Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Costing Michael Jordan two points

      One late-summer day in 1994, I "robbed" Michael Jordan; I took two points away from him. And when Terry Francona wanted to discuss it, I refused. We're talking baseball here, not basketball.
      As the official scorer for Jacksonville Suns' home games for much of the 1994 season, I had such power.
      Two points here:
      (1) I was the scorer for hundreds of baseball games over the years -- kids, high school, Legion, college, pros. Maybe more than a thousand games, and I loved doing it. Even got paid for it often enough. I received plenty of advice, or suggestions, or help, or -- let's call it like it was -- criticism (and that's a nice term for it). So I've got some stories, and this is one of the best ones.
Michael Jordan, Birmingham Barons,
1994 (sportsillustrated.cnn.com)
      (2) I'm always kidding my good friend O.K. "Buddy" Davis about his "namedropping" of people he's encountered in his sportswriting life. Can't top him, but I figure Michael Jordan is about as good as I can do. (Well, I could use my moments with Muhammad Ali, Joe Namath, Tom Landry and Roger Staubach.)
     Anyway, back to 1994 at old Wolfson Park in Jacksonville, Fla., and the Birmingham Barons' second visit there that season.
      It was the year that Michael Jordan -- who I've read and been told is the greatest basketball player ever -- decided he wanted to leave the NBA and play pro baseball, with the intention of making the major leagues. The Chicago White Sox gave him that chance.
      And why not? His presence at any ballpark -- anywhere, really -- was going to draw fans.
      Birmingham, in the Class AA Southern League (two levels from the majors), was the lucky recipient of his services. The White Sox, after seeing Jordan's skills in spring training (he had not played since he was a kid), decided to try him there.
      Lucky for Birmingham. Not so lucky for the young outfield prospect with major-league dreams whose place in Double-A was taken by a 31-year-old celebrity trying out a whim.        
      Great year for Birmingham, too ... at the gate. The Barons, with Jordan as the attraction and helped later in the season when the major-league season stopped (and never resumed) because of a players' strike, set a Southern League record for attendance.
       Plus, all the other Southern League cities benefited from Jordan's road appearances -- including two trips to Jacksonville. All the teams' owners and general managers loved the cash rolling in at the games involving Birmingham.
       I didn't attend the first Barons' series at Wolfson Park; I was not yet the official scorer for Suns' home games. (I do have a story about it.)
       But I was in place for the return trip in August. The crowds were much larger -- and more lively -- than for most games.
       By then, it was obvious that Michael Jordan's baseball career was going to be short-lived. If our old Shreveport super sports fan Ace "Dick" Towery had been judging his talent, he would've have written "WB" by Jordan's name. Wrong Business.
       In 127 games that season, Jordan hit 17 doubles, one triple and three home runs, stole 30 bases (in 48 tries), drew 51 walks ... but struck out 114 times and batted .202. (For you non-baseball types who have read this far, .202 is terrible.) 
       And it could've been .204 ... if only I'd given him that hit. I didn't.
       Being the official scorer in baseball isn't difficult. Mostly, it's being able to judge what is a hit and what is an error; that judgment call is 90 percent of the job. The rest is some rules semantics and recording what's happened.
       The hit/error decision is what people will question, mostly what players and managers/coaches will provide input -- sometimes gently, sometimes not. I've been yelled at enough.
       It helps these days to have television replays. But because it's been a while since I scored games and never got to the major-league level, I rarely had that benefit. I got one live look at a play, and that was it.
       But if I had questions, I didn't mind going to players or managers/coaches to ask their opinion, and I changed many a call. I never felt my judgment was infallible and I never felt I was a scoring-rules "expert," as many times as I read them. I misinterpreted several rules, and had to go back and correct my calls.
        What always mattered to me was getting the play right, as best as I could determine it. Some plays, though, are just 50-50 calls. It's just a judgment, and the scorer has to make it -- and take the criticism.
       But when Michael Jordan, in his first at-bat in the first Birmingham-at-Jacksonville game I scored, hit a dribbler that went maybe 45 feet to the first-base side of the field and the Suns' pitcher came in to field it, bobbled it and then threw a little wide to first base as Jordan arrived there. I had no doubt: error on the pitcher. It was a relatively easy play, and he flubbed it.
       The guy who was the official scorer in Jacksonville before me was very helpful in showing me what to do as I moved into the job and told me that on Birmingham's first visit, he had made a scoring call on a ball hit by Jordan and had been summoned to the team's clubhouse afterward to discuss the call with Francona, the Barons' manager. He also got to meet Jordan ... and got his autograph.
       After that visit, the scorer told me he changed his call and gave Jordan a hit.
       An admission: I've never been that enamored with Michael Jordan. Sure, I thought he was a fantastic basketball player, but I never particularly rooted for him or his teams. I thought his playing baseball was a stunt and, to this day, I think there's more to the story than has ever been made public.
Terry Francona, 1994 (comc.com)
       His gambling habits were no secret, and his father was murdered, and I'm a skeptic. That's as far as I'm going; draw your own conclusions.   
       But I wasn't particularly looking to meet him and, as the official scorer, I generally did not go to the clubhouses or dugouts and hang around. I wasn't into star gazing.
       I was familiar with Terry Francona through his college (Arizona) and pro baseball careers and because his father, Tito, had played on Atlanta Braves teams with my friends George Stone and Cecil Upshaw.
       So the "error" call on the ball Jordan tapped went on the scoreboard, and the Barons' turn at bat soon ended. As the Suns were batting in the bottom of the inning, I saw the visiting team clubhouse boy come into the press box.
       He asked for the official scorer, and I replied.
       "Mr. Francona would like to see you in the clubhouse after the game," he said. "He wants to ask you about that play on Michael Jordan."
       I laughed and said, "Tell Mr. Francona, I don't make house calls." He turned and left.
       And I never did visit with Mr. Francona. Didn't feel the need to get his input.
       Three years later he was managing in the big leagues (Philadelphia) and a decade later managed a team I don't like to think about to the first of two World Series championships under him.
       I didn't meet Mr. Jordan, either. Didn't need to.
       A few months after Birmingham's 1994 season ended, Michael was back in the NBA on the road to adding three more NBA championships to the three his team already had won.
       If I had given him that hit -- which he didn't deserve -- he would've hit .204 that season. So I cost him two points, and I suppose, I didn't help his cause to make the majors. Oh, well. (I'm sure Michael and Mr. Francona remember the play well, one of a million in their respective careers.)
       I wasn't in a charitable mood. The play was an error, no question.
       Tell you what else was an error: Jordan trying to play baseball. But it made for a good blog story.


