It feels like the entire sports world is watching “The Last Dance,” and the numbers don’t lie. Last Sunday’s docuseries on Michael Jordan and the six-time champion Chicago Bulls became the most-watched ESPN documentary ever, averaging just over 6 million viewers.
The documentary caught the eye of Alex Rodriguez, though he has been watching Jordan closely for the past 30 years.
As a child, Rodriguez was in awe of Jordan. He watched from home in Miami as Jordan dominated, capturing his imagination with each dunk. He found himself living vicariously through His Airness in defeats to the Detroit Pistons and celebrations as the Bulls took their place as NBA champions.
The Sunday Night Baseball analyst is now able to relate to Jordan in a way few others can. Both were constantly in the spotlight during their playing days in and out of games, as well as met with unrelenting criticism until a championship trophy was hoisted. During the course of Rodriguez’s career, he formed a friendship with Jordan, witnessing his legendary competitive streak up close and in person.
In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Rodriguez discussed Jordan’s brilliance, getting to know the man behind the legend, and even touched on Jordan’s brief foray into professional baseball.
SI: What are your early memories of Michael Jordan? Why did his personality and play resonate with you?
Rodriguez: Early on, my first big Michael Jordan experience was watching the 63 [points] he dropped against Larry Bird and the Celtics in the postseason in his "sophomore year" with the Bulls. That was a bit of a ‘Hello, world!’ moment on a huge platform on national TV. I could not believe how good and young he was.
SI: The moment against the Celtics was incredible, and I think it’s important to note he didn’t win that game. No one ever argued Jordan’s dominance, but his accomplishments always came with a caveat until the spring of 1991 when he led his team to a championship. This was similar in your career. Despite the list of accolades that distinguished your career, like leading the league in home runs on five different occasions and four times in slugging percentage, the notion that you could not win a title was cast over you like a shadow until the World Series victory in 2009.
When the spotlight is so glaring and nonstop, like it was for Jordan in ’91 and you in ’09, what does it mean to finally win that elusive first championship?
Rodriguez: Everyone’s different, and a championship means different things to different people. I grew up here in Miami and one of my sports heroes was Dan Marino. Forever, to this day, people remind him that he did not win a Super Bowl. So as a kid and a teenager and a professional baseball player, that was always in my mind. I always feared that I wouldn’t be able to get over that hurdle.
When we won in 2009, it was everything. It was everything that I’d dreamed about it, it was ten times even better of a feeling. The parade in New York City? There’s nothing like it.
SI: After attaining a rare level of dominance in your profession, like you did in baseball and Jordan did in basketball, do you have to manufacture ways to motivate yourself?
Rodriguez: One of my favorite quotes from Michael is, ‘Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.’ The truth is, you wake up every day and you’re either motivated or you’re not. I found motivation in wanting to be the best that I can be, reach 100 percent of my potential. Not necessarily what others’ potential was, but my potential.
I woke up in the morning thinking that the Red Sox were going to be working really hard. That players for the Angels were working really hard. I woke up knowing that Manny Ramirez and Pedro Martinez and Big Papi were going to be in great shape and I wanted to make sure I was working harder than them. There is an obsession about excellence and details, like Michael said, about being intelligent. Truly, I believe, that teamwork and intelligence wins championships, not just talent.
SI: I can’t picture Derek Jeter stepping away from baseball after his third World Series title in 1999 to go play professional basketball, and I definitely can’t picture Jeter having that conversation with George Steinbrenner–yet that is exactly what happened with Jerry Reinsdorf when Jordan retired from basketball in 1993 and pursued a career in baseball.
Jordan was 30 years old when he left the defending three-time champion Bulls to play for the Birmingham Barons in 1994, a Double-A minor league team in the White Sox system. His stats were far from overwhelming, but what is your take on Jordan’s sojourn into baseball?
Rodriguez: I thought that what he tried to do in baseball is one of the greatest accomplishments in his career. He’s getting on a bus and playing Double-A. That’s one of the hardest leagues to play in because that’s where all the great pitching goes, the fire ballers throwing north of 95 miles an hour. The weather was north of 95 degrees, and you’re on buses, not on planes.
Unfortunately, the benchmark as a great, Hall-of-Fame hitter is .300. Because you’re Michael Jordan, you’re going to be judged on a completely unfair barometer. For him to have a hitting streak, to hit north of .200, and to steal so many bases, I just thought it was remarkable.
