Terry Francona unwittingly underwent expert training for life in the limelight.
The Cleveland Indians manager described his time as Michael Jordan’s baseball boss as his “best learning experience” Monday in an interview with ESPN. Francona’s and Jordan’s professional paths crossed in 1994 after the basketball superstar retired from the NBA and opted to pursue a professional baseball career. The Chicago White Sox signed Jordan to a minor-league contract and assigned him to the Birmingham Barons, their Double-A affiliate, thrusting Francona and his staff into the spotlight.
“My world obviously changed in a hurry,” Francona said. “When you’re a Double-A manager, you’re just happy the games are on radio, there’s two writers. To go from one day to the next, where all of a sudden national media’s around, I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the best learning experience I could ever be put into. At the time I was just trying to survive. But when you look back on it, you couldn’t be put into a better learning experience.”
If Jordan’s dramatic career change ever risked becoming a circus, his professional approach prevented it from happening, according to Francona.
“It had all the makings of maybe being able to go off the rails for a number of reasons and it never did. And it actually never came close to going off the rails. I give Michael so much credit for that. He respected the game of baseball so much and he respected the people in it so much that it actually made it really fun and really easy for me and the coaches. And again, it’s because of the respect factor.”
Jordan batted .202 with three home runs, 51 RBIs and 30 stolen bases in 127 games for the Barons. The 1994 campaign proved to be his only season in professional baseball, as he returned to the NBA in 1995. He went on to lead the Chicago Bulls to three more NBA championships, cementing himself among the greatest basketball players in history.
Francona reached Major League Baseball as a manager in 1997 when he was hired Philadelphia Phillies, with whom he spent four seasons. The Boston Red Sox appointed Francona as manager in 2004. He led the team to World Series titles that year and in 2007 and served as Boston’s skipper until 2011.
Francona’s experience with Jordan undoubtedly shaped his successful managerial career, which has wound through two of the most high-profile MLB markets.