  1. From Jim McLain: Read your Michael Jordan/scorer blog and recalled my days as occasional scorer for the (Shreveport) Captains. I believe we got $10 bucks a game. We got some flak from players, but not as much as you'd think.
    My biggest memories of the Captains are Rob Deer hitting a monumental home run, the longest I ever saw at the old stadium, and of a visiting team pitcher named, I think, Jack Lazorko making the most amazing fielding play I'd ever seen. I asked Lazorko about it afterward and he said it was nothing special, that he'd gotten those reflexes from being a hockey goalie. Both those guys later went on to the bigs.

  2. From Pesky Hill: I really enjoyed this blog. Actually, I always admired Michael Jordan’s basketball talent. I saw him play in Houston a couple of times when the Bulls played the Rockets. I too never understood the whole deal about [Jordan] trying baseball. But superstars have egos. They think they can be successful at multiple sports … and only a few can.
    I would never question your integrity. I know you took your job seriously as an official scorer. Heck, you wouldn’t give me a hit if you thought the play was an error. So, why would you give Michael Jordan a hit?
    Good call.

  3. From Sid Huff: Good article, Nico. I, too, have never been overly enamored with Mr. Jordan. He certainly was a very good basketball player, blessed with more God-given talent than most. I still lean toward the players like Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson who worked their butts off to further develop the talent they DID have. Still, MJ was successful in the eyes of most. Shame on you for costing him two batting-average points.

  4. From Jimmy Russell: Interesting piece. Francona might have thought he could get you to help the great one. You might have told Mr. Francona that you could have some chicken delivered to the clubhouse as his players like to eat it during the games.

  5. From Chase Goodbread: Covering those Barons-Suns series that summer is one of my best early '90s memories at the Florida Times-Union (in Jacksonville). Wrote a feature on whether Jordan was still having fun through his struggles that at the time was one of my first pieces to land at the top of C-1.