the vehicle for Jordan and the Barons, thinking, rightly, that someone of his stature would not enjoy the 400-plus-mile ride from Birmingham to Jacksonville on a bus in its senior years. The bus had a lounge area in the back where a 6-foot-6-inch man might be able to lie down if he contorted himself enough. It had TVs, video players and a stereo, and at the time was considered state-of-the-art.
But it wasn't Jordan's bus, as many people had wrongly assumed.
"That turned into an urban legend," Nelson said. "He posed for an advertisement for the bus company and he signed some autographs for the bus company. But he didn't own the bus.
"He did upgrade the quality of the bus, no doubt about it. But no matter which way you slice it, a bus drive to
, Florida, or to Greenville, South Carolina, is still going to be the same."
The arrival was a different story.
"Every day, you didn't know what to expect," said Kirk Champion, the Barons' pitching coach at the time and now the Sox' minor-league pitching coordinator. "We'd pull into Orlando at 2 in the morning, and the hotel lobby would be packed."
That Barons team had Steve Sax, a former All-Star, on a rehab assignment. Pitcher Atlee Hammaker, who also had played in an
, was on the club. Nobody was in the hotel lobby for a peek at them.
This phenomenon of a superstar living at eye level with everyone else -- has there been anything comparable?
being drafted into the Army and finding himself among regular soldiers comes to mind.
"We were the Beatles, we were the
," Bloom said.
Two rock star references? That will be $10 to Francona.
In 2001, the Barons stopped using the bus. Thrasher Brothers Trailways, the Birmingham company that owned the Jordan Cruiser, sold it two years ago to Wilson Luxury Tours of Washington D.C. The bus, which now has about 800,000 miles on it, made regular treks from Washington to New York. Wilson recently sold it to a Wyoming finance company, which is in the process of selling the bus to a company in
, N.C., where it surely will be popular a few miles down the road, in Chapel Hill.
Jordan's autograph is on both doors.
ordan finished the season with a .202 batting average, three home runs and 51 RBIs. He struck out 114 times in 127 games, too much. He knew it.
But that's not the story of what happened here. In his third-to-last game, on Aug. 27, the Barons drew a record crowd of 16,247, using the grassy expanses beyond the first- and third-base lines to cram more people in. That's the story. A bursting-at-the-gills story. A possible fire-code-violation story. The story is the franchise's home-attendance record they set (467,867) and the 518,318 fans they drew on the road.
The story is the insane largeness of it, and how a team and a community joyously bore the weight.
"When you talk to somebody outside of Birmingham, you say, 'This is where Michael Jordan played,' and they say, 'Oh, yeah, now I've got you,' " Bloom said. "It's not like, 'This is where Frank Thomas played, this is where Joe Borchard played.' Who didn't know in America that Jordan was playing minor-league baseball somewhere? Maybe you didn't know where, but you knew he was doing his thing.
"And this is where it was. The legacy is in your mind. For the staff members and the people that worked here and the fans that came out, that's what you have to hold onto. You have to cherish those memories and realize whether he's here or never comes back, he was here and you've got that recall that says, 'He was here. He was part of it. For a whole summer.' "
Jordan's jersey hangs framed in the Barons' offices. A room at the ballpark is called the Michael Jordan Banquet Room. But other than that and the Jordan jerseys the franchise still sells, you won't find much more physical evidence that he played here.
If you use your imagination, you can feel the emptiness of his departure. For the longest time, the wind whipped across the empty seats, and life didn't seem nearly as exciting.