Remember Jordan’s day in Chattanooga

Published 12:47 pm Thursday, April 23, 2020

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It wasn’t just another day at the ballpark.

It was a pleasant April evening in Chattanooga in 1994, and the city’s minor-league baseball team was hosting a game against the Birmingham Barons.

On this particularly night, there was a buzz that had likely never before been felt in the history of a stadium that was among the oldest in the country.

More than 14,000 spectators (many of them camped out in temporary seating installed for the occasion) filled Engel Stadium that night, eager to get a glimpse at a player from the opposing team.

This particular player just happened to be arguably the most recognizable person, sports or otherwise, on the planet.

Michael Jordan was best known as a basketball player, but on this night, he was wearing a baseball uniform.

The previous summer Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to a victory over the Phoenix Suns in the NBA championship series to finish off a three-peat.

Jordan’s popularity was other-worldly at the time, and it  seemed like the Bulls’ dynasty could go on for years.

Jordan was in the prime of his career, having only recently turned 30, and he’d just averaged 41 points per game in the championship series against the Suns.

Nothing could stop the Bulls, or so it seemed.

A few months after the season ended, Jordan delivered the bombshell of all bombshells when he told the world that he was retiring from basketball.

It was unthinkable that a player could step away at the height of his powers, but it happened.

In February of 1994 Jordan dropped another stunner when he announced that he was going to give baseball a shot and that he’d signed with the Chicago White Sox.

The best basketball player in the world was going to play professional baseball, despite having not taken a swing in a game in nearly 15 years (when he was a junior in high school).

After spending time with the White Sox during spring training, Jordan was assigned to Birmingham, a Double-A team featuring hungry and gifted young players working to climb the professional ladder.

That brings us to that night in April when Jordan made his first appearance at Chattanooga’s Engel Stadium.

I was a sports writer in Dalton at the time, so I made the quick trip north to Chattanooga to be a part of the madness and document it for our newspaper (and I wish I’d kept that clip).

The line just to get into the ballpark stretched for a mile it seemed (no social distancing), and judging by the media frenzy, we were at the Super Bowl, not a minor-league baseball game on a Friday night in Tennessee.

By the time first pitch arrived, everyone was in their seat, ready to see his “Airness” take his cuts.

This was still so early in the process, so no one knew what to expect.

As it turned out Jordan had an RBI hit that night, and he looked like he belonged, and he continued to have some success at the plate before pitchers decided to throw him something besides fastballs.

As I recall Jordan receive a steady diet of standing ovations throughout the night, whether he was getting a hit, striking out, fielding a fly ball, or enjoying a box of Cracker Jack.

Even this many years later it still seems a bit surreal that Michael Jordan, even then arguably the greatest basketball player ever, was toiling away in a minor-league ballpark less than a year after torching the Suns in the NBA Finals.

It was a crazy and enjoyable night, and it was such a thrill to be there, to witness it and to write about it.

As for his baseball career, there wasn’t much to it.

There were some bright spots, but Jordan barely hit .202 and by the end of the season he looked overmatched and overwhelmed, and his brief baseball career ended after one season and 127 games.

I had nothing but admiration for the risk Jordan took, though, and just because he failed doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate and applaud the effort.

After hanging up his bat and glove Jordan returned to basketball, and you know how the rest of that story went.