Michael Jordan’s lone season in baseball proves he’s the greatest athlete of all time
By Paul Braverman
As this spring training marks the 20th anniversary of the end of Michael Jordan’s foray into baseball, and the misinformed ridicule that came with it, I was hoping time would’ve judged Jordan’s effort a little more kindly than the Sports Illustrated cover in March of 1994 showing Jordan missing a pitch, with the huge headline of “Bag It, Michael.” And this was merely an anecdotal photo of him whiffing on a pitch in an exhibition game, long before the completion of what I consider to be one of the greatest sporting accomplishments of the 20th century.
No, 20 years later Jordan’s spring with the White Sox and summer with the Birmingham Barons is mostly remembered little more than as a failed publicity stunt, an indulgence of someone so famous he couldn’t accrue more global fame, and a punchline. This despite the vouching from his Double-A manager, Terry Francona, on just how seriously Jordan took the game and the confirmed attendance of Jordan at 6:30 a.m. batting sessions.
To make a Jordan baseball joke now would be akin to playing Pogs rather than Angry Birds on your phone, but in the 90s jokes about “45” were unrelenting. (#23 was taken by current White Sox manager Robin Ventura.) Of course that tide was stemmed by Jordan’s return to the NBA and three more championships. It was that, and decidedly NOT the remarkable challenge of trying to go from one major sport to another at age 31 which cemented Jordan’s legacy as the unchallenged greatest sporting hero of my generation. But to not appreciate Jordan’s “success” in baseball is to not understand baseball.
The folks wont to laugh at Jordan’s baseball career will of course point to his .202 average (127 games) in a MINOR league. This is patently absurd. The fact Jordan hit over .200 in the third-highest level of professional baseball, at 31, 13 years removed from his last baseball experience as a senior in high school, is all the proof Jordan needs to make his case as the greatest athlete who ever lived when combined with his on-court exploits.
The White Sox started Jordan at Double-A, as to not subject someone so famous, and already considerably older than his Birmingham teammates to the much bushier of leagues in the various iterations of “A-Ball.” Virtually no one starts a professional career at Double-A, only the bluest of blue chip bonus baby first round draft picks do. And sometimes they don’t.
Bryce Harper played for the Hagerstown Suns (72 games), Giancarlo Stanton played for the Greensboro Grasshoppers (125 games) and Mike Trout played for the Cedar Rapids Kernels (86 games), and the three most sought-after prospects in baseball had to earn their way to Double-A, whether it was a forgone conclusion or not. Granted, Jordan’s invite to MLB spring training and his assignment to Birmingham was one part vanity and two parts dignity; allowing the 31-year old Jordan to play with teammates in their mid-20s at the eldest, rather that putting him on a strictly developmental level with teammates as young as their late teens.
And Jordan got a hit at this level over 20% of the time. It’s a remarkable accomplishment; and the innuendo from Sports Illustrated and others back then that Jordan was somehow “embarrassing” himself, the White Sox, and baseball was nonsense. Hundreds upon hundreds of players have hit .202 or thereabouts in Double-A in the history of organized baseball, and their careers ended shortly thereafter, like Jordan’s. Such is the natural attrition of minor league baseball. The difference is, the professional baseball players that were not Michael Jordan who hit .202 at Double-A and bowed out of pro ball had done so after playing professionally for about four or five seasons, and had been concentrating on the game and becoming a pro since high school and/or college. Again, Jordan hit .202 after walking off a basketball court and into a big league camp.
That should be shocking, if you’re around professional baseball on a daily basis and realize just how high a level it’s played, on levels that aren’t considered high at all by the general sports populace. The ignorance of general scoffing at a minor league can be forgiven; not everyone realizes how good at baseball you have to be to struggle in Double-A, or in the Atlantic League, let alone be good at the higher levels of the minors. This is how Jordan’s brief baseball career has been miscast as a failure. If you’re telling me a guy can step into Double-A and hit .202 at 31 after a decade of his body being punished with the rigors of an NBA schedule, having last played baseball in high school, I’m telling you if that guy had gone on to play college baseball and been drafted, he’d have probably made it to the Majors or at minimum would’ve had a long and relatively productive minor league career, with a possible big league cup of coffee.
Embarrassment? It wouldn’t have been an embarrassment if Jordan hit .102. That’s not hyperbole, that’s how big of challenge the man was facing. .202 might have been a damned miracle before our eyes, more impressive than any shot over Craig Ehlo in the playoffs or crossing up Bryon Russell to win a sixth NBA title.
