There were times during the most famous covert operation in the history of sports when Herm Schneider felt like jockey Ron Turcotte thundering around the track aboard Secretariat. It’s not easy reining in a great thoroughbred — something Schneider learned first-hand while secretly preparing Michael Jordan to make the transition from basketball to baseball in the dead of a Windy City winter 27 years ago.
“It was never a case of me having to push Michael,’’ the Franklin High School graduate and former Rochester Red Wings assistant trainer recalled the other day from his suburban Chicago home. “It was often a case of having to hold him back. He was so driven, so motivated, and I had my hands full trying to keep the greatest basketball player of all-time from working so hard that he injured himself.”
Jordan has been in the news a lot lately as ESPN airs The Last Dance, a 10-part documentary series on his Airness. And Schneider, now in his 42nd season as the Chicago White Sox head athletic trainer, has been watching raptly — especially episode seven, which chronicled Jordan’s basketball burnout and desire to pursue a professional baseball career at age 31. “It’s definitely brought back many fond memories,” Schneider said. “My time working with Michael was one of the highlights of my career because I had an opportunity to see up-close what a remarkable athlete and person he is.”
After the Chicago Bulls won their third consecutive NBA championship in the spring of 1993, Jordan stunned the world by announcing his retirement. He was emotionally spent after pouring heart-and-soul into the three-peat and dealing with unsubstantiated gambling allegations and the murder of his father. The world’s most recognizable athlete needed to sort things out; needed to find something new to satisfy his ultra-competitive appetite.
Before his father’s death, Jordan talked with him about their shared love of baseball. His Airness was toying with the idea of returning to the diamond for the first time since high school. He said he wished he had also played baseball at the University of North Carolina. He talked about being intrigued by the two-sport success Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders enjoyed while simultaneously playing pro football and Major League Baseball. James Jordan Sr. told his son it was never too late to pursue a dream.
And, so, not long after the elder Jordan’s death, Michael approached Jerry Reinsdorf, who owned both the Bulls and White Sox. Reinsdorf was all-in on Jordan’s desire to hit curveballs rather than jumpers. Just before Thanksgiving 1993, the owner pulled Schneider aside, and told him he wanted him to help Jordan get his body baseball ready for spring training. “I didn’t say anything at first, but my look said it all,’’ Schneider recalled. “I thought my boss was pulling my leg. But Jerry quickly made it clear he was serious. I was looking forward to it, but I also knew it was going to be quite a challenge, even for the world’s greatest athlete, because we only had eight, nine weeks. It was going to be a crash course.”
And the lessons were going to be conducted in secret at the indoor batting cages and tunnels at Comiskey Park. Jordan would show up each morning incognito in a non-descript vehicle, and Schneider would open the gates and have him park in an area not visible to the public. For the first 10 days, Jordan didn’t pick up a bat or ball. Instead, he followed a weight training and stretching program to strengthen his shoulders, elbows, forearms, wrists and hands. “It was all baseball specific,’’ Schneider said. “I didn’t have to worry about cardiovascular stuff because Michael had worked extensively on that with his personal trainer. I wanted to build a foundation, so he’d be able to handle the rigors of baseball functions. There are different demands that baseball places on your body.”
Once the foundation was laid, Jordan began swinging in the indoor batting cage and throwing in the tunnels under the watchful eyes of Schneider, and former White Sox players Bill Melton and Mike Huff. “Michael was constantly pushing the limits,’’ Schneider said of those 4- to 5-hour, seven-day-a-week sessions. “He was so thirsty for knowledge about the game and always wanted to do extra drills. He’d hit until his hands bled. I’d patch up those blisters, and force him to scale back. Michael is super competitive. He doesn’t like people telling him he can’t do something, but I had no problem doing that because it was for his own good.”
In an effort to practice fielding fly balls and lengthen his throws, the workouts eventually moved to a large gym at a local college. Once there, Jordan’s cover was blown, and the world learned he was indeed preparing for a baseball career.
About 10 days before the official opening of spring training at the White Sox complex, Schneider accompanied Jordan to Sarasota, Fla., so the rookie ballplayer could begin outdoor drills early and get set up in his new surroundings. The first night there, Jordan asked Schneider if he would take him grocery shopping so he could stock up on food at the house he was renting. “We head to a nearby Publix around midnight, and there are maybe six people in the entire store,’’ Schneider said, chuckling. “Well, within a half-hour, the store is packed, and people are surrounding Michael, asking for autographs and taking their pictures with him. This is 1994, so there aren’t any cellphones, but the word still spread like wildfire. That’s when I realized how tough it was being Michael Jordan. He really couldn’t go anywhere.”
Jordan’s generosity was apparent throughout spring training, as he stocked many of the younger players with free Nike gear, took them to dinner, and signed autographs for everyone in camp. “There would be days, after he’s worked out and played games for six, seven hours, when he’d come into the trainer’s room and sign stuff that players and coaches and their friends had left with me,” Schneider said. “There would be days when he was in there for two hours signing stuff, but he never once complained. I think he was so happy just being there, chasing the dream like the rest of the guys.”
Jordan worked his tail off and showed enough promise to be assigned to Double-A Birmingham. Although he batted only .202 and hit just three home runs in 127 games that season with the Barons, he drove in 51 runs (fourth best on the club) and stole 30 bases. He was planning to return for the 1995 season, but the strike that had cancelled the previous fall’s World Series was continuing, and Jordan had no desire to cross the picket line and become a replacement player. His batteries recharged, he returned to the Bulls that March, and would drive them to another NBA championship three-peat.
Schneider believes Jordan eventually would have made it to the big leagues had he stuck with baseball. “People scoff because Michael hit .202, but when you analyze it, not many people could have done what he did,’’ he said. “Here’s a 31-year-old guy who hasn’t played baseball since high school and you are putting him in one of the toughest leagues in minor-league baseball, and he drives in 51 runs. Given his drive and his abilities, if he had played another season or two, I think he would have made it as a fourth outfielder. And if he had played baseball in college, he might even have been a high draft choice.”
Though he didn’t make it to the majors, he did fulfill his and his father’s dream. And it wouldn’t have happened without a huge assist from Herm Schneider.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.