The Summer of Possibilities
My Memories of Birmingham, Baseball, and Michael Jordan
Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, I never had much access to professional sports. As everyone knows, College Football is king in Alabama. There are two things people in my home state value most, and that’s Jesus and College Football. They’ll tell you that they value them in that order, but if College Football were played on Sunday instead of Saturday, the state would implode.
Sure, we could have driven to Atlanta to see some games, but in the 90’s the only reason to drive to Atlanta was to see the Braves. The rest of their pro franchises loved mediocrity as much as they loved naming themselves after types of birds.
So, when the greatest basketball player of all time got a job playing baseball for our minor league team, let’s just say it stood out in the history of Birmingham sports. We didn’t need a pro team, we had Jordan.
We all know the story. Michael Jordan, the most famous athlete on the planet, quits basketball after leading the Chicago Bulls to their third consecutive championship, and decides to take up baseball. He got his start with the Chicago White Sox, and because that was obviously ridiculous, he got booted down to the minor leagues fairly quickly. That’s where ol’ Birmingham comes in, baby!
It’s hard to understate the excitement we felt. Things finally seemed to be breaking our way. In the summer of 1994, Birmingham seemed like a city on the up and up. There was an electricity in the air, and not just from all the tornados. Look at the stats: Birmingham native Courtney Cox was on a little television show called Friends — maybe you’ve heard of it — and Air Jordan himself was playing with the Birmingham Barons.
And that was it.
But those two things were pretty great for our civic pride, especially Michael Freaking Jordan (which I’m pretty sure is his actual middle name, check the birth certificate). Suddenly, Birmingham was at the dead center of sports, politics, probably technology, art, and culture — or at least that’s how I remember it. To me, it made perfect sense. I was coming of age, and Birmingham was coming with me.
Fresh off of graduating 6th grade, I was on top of the world. I was young, I had an allowance, and the confidence that I was never going to ever break a bone. The world was my oyster, which I definitely wouldn’t have eaten at that age. Oh, and then wait — what’s this? Michael Jordan plays for our city now? Kismet, man. I knew, somehow, I was responsible for this.
I’ll never forget when I first saw him.
It was a hot, terribly hot, obnoxiously humid day at the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, because this was the South and life in the South in the summer was like taking a blanket out of the dryer when it’s halfway done — when it’s still wet but also incredibly hot — and then putting it over your head and breathing through the fabric.
It was a game against some other Southern League team, I think it was the Baton Rouge Ragin’ Illiterates. There I was, with my chubby little pre-pubescent body and a fountain cola, wondering whose idea it was first to put nachos in those little souvenir baseball hats, and if I could get other memorabilia with nachos in it — like maybe a baseball mit that you could just put a bunch of nacho cheese in, and if somebody tried to dip in your glove you could hit them with ‘Hey, that’s nacho glove’ — when suddenly the announcer called his name…
“And now, at right field, number 45, Michaeeeeelllll Jordan.”
The crowd went nuts. There he was, shockingly tall, in that way that basketball players on tv don’t seem that large because they’re around other basketball players, but when you see them in real life you’re like “Oh shit, that guy is tall.” The visual was only exacerbated by the fact that he was accompanied by two boys in baseball uniforms who looked to be around my age or younger. Apparently, at every home game, the Barons were accompanied out in the first inning by local little league baseball players. So, Michael Jordan trots out onto the field, past the stands near right field where we sat, and took his position in the outfield, flanked by those two little assholes who were undoubtedly having the most memorable day of their lives.
“How did those kids get to be out there?” I asked my Dad. You mean to tell me I could’ve run out onto the field with Michael Jordan if I’d just had the prescience to play baseball instead of soccer, gotten really good at it for my age, had connections to the Hoover Met, and known that the world’s most famous athlete would quit basketball in the height of his career to fulfill a promise to his dad and play in my town? Talk about missed opportunities.
“Did you eat all the nachos?” my Dad replied. But I didn’t hear him. I was too busy watching number 45.
And there he was…not doing much.
Jordan stood near the outfield wall, inning after inning, waiting for something to happen. And I waited with him. Having no interest whatsoever with baseball at that age, the difference between staring at Michael Jordan while he stood there spitting, adjusting himself, and swatting away flies and watching the actual baseball game was nonexistent to me. Just as exciting.
So I don’t really remember what happened during the course of the game, if we played well or if we were getting blown-out. It didn’t matter. What I do remember is screaming, “Michael! Michael! Hey Michael! Michael! Look over here! Michael!” every single time he jogged from the dugout to the outfield, or from the outfield to the dugout.
Another thing I remember about going to baseball games as a young fellow is that I had a lottery-addict’s confidence that I was going to get a foul ball hit to me. It literally never happened even once, but that didn’t stop me from being certain it would the next time. This is the one, baby! So when Michael Jordan stepped up to the bat, I got my glove ready. Can you imagine how much a baseball hit by MJ would be worth? I was sick to my stomach with excitement and nacho cheese.
But again…nothing. He struck out every time.
As a matter of fact, if he hadn’t caught a fly ball later on in the game — which we all cheered as if it were the winning out of a World Series game 7 — Jordan would’ve made absolutely no impact on the game. Other than, of course, filling every single seat in the stadium and driving ticket and concession sales through the roof. So, as far as the Birmingham Barons organization was concerned, Jordan was the MVP.
Next thing you know, the game was over. My Dad had unsuccessfully made every effort to get to the parking lot early to beat traffic, despite the fact that we were being given a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the greatest basketball player ever play mediocre at best baseball. (There isn’t a sporting event that my Dad wouldn’t leave early to beat traffic. He could be watching God fight Satan in a winner-take-all-the-souls-of-earth heavyweight boxing match and somewhere around the 9th round he’d still be like, “Well, we should probably get going.”) But we managed to linger till the end.
We crowded the fence near the right field wall, as Jordan patiently signed baseballs and pictures. Finally, after a generous amount of time given to the fans, he made his way to the locker room — but not before it happened. As he jogged away from the fans, he turned back once more and pointed his finger towards the crowd, right at me, and smiled. In that moment, I knew. He knew. I knew he knew, and he knew I knew he knew. Kismet, man.
Or, at least that’s how I remember it.
Sure, maybe he didn’t so much point at me and smile as he did wave politely at the crowd without making eye contact with anyone, but I felt a connection. A connection that lasted until many years later, when I waited on him at a restaurant and he threatened to have me fired if he thought the chicken he ordered was too spicy (true story).
A few months later, he was gone. After a brief stint in Arizona, he was back in the NBA. You all know how that story turned out — 3 more championships, 3 more finals MVP trophies. Space Jam. He believed he could fly. He believed he could touch the sky. And he did.
I wonder, though. Does he still think about Birmingham? Does he know that his #45 Barons jersey is still the most popular item in their gift shop? Does he know the impact he made on a town, or a boy, that will never forget the summer of 94?
For us, his legacy will always be tied to Baron’s Baseball. For one summer he was ours. The greatest athlete in the world was ours. We were a city of 12 year-old boys seeing Michael Jordan for the first time. Not literally, of course. That would’ve been really weird for him.
Driving home, we didn’t know if he’d play for us for just one season, or if he would be a Baron for life. It didn’t matter. In that moment, Birmingham was on top. It was okay to believe great things were coming. Why not? We had Michael Jeffrey James Luke John Paul Ringo George Crosby Stills and Nash Jordan.
We had arrived.
Or, at least that’s how I remember it.