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Breen: Crossing (base) paths with Michael Jordan

MJ Barons.png
MJ Barons pics.png
Posted at 6:18 PM, Apr 24, 2020

BILLINGS -- With all the justified hype surrounding Michael Jordan's newly released documentary "The Last Dance," I thought it might be fun to share my own 'never-before-seen' MJ pictures and story.

Summer of 1994, only two years into the real world. That black and white photo on my desk reminds me of how gaudy some of my golf shirts were. And how high those baseball hats would sit on one's head.

The picture includes me alongside college buddy Matt Garvey. And Michael Jordan. You have to look a little closer, but that‘s MJ fielding ground balls in between us.

Garvey and I were both working first jobs after college graduation. He was media relations director for South Carolina’s Greenville Braves, AA ball for Atlanta. I was a rookie TV sports reporter in my hometown of Billings.

Hysteria was escalating over Jordan's attempt to play pro baseball after winning three NBA World Championships with the Chicago bulls. He had just been assigned to the Chicago White Sox AA affiliate Birmingham Barons.

I get a call from Garvey one April morning telling me to book a flight to Greenville. Jordan and his circus were on the way in for a three-game series and Garvey had his reporter buddy hooked up with a media credential.

I couldn’t get on a plane fast enough with the same common, 35mm camera most of you had, and zip east for three all-access days on a baseball diamond with the world’s greatest basketball player. That, basically, meant I could look at him but not bother him. Deal. And I wasn’t about to break it with Jordan’s straight-faced bodyguard flanking his every step.

MJ wore No. 45, same as his high school jersey. He was longer and lankier in person than he looked on TV but still intimidating.

He showed up to an empty ballpark every morning before breakfast without teammates for extra batting practice. Walked from clubhouse to batting cage with no eye contact. I saw his hands callused and bleeding from taking so many cuts in the batting cages. My instincts told me Michael Jordan was clearly a perfectionist frustrated by his distance from baseball perfection. Then he was back in the cage every night, this time with teammates, a couple hours before first pitch.

The pack of media following Jordan was expectedly outrageous. MJ’s routine with reporters was the same at every minor-league park: one media conference after his opening night game, then no more interviews. While most reporters peppered No. 45 about his struggle to hit the curveball, I was able to sneak in a question on whether he was feeling any more comfortable defensively in the outfield. He'd made an error that night. Jordan made eye contact with me explaining his defense was a work in progress, but that, yeah, it was coming.

Every game of this series was standing room only. My 35mm didn’t have a panoramic, so I actually had to snap two pictures and edit them together to do justice. to a packed ballpark. Fans jockeyed for position along chain-link fences just for a glimpse of a guy most of them had only seen on TV. It reinforced to me how fortunate I was to be on the inside of that chain-link for three straight days and nights. Never been so happy to be caged in.

I admired and snapped a few shots of the luxury bus Jordan reportedly bought for his team to travel in style. After all, they were making pennies to his millions. It was said to be valued at $350,000, included six TVs, a VCR and lounge in back. Truth was later revealed Jordan didn’t actually buy the bus. He bartered with the company allowing it to name-drop him for advertising.

His Birhmingham Barons manager that season? Some guy named Terry Francona.

Michael Jordan played every game of that series. The Barons won 65 games that summer but lost 74.

Jordan then returned to Chicago as MJ where he'd win three more NBA world titles in a row.

I never did get to see him play basketball in person.