Michael Jordan’s first game as a Birmingham Baron, a memory forever cherished

Sports

Alabama childhood friends reflect on meeting their idol

Michael Jordan stands in right field with Stephen Dees, left, and Michael Gallops during the National Anthem prior to the Birmingham Barons home ball game against the Chattanooga Lookouts at the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Birmingham, Ala., April 8, 1994. (AP Photo/Kevin Glackmeyer)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — On any given day, Stephen Dees and his children are probably watching TV together.

On one particular day not long ago, it just so happened “Space Jam,” the 1996 movie where NBA legend Michael Jordan plays basketball with Bugs Bunny and other “Looney Tunes” cartoon characters, was on. To Dees’ 4- and 6-year-old, Michael Jordan is just an actor. But to Dees, he’s a hero.

Dees and his longtime friend, Michael Gallops, were on the field with Jordan the day he started his first and only season as a Birmingham Baron 26 years ago.

Michael Jordan stands in right field with Stephen Dees, left, and Michael Gallops during the national anthem prior to the Birmingham Barons home ball game against the Chattanooga Lookouts, Friday, April 8, 1994 at the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Birmingham, AL. (AP Photo/Kevin Glackmeyer)

Meeting “His Airness”

Dees and Gallops grew up in Montgomery and played youth baseball with each another. Leading up to the Barons’ first game of the season against the Chattanooga Lookouts on April 8, 1994, the boys’ baseball team was invited to the Hoover Met for a special opportunity. They were going to be taking their places alongside the professional baseball players on the field–a tradition many youth teams have since taken part in.

“My dad was the head coach, and Stephen’s dad was the assistant coach,” said Gallops, agency president at AssuredPartners in Montgomery, who was 12 years old at the time. “I think through my dad’s company, we got to go out to the game.”

Dees, now a lawyer at Rushton, Stakely, Johnston and Garret in Montgomery, remembers it a little differently.

“I think one of the kids had a grandfather who was involved with the Barons and he had season tickets,” Dees said.

Either way, the two boys found themselves on the road to Hoover, not knowing if the world-renowned athlete and media star would be at the game.

Michael Jordan (23) of the Chicago Bulls drives the lane for a finger roll lay-up over Otis Thorpe, left, and Vernon Maxwell, right, of the Houston Rockets in the first half in Houston, Texas, Jan. 3, 1991. (AP Photo/David Scarbrough)

Toward the end of 1993, Jordan had made news around the world for suddenly announcing his retirement from basketball, from a career that led the Chicago Bulls to three NBA championships wins at the time, and putting his focus into baseball, a sport he had loved since he was a boy.

Gallops remembers playing youth basketball, always wearing the number 23 on his jersey, just like Jordan.

“He was a big part of my life in sports,” he said.

Like Gallops, Dees grew up watching Jordan and the Bulls.

“I was a huge Bulls fan for no other reason,” Dees said.

The day before his first start, Jordan was in Chicago for an exhibition game against the Cubs. Jordan was on the roster for the city’s Southside team, the White Sox. Although it had been widely reported that Jordan would soon be heading to Birmingham as a Baron, few knew when he would take the field.

“It just so happened that our team was up the night Michael Jordan debuted,” Dees said.

In normal tradition, players for little league teams would take the field where they would normally play and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” alongside their Baron counterparts. Normally, Gallops played pitcher while Dees was on second base.

Stephen Dees

However, this night was different. Tonight, both Gallops and Dees were told to go to right field where Jordan would be, all in front of over 10,000 people.

“I think we ended up drawing straws and we were the lucky two,” Dees said.

Admittedly, neither Gallops nor Dees remember much from their brush with Jordan. However, one lasting memory was Dees’ shoes, a pair of Nike cleats, that got the attention of Jordan, who had already been endorsed by the shoe company.

“He said he liked my shoes,” Dees said.

Gallops, who wore Pony cleats for the game, did not get such attention from Jordan. However, he does remembers swearing as he and Dees ran off the field with microphones on them from CBS.

“That’s really the main thing I remembers: swearing on national television,” Gallops said.

Michael Gallops

The Barons did not have a good game during Jordan’s debut, losing 10-3 against Chattanooga, but neither Gallops or Dees remember that. More than anything, Dees remembers just how overwhelming the whole experience was.

“I think Michael was probably just as nervous as us to be out there,” Dees said.

Gallops said that short experience tops many memories he has in his life.

“I played in the NJCAA World Series with 12,000 people watching, but that night was the pinnacle for me,” he said.

Looking back

In recent weeks, Michael Jordan’s career is once again a point of conversation in the media, mostly due to the new ESPN documentary, “The Last Dance,” which chronicles Jordan’s career and last year with the Chicago Bulls.

“He was just the guy you idolized as a kid,” Gallops said.

Neither he nor Dees have seen “The Last Dance” yet, but know they will mark it as their next quarantine binge.

“Stephen is notorious for watching those shows all in one sitting,” Gallops said.

Birmingham Baron’s outfielder Michael Jordan shags flies during pre-game warmups in Hoover, Ala., in this August 10, 1994 photo. (AP Pohto/Dave Martin)

Dees said that Jordan’s time in Birmingham as a baseball player still has meaning for many here.

“It gives Alabama a little bit of claim to fame,” he said. “It gives us our Michael Jordan moment.”

Dees said that more than anything, he is glad he still friends with Gallops years later and that they can still have that memory.

“It wasn’t life-changing, but it’s a nice anecdote,” Dees said. “I’m glad I got to share that with Michael.”

Episodes of “The Last Dance” air on ESPN every Sunday at 8 p.m. On one episode airing May 10, Jordan’s time with the Birmingham Barons will be profiled.


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