TORONTO – Mike Barnett’s first real conversation with Michael Jordan took place in the batting cage, probably around 7:30 a.m., in the veteran coach’s recollection, shortly after the world’s best basketball player was assigned to double-A Birmingham.
In the preceding weeks, they’d crossed paths amid the hustle and bustle of the Chicago White Sox’s spring camp, briefly exchanging hellos. But now that they were going to be spending the 1994 season together, Barnett felt as His Airness’s hitting coach that he needed to be real right off the jump.
All spring long, he’d talked to scouts who said all pitchers had to do was bust Jordan inside with fastballs, and because of how he stood off the plate and dove in, he’d jam himself. There was little risk of damage worse than a weak roller to third base.
That’s why rather than painting a rosy picture for Jordan, Barnett laid it all out for his outfielder, suggesting he square up in the batter’s box and get a bit closer to the plate so he could work straight ahead with his swing.
“I said, ‘It’s completely up to you. You want to stay with what you’re doing, I’m fine with that and we’ll work around that,’” recalls Barnett, now major-league replay co-ordinator and staff assistant for the Cleveland Indians. “He goes, ‘No, what you’re saying makes a lot of sense and that’s what I’ve experienced in these at-bats. People are pounding me in.’
“I said, ‘OK then, what do you think?’ And he replied, ‘Let’s get to work.’”
The memories of that exchange, and those of countless others, have come flooding back for Barnett since the first two episodes of The Last Dance, the compelling new documentary series on Jordan, dropped last week. He watched both and planned to watch the third instalment on Sunday night, intrigued by comparing what he saw on the diamond versus the inner-workings on the basketball court.
“To know him and know what a competitor he is,” says Barnett, “it’s fun to watch it from the beginning and to go all the way through.”
That ’94 season is like few others in the 60-year-old’s long career in professional baseball, which includes stints as hitting coach for the Toronto Blue Jays from 2002-05, as well as the club’s minor-league hitting co-ordinator from 2013-15.
Beyond inheriting a three-time NBA MVP and three-time NBA champion who had abruptly and mysteriously left basketball to pursue baseball, a sport he hadn’t played since high school 14 years previous, Barnett wasn’t sure what he was getting into.
Jordan’s competitive nature was legend back then, too, and it was sensible to wonder how an athlete so completely dominant in one sport would transition into a game that features relentless failure, even for those who excel.
The initial adjustments they made got Jordan on the fastball, but once he showed himself capable of getting the bat head around a heater, he began seeing a steady diet of breaking balls. He tried to hit them all for a while, and to get him to stop, they added 15 minutes of daily work with the breaking ball machine to his soft-toss and early hitting routine, teaching him which offerings he should take, and which were hanging and he should attack.
“That was a battle,” says Barnett. “It takes players a long time to adjust to that.”
Slowly though, Jordan did, hitting his only three home runs of the summer during the final month. And as he slogged his way through 497 plate appearances over 127 games with a batting line of .202/.289/.266 with 51 RBIs and 30 stolen bases in 48 attempts, Barnett never saw Jordan’s determination of willingness to work flicker.
“When we were at home, we had a small little soft-toss cage in a back room,” says Barnett. “He would come in there and we would talk about the at-bats from that night and the things that we needed to get the work on the next day and everything like that, improvements, where we needed to go. You could see the failure and the frustration that it would bring him, night to night. The game of baseball brought him to his knees. It was hard and he realized that.
“But after we would get done talking about the at-bats and everything like that, we’d go back to hitting and start working on the stuff for the next day. To me, that was his way of turning the page, I’m throwing out tonight and I’m moving into the next day. And he would come back the next day with a positive attitude ready to go.”
By doing so, at least in Barnett’s eyes, Jordan was showing a different type of leadership than he had in the NBA, where his talent allowed him to demand, sometimes ruthlessly, more of others. On the diamond, he simply did everything in his power to continuously get better, fitting in as just another guy on the roster, even though he obviously wasn’t.
“He would say, ‘Hey, I’m just a double-A baseball player. Help me learn. Help me get better,’” says Barnett.
That impressed his teammates, as did his care for them.
One example is the way he helped catcher Rogelio Nunez, who had recently married and was being prodded by the organization to improve his English. Jordan told the coaching staff he’d take care of it.
“We would have a meeting before we would stretch every day and one day Michael said, ‘Look Nunie, I’m going to give you a word every day. I want you to go home, I want you to learn how to spell it, and how to put it into a sentence. And if you can do that, the next day, I’ll give you 100 bucks,’” relays Barnett. “Here’s a young player, just married, trying to survive, and that was another way that Michael led by example. It was one of the neat stories that came out of that year.”
Another favourite came during a one-sided game against Chattanooga, with Birmingham up 11-0 late in the game. Jordan came up to the plate and hit a double, and then bucking all baseball convention against running up the score, took off for third when the pitcher paid him no mind.
Manager Terry Francona flipped.
“Tito turns around to Pat Kelly, who was the Chattanooga manager, and is going, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’ll take care of it. I’ll take care of it,’” says Barnett. “And he goes up to Michael, ‘What the hell are you thinking? Never mind, we’ll talk about it after the game.’
“So we get in the office after the game, and Tito goes, ‘What the hell are you doing? We’re up 11-0, you can’t be running in the eighth inning.’ And he goes, ‘Hell, I didn’t know. Thanks for telling me. In the NBA, you get up by 30 in the fourth you try and get up by 40.’”
Looking at things through a basketball lens wasn’t always detrimental.
To try and leverage Jordan’s speed, Barnett suggested they also incorporate some regular bunting practice into the routine. That way, if he wasn’t getting hits, he could try to sneak his way on base periodically by laying one down.
“He goes, ‘You mean like in basketball, when my jumper’s not falling and I got to find a way to get a lay-up,’” Barnett says. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’”
By season’s end, one largely viewed as a failure, Barnett felt Jordan had made more progress in a single summer than “a lot of guys make over two or three years.” A stint in the Arizona Fall League followed and he was back in camp with the White Sox the following season, as a players’ strike from the previous August dragged into the new year. He refused invitations to participate in the owners’ replacement-player plan and soon abandoned the entire exercise, eventually rejoining the Chicago Bulls and proceeding to win three more championships.
Barnett, who termed Jordan’s year “a tremendous success,” was left wondering what might have been, both if he had continued on with baseball instead of basketball out of high school – “I could see him being along the lines of a Dave Winfield” – or seen things through in ’95.
“He had the ability to make adjustments,” says Barnett. “Like when we started out, he had a 20 grade (out of 80) throwing arm and by the time we got to the end of the year, because he knew he had to invest in the throwing program, he was close to a solid 50 arm. He could impact the game as far as running the bases. Because of his instincts in basketball, he paid attention to detail and could pick things up about pitchers. Just over a five-month period, with no background.
“I think if he had stayed with it probably another year or two, he could have been at least a solid fourth outfielder in the big-leagues because of the way he could run, the way he could do some things and the way offensively his swinging the bat was starting to come around. He could’ve been a valuable guy. It was quite the transformation.”