As a former hitting coach in the White Sox organization, Ron Kittle had a front-row seat to Michael Jordan’s short-lived, albeit plenty memorable minor-league career. Kittle watched Jordan get his cuts in at Comiskey Park prior to the 1994 season, and though the NBA legend wasn’t particularly polished on the diamond, he certainly admired MJ’s work ethic.
“I’ve never seen anybody work as hard as him,” said Kittle, a 10-year big-league veteran who earned American League Rookie of the Year honors with the White Sox in 1983. The former outfielder admitted he was initially skeptical of Jordan’s baseball pursuit, but once MJ proved his commitment, Kittle was more than happy to take the fledging prospect under his wing. “You had to find out for yourself if he really wanted to contribute the time to put in to play baseball, and he did.”
Jordan’s blisters—a product of countless hours spent in the batting cage—were discussed on Sunday night’s installment of “The Last Dance.” MJ’s former baseball mentor remembers those days with fondness. “He talked about the blisters on his hands,” Kittle laughed. “I mean they were killing him.”
Kittle acknowledged that Jordan faced unique challenges transitioning from basketball to the world of professional baseball. “He had huge hands so his fingers kind of wrapped around the bat a little bit more than others,” Kittle offered during his appearance Tuesday on WCCO. “That’s a whole different muscle spectrum from basketball to baseball.”
The White Sox miraculously kept Jordan’s baseball ambitions under wraps, training him in private before his official invite to MLB training camp. “If he was really bad they weren’t going let him publicly go out. So it was quiet,” said Kittle, who signed a contract prohibiting him from spilling the beans on Jordan’s foray into baseball.
While Terry Francona, Jordan’s manager at Double-A Birmingham, believes the NBA Hall of Famer could have made the majors if he had kept playing, Kittle thinks that’s a stretch. “Do I think he could have made it to the major leagues? I honestly don’t think so,” reflected Kittle, now an ambassador for the White Sox. “They sent him to Double-A, which he really wasn’t ready for. But as they mentioned in the documentary, they needed space for media turnout.”
Jordan hit a paltry .202 with just three homers, 51 RBI and 30 steals for the Birmingham Barons in 1994, but fared better in the Arizona Fall League, earning a respectable .252 mark across 123 at-bats for the Scottsdale Scorpions. When Jordan refused to cross the picket line during baseball’s strike in 1995, MJ returned to his true calling, winning three more championships as a Chicago Bull.
You can hear Kittle’s full interview with WCCO's Dave Lee below.