Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

20 years later: Sky Sox GM Tony Ensor recalls baseball summer with Michael Jordan

photo - Sky Sox general manager Tony Ensor spent the summer with Michael Jordan when Jordan played Double-A baseball for the Birmingham Barons in 1994. Photo taken Tuesday, June 3, 2014, at Sky Sox Stadium.  (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) + caption
Sky Sox general manager Tony Ensor spent the summer with Michael Jordan when Jordan played Double-A baseball for the Birmingham Barons in 1994. Photo taken Tuesday, June 3, 2014, at Sky Sox Stadium. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
By Brent Briggeman Updated: June 22, 2014 at 7:40 am

Michael Jordan's first minor league home run set off a chain reaction of pure insanity for Tony Ensor.

Ensor, the Colorado Springs Sky Sox general manager, was the assistant GM of the Birmingham Barons 20 years ago when the world's most famous athlete joined the Double-A team. On July 30, when Jordan finally sent one over the left-field wall, Ensor and his team sprang into action.

The orders were to retrieve the ball, and that's what they were going to do. The problem was, they couldn't find it.

An intern named Tim thought he spotted the ball and Tony quickly told him to grab it. But just then a scavenging fan was also making a b-line for it. Instinctively, Tim clothes-lined the fan, bloodying his elbows as he crashed down on the gravel maintenance road behind the wall.

When Tim picked up the ball it was old and tattered, clearly not the one Jordan had just hit.

Ensor was sure the team would be sued, frustrated that he couldn't find the ball and then, without warning, in excruciating pain. He had stepped in a yellow jackets' nest and was instantly stung about a dozen times.

Only then did a call come over the radio, announcing that the ball had already been turned in at the front gate by a local teen.

This was how the summer of 1994 went for Ensor and his crew in Birmingham. Having Jordan in town made for an exhausting, make-it-up-as-you-go adventure, and it's one that 20 years later Ensor still remembers as the most amazing summer of his professional life.

***

After Jordan made his surprise retirement after three straight NBA titles he announced he would be fulfilling a lifelong dream of playing baseball. The White Sox signed him and Birmingham began preparations as the organization debated during spring training to send Jordan there or to the Triple-A in Charlotte.

It was a week before opening day that Ensor finally heard the news.

"I can't tell you the level of excitement," Ensor said. "It was amazing. We were gearing up for it like he was coming, but when we first found out the official word it was amazing. Then we were extremely nervous about how were going to do it. We knew it was coming, but we didn't know the level that it actually turned out being. But we knew the season was going to change drastically for us.

"We had set up a lot of plans to what we were going to do, how we were going to do it. When he got there some of those were enacted and a lot more were created."

More than 150 media credentials were issued for that first game to outlets from eight counties. Ticket sales instantly went crazy. The team drew 281,000 fans in 1993 and nearly doubled that to 467,868 in 1994.

Several games were on national television. Daily press conferences were held. The daily intake of mail went from about 40 pieces to more than 2,500. It was so extreme that the Barons had to forward it all to Jordan's agent's office.

"You know in 'Miracle on 34th Street' where they bring in bags and bags of letters from kids to Santa," Ensor said. "That's what it was like."

For Ensor, a primary responsibility was coordinating Jordan's exit plan after each game. A waiting mob of fans meant Jordan couldn't park in the players' lot. Instead, three cars were utilized and hid at different spots each night. Sometimes a police escort would then assist, sometimes Jordan would sneak out undetected.

In order for the team to eat at a restaurant, either they would have to make arrangements to go when the establishment was closed or it would have to close down for the team.

The only time Ensor saw Jordan grow frustrated with fans came after batting practice. Jordan had been in left field, so that's where the mob formed, but he ran across the field to talk with two boys near the first base dugout.

Ensor said what must have been 500 people looked like ants scurrying to the other side, potentially endangering the two boys. Jordan was clearly upset and told the crowd to give the kids some room. That was the end of it.

"I got to see what his life was like," Ensor said. "It was uncanny. He couldn't move. He couldn't go anywhere, even in the ballpark unless he was in the clubhouse or on the field. It was tough for him to move around. I remember one time he went to the dry cleaner's just to drop some clothes off. I remember within 30 seconds to 40 seconds the whole parking lot was full of people. It was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen."

