Recalling Michael Jordan’s attempt at baseball

“I kind of gave [Jerry Reinsdorf] a little bit of a funny look,” Herm Schneider said. “I kinda said, ‘Are you serious?’ ’’

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Michael Jordan signs autographs along the outfield wall at the White Sox training facility in Sarasota, Fla., in 1994.

Michael Jordan signs autographs along the outfield wall at the White Sox training facility in Sarasota, Fla., in 1994.

Tom Cruze/Sun-Times

Michael Jordan discusses his attempt at becoming a major league baseball player in Sunday’s upcoming edition of “The Last Dance,” a dabbling in baseball that gave those who were there a lifetime of stories to tell.

On a conference call with Bill Melton and Michael Huff — who were part of a team put together to help Jordan in his endeavor to become a professional baseball player — Sox trainer emeritus Herm Schneider shared a few of his many stories about Jordan, whom he considers a friend to this day.

For Schneider, it began in November 1993, when Jerry Reinsdorf, the principal owner of the Sox and Bulls, said, “I’ve got to ask you for a favor. I hope you’re willing to do it. I want you to get Michael Jordan ready to play baseball.’’

“I kind of gave him a little bit of a funny look. I kinda said, ‘Are you serious?’ “

After weeks of Schneider sneaking Jordan into Comiskey Park to work on preparing his basketball body for a spring training of new physical demands, a press conference was held in early February at Illinois Institute of Technology near the park announcing Jordan’s decision to try baseball.

Jordan was taking on no easy task, one that ultimately failed, but not for lack of effort.

Jordan was transitioning from basketball, a game where some players enter the NBA straight out of high school. In baseball, the very top prospects drafted out of college usually need years to get ready for the major league competition. So Jordan’s attempt, no matter how great an athlete he was, would be waged against huge odds.

“He was a great athlete,’’ said Melton, a former Sox All-Star who helped Jordan with his swing. “He had all the tools. If he were in college, this was the type of guy you would sign to a minor league contract and see if he could build on his tools.”

Jordan played one season at Class AA Birmingham in 1994, batting .202 with 30 stolen bases (in 48 attempts) while making 11 errors, the most among Southern League outfielders. He went to spring training with the Sox briefly in 1995 before returning to the Bulls.

The attempt at baseball was a huge, national story.

“Think about how many times you go to a spring training for and you have Ted Koppel and ‘Nightline’ showing up to ask questions about your teammate,” said Huff, an outfielder on the Sox’ 1993 West Division champion team. “It’s mind-boggling.”

Jordan might have achieved his goal with more time, Melton said.

“He just basically wound up needing more experience,” Melton said. “It’s tough hitting in the big leagues, it’s a big adjustment.”

Huff, who worked with Jordan on his outfield defense, marveled at what a quick study he was.

“When he wasn’t doing it perfectly, I was comfortable getting in his face saying, ‘No that’s wrong and this is what I need to see,’ “ Huff said. “He would nod and say, ‘Perfect, let’s do it again.’ ’’

Players, coaches and staff who were around Jordan often talk about how he just wanted to be one of the guys on the Barons. He arrived on time, if not early, for work and carried his own bags like everyone else. It was difficult for an icon to be just ordinary, however.

When he arrived in Sarasota, Fla., for spring training, his rented house had no food in the fridge, so he and Schneider ran to a grocery store after midnight. Within minutes, it was filled with people who heard Jordan was there.

“It was a zoo in that store at 1:15 a.m.,” Schneider said.

Or wherever he went.

“I remember going into a bar one night with him and [Jordan’s driver] George [Kohler],” Melton said. “They had to call ahead just to get in, to say, ‘We have to sit him here because people are going to come around and surround him.’ There was a rock band on the stage. ... We walked in, and the band stopped. I went, ‘Oh my god, this is unbelievable.’ “

Jordan obliged almost daily autograph requests from teammates without complaint and used his Nike connections to hook them up with shoes and equipment.

“I don’t know how he didn’t get tired of it,” Schneider said, “but he really didn’t. He was very generous and kind to everybody.”

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