We sports fans starving for something – anything – to watch on TV have been gobbling up episodes of “The Last Dance” like frantic prisoners playing “Hungry Hungry Hippo.” The most recent installment included Michael Jordan playing not one but two sports.
As we all know, Jordan famously “retired” from basketball after leading the Chicago Bulls to their third consecutive NBA championship in 1993. Coincidentally enough, the word of his impending news conference leaked out at a baseball game.
Not long after, Jordan signed on with the Chicago White Sox, fulfilling the dream of his father, who so tragically had been murdered shortly after the end of the ’93 season.
He began his second career on the Double-A level, reporting for spring training with the big club before being assigned to the minors. One of his new teammates was a Kentucky native – former Harrison County star Chris Snopek.
“One day they came to us and said, ‘Hey guys, Michael Jordan will be joining us tomorrow,’ ” Snopek said. “We’re all 24 years old. We never got to see him at big league camp. He had his Corvette. Next day he shows up. I’m on second base and Michael Jordan is hitting and I’m like, ‘This is crazy.’ ”
Crazy in a good way. Suddenly, clubhouse food transformed from ham sandwiches and PB&J to barbecue and the occasional steak. Jordan also paid for upgrades to the team bus although, as Snopek put it, on a 14-hour trip, “a bus is a bus. But it was nice.”
The theme of the documentary is the dogged competitiveness that set Jordan apart, both on the basketball court and in baseball. Snopek was witness.
“He was always wanting to play a game,” Snopek said. “Most bus rides, he’d sit in front with (manager Terry) Francona and they’d play Yahtzee for eight or nine hours straight. We’re busing from Birmingham to Orlando at three or four in the morning, trying to get rest, and somebody’d be yelling, ‘Yahtzee!’
“You could tell that was part of his DNA.”
It was, both on the field and in the clubhouse where, Snopek said, Jordan fit right in. But there was always that desire to compete.
“We had a ping-pong table. He was always playing,” he said. “We’d beat him sometimes. He didn’t like it.”
Of course, there was golf. Snopek said Jordan’s playing partners would fly in to Birmingham or meet up with him in Memphis, if the schedule allowed, for the occasional round.
And naturally, there was basketball.
“Once after a day game in Huntsville, we got back at three or four and he wanted to go play basketball. Of course, we didn’t miss that,” Snopek said. “It was always fun to play pickup with Michael Jordan.”
This was in the days before everyone carried cell phones, so when Jordan and some of his Birmingham Baron teammates walked into a gym, looking to play some ball, well…
“Suddenly Michael Jordan walks in,” Snopek said. “Can you imagine that?”
Snopek was an outstanding basketball player as well at Harrison County and did what he could to hold his own against the world’s best player.
“It was a war,” he said. “Being from Kentucky, basketball was ingrained. We would talk so much smack. He was 6-foot-6 and skinny but my goodness, if you ran into him or tried to block him out, it was like a brick wall.”
Jordan started his baseball career on fire, banging out a 13-game hitting streak. But then opposing pitchers stopped feeding fastballs to the new guy and then came the steady diet of breaking pitches. His numbers plummeted. “Pitchers didn’t want to give up a hit to guy who hadn’t played in 15 years,” Snopek said.
Jordan’s confidence took a tumble, as well, if you can believe that. At one point, he considered giving it up, or at least dropping down to Class A ball – not because he was feeling sorry for himself, but, Snopek said, because he thought he was holding the team back.
“There were some games where he struck out to end some innings,” Snopek said. “We were in Memphis one day and he met with Francona. I think he felt like it might be best for him to give it up and Francona talked him out of it. That night, he had the game-winning hit.”
Within the documentary, Jordan explained why he switched sports, citing the mental and physical exhaustion that came with driving himself – and his Bulls teammates – to three straight NBA titles. He also wanted to fulfill the wishes of his late father, with whom he’d been extremely close.
For their part, his new baseball teammates never gave it much thought. “We got so caught up in having him on our team, we just bought in,” Snopek said. “We had no idea why he gave up all that money and was doing what he did.”
Jordan’s dream of becoming a big-leaguer ended well shy of the majors. Chris Snopek did make it, spending four seasons with the White Sox and part of a fifth with the Boston Red Sox.
On his 25thbirthday, Snopek hit his first major-league home run. He remains the only White Sox player ever to hit his first homer in the bigs on his birthday.
“It was a blessing,” said Snopek, who, after he retired, returned to Mississippi, where he had played college baseball for Ole Miss.
“It’s definitely a tough business, especially in Chicago, where it’s a bigger market. Looking back in it you’re in awe that you had a chance to play there with a lot of good players. It was a lot of fun.
“Looking back at it, coming from Harrison County, playing in the SEC, there was a lot of good baseball on the way. It definitely prepared me for playing in Chicago.”
But nothing could have prepared him for that day in spring training when he met his new teammate, Michael Jordan, who soon became just another one of the guys. With a much, much better car.