Michael Jordan was in uncharted territory.
The year was 1992. Jordan had never seen a Clincher softball in his life and hadn’t participated in any kind of competitive baseball game for more than a decade when he agreed to play in a celebrity/charity softball contest at Thillens Stadium on the Northwest Side. Through a
mutual friend, I advised Jordan to buy a glove, even though that traditionally was forbidden in 16-inch softball circles. (I was reasonably certain everyone would be willing to make an exception to spare MJ’s fingers.)
Jordan donned the oversized glove and played a flawless shortstop. When he would step to the plate, he would hand over his championship ring to me for safekeeping. On we played. Jordan wound up 9-for-9 with 10 RBI and eight runs scored, at one point sliding safely into home and saying, “Damn, these are my good jeans,” as he dusted himself off.
Your GOOD JEANS? Too funny.
Playing softball with Michael Jordan is one of my favorite memories of having a balcony seat during the Bulls’ epic championship run of the 1990s. I was never in the trenches, like the Chicago beat writers, radio reporters and TV sports
anchors. But as a general-interest columnist for the Sun-Times, I knew there was a lot more than general interest in MJ and the Bulls, and I covered all of their playoff runs and many of the more colorful off-court soap-opera developments.
I remember standing courtside at the United Center in 1994, chatting with a couple of Sun-Times colleagues about reports Dennis Rodman was dating Madonna and rumors she might be at the game that night. “I think the rumors are true,” I said, as a tiny woman in sunglasses with a giant bodyguard trailing behind her walked past us. Yep. Madonna.
Speaking of Rodman, when he joined the Bulls, I had an idea for a column for the Sun-Times titled “As the Worm Turns.” Dennis would connect with me once a week to tell me his latest adventures and share his thoughts and feelings, and I’d be the ghostwriter for the first-person column. His agent was up for it. Dennis reportedly was up for it. General manager Jerry Krause was NOT up for it, and that was that. In retrospect, I am eternally grateful Krause prevented me from getting entangled in the Dennis Rodman Traveling Circus.
Elsewhere on the party beat: Late one night in June 1993, I was at the Division Street staple The Lodge when Charles Barkley of the Phoenix Suns entered and had a couple of cold ones. It’s not like Barkley was hanging from the rafters or dancing like a maniac and stomping the traditional peanut shells on the floor of this
beloved Chicago dive, nor is it as if Jordan and Rodman were the types to honor self-imposed curfews and hit the hay early. Still, it was a surprise to see Sir Charles out and about. Just a couple of days earlier, the Suns had outlasted the Bulls in triple overtime in Chicago to narrow the series lead to 2-1, and they’d have the opportunity to even it up the next night.
Spoiler alert: They didn’t.
Not that it was Barkley’s fault, as he had 32 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in Game 4. It was an amazing performance, but it was only the second-best that day. An NBA executive whose mom happened to be a fan of my column gave me literally the best press seat in the house at the old Chicago Stadium, adjacent to TV play-by-play man Marv Albert, where I had a close-up view as Jordan dropped 55 points on the Suns in a 111-105 victory.
Just a few months later, on Oct. 5, 1993, Jordan was clad in a denim shirt and jeans (probably his GOOD jeans) when he took the mound at Comiskey Park to throw the ceremonial first pitch before Game 1 of the ALCS between the White Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays. Then he headed up to Jerry Reinsdorf’s suite. Midway through the game, I was working the concourse for a column when a colleague stopped me and asked if I’d heard the rumors about Jordan
retiring. Wait, WHAT? In the seventh inning, the TV broadcast cut to field reporter Pat O’Brien, who said, “The Chicago Bulls have called a press conference for tomorrow morning, and there’s high speculation that Michael Jordan will retire from basketball forever.”
Spoiler alert: He did retire. But not forever.
Cut to February 1994, when I joined a worldwide press contingent packed around a batting cage at IIT to watch MJ take some 50 batting-practice swings. A Japanese journalist named Yoko Umeda told me he had attended a celebrity home-run derby the previous summer, “and Tom Selleck was better” than Jordan. My own amateur scouting report for the Sun-Times: “He’d be the best guy on your softball team. And the worst guy on the White Sox.”
Of course, Jordan never made it to the big club. But on April 7, 1994, the 31-year-old wannabe rookie did play right field for the White Sox in an exhibition against the Cubs at Wrigley Field, with a crowd of nearly 38,000 buzzing like it was a playoff game. He was the one player to garner thunderous applause from fans of BOTH teams. In the sixth inning, Jordan drove in a run with a high hopper just out of the third baseman’s reach. Later, he tied the score with an RBI double and stood at second base beaming like a little kid as he tipped his helmet to the crowd.
For all of Jordan’s electric moments in the old Stadium and the United Center, the largest Chicago crowd to see him play ball was actually at Wrigley Field.