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When Tito managed MJ

Posted by Adam Kilgore, Globe Staff  September 11, 2009 05:21 PM

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The enduring and unsurpassed successes of Michael Jordan are being celebrated today in Springfield, as he officially enters basketball’s Hall of Fame. On the other side of his basketball legacy, there is perhaps no one who understands Jordan’s most challenging professional moments with greater intimacy than Terry Francona.

Francona managed the Birmingham Barons in 1994, the season in which Jordan played 127 games and hit .202 while he mourned his father and gave baseball a try. The news shocked everyone, including Francona, who initially shrugged. “I’ll handle it,” he thought. Then he walked outside of a minor league meeting and, greeted by a horde of media, thought, “Uh, oh.”

The experience of managing Michael Jordan is something Francona cherishes. The attention the Barons received helped prepare him for the Boston media, and he learned from Jordan’s grace when he handled the massive attention. Francona got to watch the greatest competitor of our time compete, during games and after them. He saw Jordan break a Ping-Pong table and a tennis racquet.

A lot of people in baseball criticized Jordan and categorized his tryout as a stunt or a charade. Francona never saw it that way. He admired Jordan’s respect for his teammates and for the game. “Refreshing,” is the way he described Jordan’s attitude toward baseball.

One night in Jacksonville, Francona pinch-hit Jordan with the game on the line. Francona did not do it as a favor. Jordan could not deliver. Afteward, Michael Jordan walked into Terry Francona’s office and told him, “Thank you.”

It’s one Francona’s most vivid memories of Jordan as a baseball player. He believed Jordan felt the same way about that at-bat in Jacksonville as he would about a game-winning jump shot. “It was a time in his life when, that’s what he needed to do,” Francona said.

Francona spoke at length this afternoon about his time with Jordan, and his thoughts and memories are well-worth reading. So, in full, here is what Francona had to say about Jordan and his time as his manager:

What’s your reaction to Jordan entering the Hall?
I was pretty fortunate. You know, at a time when it really seemed fashionable to be critical of Michael, his attitude toward baseball was very refreshing. He treated me and the staff and the players with a lot respect. He treated the game with a lot of respect. In the situation he was in, you needed to be patient with him. But it was easy to be patient because of the way he treated everybody else. But it was a good year. I was with him in Birmingham and then went to the Fall League, basically a year with him, and I feel better off for it.

What was he like as a player?
Well, he hadn’t played since he was 18, and that was high school. And then was thrust into the Double A level 14 years later. It was tough for him. He’s big, tall, lanky, long arms, so he had to fight keeping his swing short. He was actually a good base stealer. I think he stole 30 bases and found a way to drive in 50 runs, which is Double A is pretty good.

If he stuck with baseball, could he have made the majors?
I think if he was willing to invest a couple more full years, where you’re looking at 8,000 at-bats, I have a feeling he’d have found a way to get to the major leagues. Because the one thing I did find out is if you tell him no, the answer is yes.

Ever shoot around with him?
Oh, yeah. He’s the most competitive person. The stories you hear about his competitiveness are true.

Having been around other competitive personalities, was he off the charts?
Yeah. I mean, that’s why he is who he is. I know the talent is there. He was the most competitive person you’d ever see. That doesn’t mean he wins at everything he does. But it means he’s the most competitive.

Did you play cribbage against him?
We were big Yahtzee players then. We played ping-pong, tennis, golf. If you were able to compete, we did it.

Who was the better golfer?
He was. I would say I was a better gambler.

He ever get ticked at you for winning?
Yeah. I saw him break a ping-pong table. I saw him break a tennis racket. He didn’t take losing very well.

Did you ever play pick-up hoop?
About three or four times in the Fall League. We actually did in Birmingham, too. But it started become too much of a – it was getting a little competitive. As a Double A manager, that’s not what you need, call into [a White Sox official] and say somebody just broke an ankle. We had to kind of cool that one.

What do you remember about the bus he brought in?
See, that’s a little bit of a … we got a new bus because he was there. But it was just, what it was was a new bus. It didn’t have minibar, a Jacuzzi. It just didn’t stink as much as the old one. And it didn’t break down nearly as much. But it was just a bus. It was kind of pretty. It was a little bit like the Partridge Family. But it was still a bus.

Did watching him deal with the attention help you?
That was the best experience I could have ever had. I couldn’t believe how he handled things. He was put in some horrendous situations and unfair situations, and he always handled it with grace. It amazed me how he did that.

Did his competitiveness ever work against him in baseball?
The only thing I saw was, one night in Memphis, we were pretty deep into the season. He was getting a little frustrated. Wasn’t hitting very well, and it was taking a toll on him. We stayed there one night, me and the coaches and Michael, and talked about it. ‘If you’re going to do this, don’t look back on it and hate it.’ And I actually think he listened. He actually showed up the next day a little bit more refreshed. Because I think it was starting to wear on him.

He pinch hit one night in Jacksonville. He had a scheduled night off. Whatever happened, I don’t know we got to it, but he ended up pinch hitting with the game on the line. He didn’t get a hit. But after the game he came in and he goes, ‘Thank you.’ And I hadn’t done it as a favor. I don’t why we did it. At that point in his career, I think that was every bit as exhilarating as trying to hit a three-pointer with the game on the line. It was a time in his life when, that’s what he needed to do.

Exchange any contact in regards to this induction?
I left him a message the other day through a friend. I got to see firsthand how his life is. I wouldn’t do that to him. I couldn’t believe how many people wanted a part of him. We stayed in touch from time to time. But I wouldn’t. It’s too crazy.

Last time you saw him?
Oh, boy. It’s been a couple years. It was in Chicago a couple years ago.

When you first found out you’d be managing Jordan, how’d you react?
It was about 7 o’clock in the morning. We were in the trailer for the minor league meeting. I didn’t react. I think I was half asleep. I didn’t realize what it meant. I was like, ‘I’ll handle this.’ By the time I left the trailer, there was this much media standing outside. I was like, ‘Uh, oh.’ We went from Curt Bloom doing the radio to ‘Nightline.’ It was a good learning experience for me. I learned to be organized and to deal with the media. It was a very good learning experience.

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