***

The madness surrounding Jordan and the team eventually subsided at home. On the road it was still a circus, as they drew even more fans away than they did at home.

"Every team had to deal with that and would have to make special arrangements," Ensor said. "It was like every team's Fourth of July. It didn't matter if it was a Monday, Tuesday, Friday, whatever, it was sold out."

As the home routine settled down, so did the nervousness around the newest star.

"He's such a personable guy," Ensor said. "We were very shy, very timid for about the first week. Then it went from Mr. Jordan to Michael, and it was Michael for the next 41/2, five months. That's just the way he treated you. He made you feel like we were all in this together."

Jordan often played basketball with his teammates on a goal by a maintenance shed and at an apartment complex where most of the players lived.

Ensor wasn't there to see it, but the team's radio broadcaster Curt Bloom - who is still with the Barons - once passed Jordan the ball and ran to set a pick for him. Jordan, almost laughing, simply said, "Yo, I don't need your pick. It's OK."

Ensor tore his left calf muscle in a softball game that summer and, consequently, spent a lot of time in the Barons' training room. Jordan was also in there frequently, giving the two an opportunity to talk.

Later that summer, Ensor was still hobbling on crutches during a pro am day at a Senior PGA stop in which Jordan was playing with Charles Barkley and Lee Trevino. The crowd needed to part for a particular shot and Ensor was the last to clear. Jordan, standing about 40 yards away, spotted him.

"He was like, 'Hey Tony, how's it going," Ensor said. "I'm like, 'Good Michael.' Everyone was suddenly looking at me. That's the kind of guy he was. I was nobody to him, but he made you feel special. He had that kind of power."

Ensor also had an up-close view of Jordan's struggles as a player. He took it seriously, coming in every day for extra work on his fielding and hitting, but couldn't make it happen. He batted .202 in 127 games with three home runs and 51 RBIs. He struck out 114 times in 436 at-bats.

He left baseball the following spring and went back to basketball, where he won the final three of his six NBA championships.

"It was tough to see the greatest athlete in the world get humbled by what I think is the greatest game in the world," Ensor said. "It's not about agility and being able to jump or anything like that; it's about being able to track the ball."

***

Ensor doesn't know if his summer with Jordan ultimately boosted his own career. The Elmore Sports Group owned Birmingham when Ensor was there and he stayed with the company as he took over in Colorado Springs.

"I never tested the waters, so to speak," Ensor said. "But it put me in front of experiences and challenges that have helped me be able to handle everything since that day. I encountered more things in day-to-day operations in sales and everything else than most people would encounter in 10 years in that role."

He thinks the team's manager, Terry Francona, certainly benefited from that summer in the spotlight. Francona, of course, went on to win two World Series titles with the Boston Red Sox.

Minor league baseball in general, Ensor feels, was a huge winner.

"I think Michael Jordan probably had the greatest influence on minor league baseball in our time," Ensor said. "Never before had minor league baseball been seen on a national scale."

The impact for Ensor, personally, was even greater. His children were not yet born, but he had the opportunity to introduce his mother to Jordan.

Two years after Michael had returned to basketball, Ensor and three others from the Barons were at meetings in Los Angeles and bought cheap tickets to a Bulls vs. Clippers game.

Knowing how the system works, they slowly worked their way down near the court, where they spotted Jordan's media relations director, who remembered them. He was able to get Ensor and three others into a special greeting area after the game, where they stood among about 150 others in a celebrity-studded crowd.

When Jordan emerged from the locker room, he instantly recognized his old friends from Birmingham.

"I could see genuine excitement to see us," Ensor said. "I remember that still, that look, like it was yesterday. He had probably met 40,000 people in those two years, but he came out and said Tony, Bill, Ted. He knew us all by name. We were sitting there, four yokels with all these movie stars around. We sat there with him for 10 minutes talking. He didn't give anybody else any attention except us."

"I was probably 6-(foot)-3 at the time, but I was 6-6 when I was walking out of there. He just lifted you up like that."

That moment, long after the craziest summer of his life, affirmed for Ensor that it was all worth it. Not that he ever doubted that.

"We said a lot that whatever we're going through - fatigue, lack of sleep, stress, whatever - little Birmingham, Alabama, was under the microscope of the world for five months," Ensor said. "Anything we did was national news. But we knew this was a year we would have on our r?um? for the rest of our life.

"We knew it was special."

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