SI: And you can always play pick-up basketball on your off-days, but it’s not as though Jordan could keep his baseball skills anywhere near sharp during his basketball career. He really hadn’t played competitive baseball since he was a teenager.
Rodriguez: It’s one of those stories that with more distance, more space, and more time, it becomes even more valued. At the time, I know that he was upset with a lot of publications that pushed back on him. But I know I can tell you that people in the game, people that really understood baseball, they looked at it as an awesome accomplishment.
SI: Part of the beauty of baseball is the way in which the game’s past intertwines with its present. Jordan played for a young manager named Terry Francona.
Francona and Jordan, who are less than three years apart in age, shared some similarities. They both grew up in awe of their fathers. They both were high-level prospects entering the pros.
Knowing both Jordan and Francona, who managed the Red Sox against your Yankees in the famed 2004 ALCS, what do you think led to their mutual respect that began in the summer of ’94?
Rodriguez: There are a lot of similarities. First of all, they both love the game. They both have that old-school mentality, they’re both blue-collar workers. They both have a great deal of respect and dignity, and I think Tito Francona was tailor-made and the perfect fit to manage Michael Jordan. That’s why Michael and Tito hit it off.
SI: You mentioned the challenges of playing in Double-A, but intense media scrutiny normally isn’t part of that. Francona did an amazing job of protecting all of his players that season, particularly Jordan.
Rodriguez: You know, what Tito did for Michael, that’s the same thing he did for the Red Sox players. Speaking to them, they still have such great things to say about playing for Tito. Whether it’s Double-A, Philly, Boston, Cleveland, or when I cover him now with ESPN and Fox, he is revered by players and by the people that are closest to the game.
SI: As quickly as Jordan was gone from basketball, he had returned. He played the final 17 games of the 1994-95 NBA season, showing flashes of his old self, but the Bulls were knocked out in the Eastern Conference semifinals by the Orlando Magic. He then ripped off three straight championships in the next three seasons.
Rodriguez: How can we even comprehend that? That’s when Michael upgrades from human to superhuman. I can’t even imagine stopping your career, playing another sport, then coming back and winning another three championships. That was Michael’s reminder of his greatness, just in case anyone forgot about the first three titles.
SI: Jordan played with stars in Chicago. Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman are the most notable, but the ’97-’98 team also included Steve Kerr, Toni Kukoc, and Ron Harper.
Winning isn’t easy. When a star-laden team has issues, certainly heightened by the amount of press–for your Yankees in 2009, that was local, national, and international–how do you keep a team together without allowing egos to sink the ship?
Rodriguez: In order to win a championship, it’s not just talent. It’s teamwork and intelligence. 2009 was the epitome of that. You mentioned some of the big names, the headliners, but usually on championship teams, it’s about everybody checking their ego at the door and playing for the name on the front of your jersey, not the back.
For us, that Yankees team, the names that stand out aren’t the obvious ones. It’s an unsung hero like [third base coach] Rob Thomson, or Mick Kelleher, who was the infield coach and first base coach. There was Johnny Damon—he embodied the DNA of our team. AJ Burnett, Melky Cabrera, and Hideki Matsui, who of course won the [World Series] MVP. There’s myself, Jeter, [Andy] Pettitte, Mariano [Rivera], C.C. [Sabathia], and Mark [Teixeira], and we got a lot of the headlines, but it’s the other names that contributed just as much.
SI: I know they are from different eras, but where do you fall in the Jordan-LeBron debate?
Rodriguez: How about they’re both great? Whoever you don’t pick, I’ll take. How about that?
SI: It was fun to see that debate spark up last Sunday on social media.
Rodriguez: Those are always funny debates. My former teammate, Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez, once taught me a lesson. When you’re talking about GOATs, he said, just leave them all on top of the mountain and don’t mess with them.
SI: There are still eight more episodes. Especially considering you have a friendship with Michael, what are you looking forward to learning from “The Last Dance”?
Rodriguez: I want to see in the mindset of Michael and how he navigated through challenges and unforeseen curveballs. I have the great fortune to know Michael and to have trained with Michael, and I can tell you I have enjoyed my time with him. He is equally as great and as generous and as humble off the court as he is on the court.
SI: And he’s as competitive as legend has it?
Rodriguez: There is no doubt. 100 percent.