The whole world recognizes Michael Jordan as a basketball icon with six NBA titles. But many don’t know much about MJ’s time after his first retirement when he attempted the nearly impossible and try to become a baseball player.
Going from one profession is not unheard of – think about an office worker who takes up craftsmanship. But a professional athlete going from one sport to another is a different story though. Reaching the highest level in your field in the world is hard enough as it is, but to accomplish that in another sport is next to impossible.
Sure, there were a couple of amazing exceptions. Bo Jackson was considered as one of the best players in both baseball and football at the same time, and Deion Sanders also played both football and baseball.
Then there was Michael Jordan and his ambition in 1994 of going from the best basketball player on the planet to a professional baseball player.
Jordan shocked the basketball world on October 6, 1993 when he announced he was leaving the game – having just completed a run of three straight NBA titles. The fire was gone, especially after his father, James Jordan, had been murdered on July 23, 1993.
Jordan was very close to his father, who loved baseball and had dreamt of Michael one day playing the game professionally. So, why not try it?
Jordan was 31 years old when he showed up at training camp for the Chicago White Sox. Baseball training camps are usually quiet and peaceful, but massive crowds flocked to Sarasota, Florida in the spring of 1994 when Jordan arrived – in a move that was made possible by Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner of the Chicago Bulls and the White Sox.
Jordan’s training camp was not wildly successful to say the least, picking up just seven hits in 46 at-bats. On March 14, 1994 – after just two spring training games – Sports Illustrated put Jordan on its cover with the headline “Bag it, Michael!” with the inside story titled “Err Jordan” – a play on his “Air Jordan” nickname.
Jordan, who had not swung a baseball bat in 14 years, failed to make the White Sox Major League Baseball team out of spring training – which wasn’t unexpected – and was sent to the Birmingham Barons in Alabama to play for Chicago’s Double-A team in the Southern League – essentially the White Sox’s representative in baseball’s third division.
That meant Michael Jeffrey Jordan – a three-time NBA champ, three-time Finals MVP, seven-time scoring champion, nine-time All-Star, two-time Olympic gold medallist and arguably the most famous athlete in the world – would be taking bus trips up to 12 hours while earning 850 dollars a month plus a 16 dollar meal per diem.
Jordan had a strong start to the AA season, reeling off a 13-game hitting streak and batting .327 by late April. But then pitchers gave him an unhealthy diet of breaking balls – something even accomplished MLB players fail to hit. Jordan’s batting averaged plummeted to just .186 on July 29.
A day later, Jordan connected for his first home run and MJ saw it as a tribute to his father, who would have turned 58 on July 31st. That remained one of the few highlights, though he did push his average up to .202 by the end of the season. He finished with 3 home runs and 51 runs batted in 127 games in the outfield.
While his .202 average was the lowest among all hitters in the Southern League, Jordan did debunk some doubters. He swiped 30 stolen bases – the fifth-most in the league – and impressed everyone with his tireless work ethic.
Barons manager Terry Francona, who would go on to win two World Series titles with the Boston Red Sox, believes Jordan would have eventually made the Majors if he was given the time. Jordan, after all, did continue to improve and hit .252 in the 1994 Arizona Fall League with the Scottsdale Scorpions.
Jordan returned to training camp in March 1995, but the MLB was on strike. The desire to play basketball had been rekindled and his baseball experiment ended on March 18, 1995 with his famous two-word statement: “I’m back.” Jordan returned to the Bulls and would go on to win another three NBA crowns from 1996 to 1998.
Would Jordan have returned to the Bulls if Major League Baseball were not on strike? That what-if can never be answered, but Jordan at least can say he tried to live out a dream of his and his father – and silence many doubters along the way.
by FIVE Magazine #169 – Michael Jordan: Adventures in Baseball – Text: Tobias Jochheim