And just to dissuade anyone who might still have these thoughts in their head: No, if you were a fantastic high school player, you wouldn’t have hit .202 at Double-A. No, if you were a mediocre college baseball player, you wouldn’t have hit .202 in Double-A. And no, if you are tearing up a men’s league playing against the last two categories, you’d have no shot to hit .202 at Double-A. Michael Jordan might not have been a great professional baseball player, but he WAS a professional baseball player. Most that play baseball are not. That makes the 1994 Birmingham Barons season anything but an embarrassment 21 years later.
There is more than just my defense of Jordan’s .202 average in context to demonstrate his legitimacy as a baseball player. While raw as a ballplayer, Jordan’s athleticism more than translated to a sport that would assume a drastically different skill set than the one he was coming from. Jordan was one of only six Double-A players to steal 30 bases and drive in 50 runs in 1994, according to Sports Illustrated. He also registered six, six! outfield assists for Birmingham. He still struggled on defense, committing 11 errors, but how many of the greatest rightfielders playing in the minors or majors hose six guys on the basepaths in one season? Yes those runs saved may have been zeroed out by his 11 miscues, and his next level stats weren’t good either (just a .555 OPS), but most Double-A players are still developing, and the team winning is secondary in the eyes of the parent club next to that development. That’s my way of pointing out Jordan’s at-bats and innings were not a waste of time, and not in vain. Derek Jeter famously made a stunning 56 errors at short during his first full season at Class A in 1993. No I wouldn’t suggest Jordan would’ve achieved that level of greatness had baseball been his primary sport, but that stat helps make my point that Jordan was indeed a legitimate baseball player.
Had Jordan been a 19 to 21-year-old in his first year of pro baseball in the Class A South Atlantic League, like Harper, Stanton and Trout were at one time, and had thrown out six guys trying to take an extra base in a season, he’d immediately be labeled a prospect, or at least someone that could help the organization. And mind you he’d have hit much higher than .202 at that level, having been conditioned and formally trained as a baseball player.
There is a quiet, lost stat amidst Jordan’s year as a ballplayer which demonstrated his improvement, and to me more/less proves he had natural aptitude for the sport. He hit a downright respectable .252 in the Arizona Fall League following the 1994 season, a league with roster spots reserved for top minor league prospects, mostly for evaluation purposes of said players’ parent clubs.
While Jordan was hardly a “prospect,” his inclusion in the league by the White Sox made sense, if only because his celebrity forced their hand to see if Jordan, whose baseball clock was ticking much louder at 31, had any chance to be a MLB player. While that answer was pretty much no across the board, the fact he raised his average 50 points in games that were essentially at the same level as the ones he was coming from within a span of about eight months was pretty remarkable.
Maybe the more forgiving dry air of Arizona in October and November was easier for Jordan to deal with than the oppressive humidity of Birmingham and the rest of the Southern League. Or maybe Michael Jordan was just as driven as a baseball player as he was as a basketball player. The classic, yet true motivational tale of Jordan being cut from his junior high school basketball team before building himself into a global icon has been told time and again. On a somewhat similar note, had he entered highly competitive baseball earlier, his story probably turns out different there as well.
One thing I won’t do is travel the tenuous road of defending Jordan’s baseball career with outlandish comparisons, such as “Jordan hit .202, I don’t think Frank Thomas (former high school basketball player) could have played for the Bulls and shot 20%.” While that’s probably true, and it’s a good looking comparison for Jordan, it’s a bridge too far. I think it’s fair to say our very best athletes, while their skills so specialized to their sport, might have marginal success if they had tried other sports, thanks simply to the natural athleticism and talent, buttressed with the hard work required to become a professional that made them world class athletes in the first place. But I hope I’ve demonstrated, within the context I’ve provided, that Jordan’s “success” in baseball was relative, and not marginal considering the depth of the challenge he faced.
Success for Michael Jordan seems to come in threes. Three seasons at North Carolina and a National Championship thanks to him, and two sets of three NBA championships on each side of his baseball career. And the handful of Southern League fans which happened to be at three of the most remarkable 127 professional baseball games ever played I doubt would remember Jordan’s time with the White Sox as a failure.
In each of those games, Michael Jordan hit a home run.
Michael Jordan did play in one “Major League” game however. The Cubs hosted the White Sox at Wrigley Field prior to the 1994 season (pre-interleague play), and Jordan started in right field, batting sixth. (One spot ahead of White Sox catcher and now former Camden Riversharks manager Ron Karkovice.) It’s a great video worth your time; not only because it starts with an interview with Harry Caray. Not only did Jordan handle himself in right field in a MLB setting, he also pulled two hits down the left field line during the game, a single and then a double. He drove in a run on each, for a 2-for-4 day. He had the talent; the fact someone as seasoned to the big stage as Jordan wasn’t intimidated by playing at Wrigley is no surprise.