Friday, September 11, 2009

Francona, MJ and the Partridge Family

Much of the legend of Michael Jordan -- his competitiveness, for example -- Terry Francona saw firsthand when he managed His Airness at Double-A Birmingham and in the Arizona FallLeague. Be it at baseball, basketball, ping-pong or Yahtzee, Francona saw an off-the-charts competitiveness he's never seen in any other athlete he's ever encountered.

But the legend of the bus, Francona said, is a little overblown.

(An interjection: Before you keep reading, click here for a "This is why YouTube exists" video featuring both the "Jordan Cruiser" and a 35-year-old Terry Francona -- with hair, even.)

(All set? Here we go.)

"We got a new bus because he was there," Francona said, "but what it was was a new bus. It didn't have a minibar or a jacuzzi. It just didn't stink as much as the old one -- and it didn't break down nearly as much. It was just a bus. It was kind of pretty. We looked a little bit like the Partridge Family. But it was still a bus."

As pretty as the bus was, that's not what Francona remembers most about his days managing the greatest basketball player in history. What he remembers most is the competitiveness and the desire to win.

"That's why he is who he is," Francona said. "I know the talent is there, but he's the most competitive person you'd ever see. That doesn't mean he wins at everything he does, but he's the most competitive."

The equipment, of course, sometimes paid a price.

"I saw him break a ping-pong table," Francona said. "I saw him break a tennis racket. He didn't take losing very well."

As far as Francona is concerned -- and keep in mind that this isn't a guy who would sugarcoat something like this -- Jordan could have played his way into the major leagues.

"He hadn't played since he was 18, and that was high school," Francona said. "He was thrust into Double-A, what, 14 years later? It was tough for him. He's big, tall, lanky, long arms, so he had to fight to keep his swing short. He was actually a good base-stealer. I think he actually stole 30 bases. He found a way to drive in 50 runs, which, in Double-A, is not too bad. ...

"If he was willing to invest a couple more full years where you're looking at 1,000 at-bats, I have a feeling he'd have found a way to get to the major leagues."

It wasn't just a circus, either. It meant something to him.

Jordan's competitiveness backfired on him in some ways. Baseball is far more of a game of failure than basketball, and that particularly was the case for Jordan. The greatest player in the history of the game, after all, hit .202 and struck out 114 times.

That meant Francona had to do some work to do.

"One night in Memphis, we were pretty deep in the season, and he was getting a little frustrated," Francona said. "He wasn't hitting very well, and it was taking a toll on him. We stayed there one night, me and the coaches and Michael, and we talked about, 'If you're going to do this, don't look back on it and hate it.' I think he listened because he showed up the next day a little bit more refreshed. It was starting to wear on him.

A little later in the season, Francona roused Jordan off the bench during a scheduled night off and sent him to the plate to pinch-hit in a key spot. Jordan dug into the batter's box, the game on the line -- and he didn't deliver.

After the game, though, Jordan stuck his head into his manager's office.

"Thank you," Jordan said.

"I hadn't done it as a favor," Francona said, looking back. "At that point in his career, that was every bit as exhilarating as him trying to hit a 3-pointer, the game on the line and his at-bat.

"It was a time in his life when that was what he needed to do."

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