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A brush with stardom: What it was like to manage a baseball clubhouse when Michael Jordan was on the team

Michael Jordan created quite a circus atmosphere when he started his professional baseball career with the Chicago White Sox minor league affiliate, the Birmingham Barons, in 1994.
Michael Jordan created quite a circus atmosphere when he started his professional baseball career with the Chicago White Sox minor league affiliate, the Birmingham Barons, in 1994.ROBERT SULLIVAN/AFP via Getty Images

Ken Dunlap experienced firsthand the circus that was Michael Jordan’s 1994 stint playing baseball with the Birmingham Barons. As a visiting clubhouse manager in his first season, his duties included coordinating autograph requests from opposing players, picking up fast food orders, and scheduling empty movie theaters and bars for Jordan to visit.

Dunlap has been with the Chicago White Sox’ Double A minor league team since, in both the visiting and home locker rooms as a clubhouse manager. In 1994, Dunlap often ran errands for Jordan and set up logistics for all types of excursions.

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Dunlap, 58, detailed the Jordan experience in a Q&A with the Globe. The interview was edited for clarity and length.

How did Jordan's presence change the attention surrounding the Barons?

Well, obviously the [attendance] numbers went up astronomically both at home and on the road. We had a little bit of a taste of that because we had Bo Jackson come through when he was still a big household name. We had Frank Thomas when he was at the beginning of his career. The Barons have been pretty fortunate over the years to have some pretty big names, but obviously nothing like Jordan when he came through.

What was the most obscure request Jordan ever made?

It all went back to his University of North Carolina t-shirt. It was a shirt that was given to him, I’m sure like all freshman athletes coming into college that they either wear during practice, one of their first [garments] Michael still had it, still wore it, still wore it under his uniform at night. That shirt was 15 years old or older. Having been washed every day after playing, we washed it separately from every other item.

Keith Dunlap has worked for the Birmingham Barons as a clubhouse manager since 1994.
Keith Dunlap has worked for the Birmingham Barons as a clubhouse manager since 1994.Birmingham Barons


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Could opposing players keep their cool around Jordan?

Michael, next to the Pope and the President of the United States, was probably the most recognizable figure in all of the United States. All of the players, they were awestruck by him as much as you or I would be. As they began to want and try to get a little piece of Michael, get an autograph or get a few moments of his time, I’m not sure that necessarily would’ve happened in the NBA. For Michael, I think it was a little bit overwhelming. As time went on, because of the constraints on him and his time, he began to put up parameters about people talking to him, autographs and things like that.

And what were those parameters?

The visiting players all wanted to get something signed by Michael. That was their chance to get a little bit of Michael and a period in a time of history with him. After the first week or so, Michael was like, ‘Look, this is just too much.’ What he requested, or demanded, is that the players would come up and talk to him while he was taking batting practice in the cages. If they talked to him and said ‘Hey Mike, would you sign something?’ And he told them, ‘Look, I’m not signing any basketballs, shoes, baseball bats, photos things like that. I will sign baseballs because right now I’m a baseball player.’

I would take baseballs over to Michael every night, he would sign those, and I would take them back to the players. On one particular occasion, Michael called me out and said, ‘Hey look, I had 10 guys talk to me and there’s 11 baseballs. What’s going on here. Are you trying to get an autograph?’

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I was like, ‘Mike I would’ve asked you Day One. I’m not going to bother you for one.’ When I took the balls back over to the visiting side, one of the players came up and grabbed two of them. He said, ‘Well, I didn’t think he’d mind if I threw in an extra one for my dad for Father’s Day.’ Even after a while, that got old with Michael and he became pretty difficult to deal with even then. Every single day, he was hit up for something.

Obviously, Jordan had more money than any minor leaguer. How was he as a tipper?

In my 25-plus years in minor league baseball, typically the guys that tip the most are the guys you’d least expect. That’s the journeymen players that appreciate what you’re doing for them. They understand that you don’t make a lot of money and that you’re going out of your way to help them. Michael was not a big tipper. I’ve had a lot of other big league athletes that were a lot more gracious, not only tipping monetarily, but giving you gear. A good example, James Baldwin, who pitched for the Barons had a contract where he was a golfer, an avid golfer. At one point he said, ‘Hey look, I’m about to put in an order with my agent. What kind of golf clubs do you want?’ Michael, if he tipped at all, it was $5. Relative to what he made, no.

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Did Jordan play cards in the clubhouse?

His interaction with his fellow teammates was fairly limited. As you can imagine, even on his side, the players were somewhat in awe of Michael. A lot of them were apprehensive about talking to him, spending time or bothering him. He had a couple of close friends on the team that he would play cards or dominoes with. His biggest thing was that he liked to play Yahtzee. He typically would play that late in the evenings with our manager, Terry Francona. He and Tito were about the same age, both family men. They had a little bit more in common than Michael would’ve had with a 21-year-old teammate.

Did he put a lot of money on it?

I never once saw Michael gamble, per se. I will say that in this day and age, we like to label the players as overly competitive. Michael was extremely competitive. He wanted to excel at everything he did and didn’t really like failure. Did I see him being a gambler? I’m sure all of them could be gamblers, but I think Michael was overly competitive.

Did he go golfing a lot in Birmingham?

When Michael moved into Birmingham, he moved into a gated community, Shoal Creek, which has definitely the nicest golf course in the state of Alabama. It’s been the site of the PGA Tour off and on for a number of years. Michael would play golf there. The problem was, even in 1994, African Americans were not allowed to play golf on that course. Even with Michael, and his stature in the sporting world, he probably met some constraints about being able to play golf on that course. Consequently, he did play golf. He did play in a private group. I believe when he did play golf at Shoal Creek, it was a hush-hush thing, simply because of African Americans not being welcomed on that course.

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Did you ever see Jordan play basketball with his teammates or coaches and/or watch basketball in the clubhouse? From your vantage point, what was his relationship with the game like at that time?

The funny thing was, before Michael got there, we had a promotion. It was on the right field fair/foul pole. If [a Baron] hit a ball, through a basketball hoop of all things, they won a free automobile from one of the local dealerships. That hoop was still up throughout that season. There technically was a basketball hoop out in right field while Michael was the right fielder. For him to see that hoop every day, I don’t ever recollect him throwing a basketball through the hoop or bringing a basketball out there, but the presence was there. There was always a basketball in the clubhouse . . . I don’t know if Mike kept one in his locker. A lot of trainers used basketballs, softballs, footballs for training exercises. It was around, but I never saw him actively pursue it.


Greg Levinsky can be reached at greg.levinsky@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregLevinsky.