On February 7, 1994, 20 years ago this weekend, Michael Jordan tried his hand at baseball. He decided to do this four months after putting the sports world on its ear by retiring from the NBA after completing the Bulls’ first three-peat. It’s not like he had lost a step in the NBA Finals series, it looked like he had gained six averaging almost 42 points for the series. There were some rumblings about an investigation of gambling allegations (which annoyed the daylights out of me to this day, plus he was cleared) but I feel the real reason he retired is because he never got the opportunity to properly grieve the death of his father James Jordan, who was murdered at a rest stop in Lumberton, NC. I grew up in a small town of Laurinburg NC, 10-15 minutes away from Lumberton so I can tell you this town is very small. Small enough to say that this was a senseless killing that has to haunt Michael Jordan to this day.
Mr. Jordan always wanted his son to play baseball. I know it seems strange considering that your son is the greatest player in the world at the time and would go on to be the one of the greatest ever, but think for a second. There have been plenty of stories of great basketball players that have no desire to play professionally. An example is Walter Davis who went on to have a long career in the NBA but his brother was the best player in the family. The closeness between father and son coupled with a boat-load of people saying that he could not do it…hello challenge! “You can tell me I can’t do something,” Jordan said “And I’m going to do it.” This journey lasted 18 months and he retired. He went back to basketball and then the rest was history.
Look, everyone focuses on two numbers for Michael Jordan’s baseball career. The numbers are 45, his uniform number and .202 his career batting average. To all the people who laughed saying I told you so I have one question, Have you ever hit a curve ball? I remember the famous SI cover back in 1994. Folks that is a curve ball he swung and missed on. I gave up on my baseball dreams when I realized I couldn’t hit one either. I believe if Jordan had stuck around a few years longer he could have been a serviceable baseball player. It takes YEARS to learn how to read the spin on the ball and have the discipline to hold your bat back and wait for the break of the ball. It’s not like he didn’t work hard. His minor league coach at the time Terry Francona, the manager for the Birmingham Barons went on record as saying no one worked harder. I assume the man knew what he was talking about, he went on to eliminate the Boston Curse winning two World Series titles as a manager for the Boston Red Sox. For the year, it was hit and miss for Jordan who committed 11 errors and six assists in right field. On the other hand, Jordan was one of only six players in Double A to have 30 stolen bases and 50 RBIs that season.
After Jordan’s stint with the Barons, he reported to the Scottsdale Scorpions of the Arizona Fall League. One of his teammates was Nomar Garciaparra, the longtime shortstop of the Boston Red Sox. He hit .252 during that tenure. By this time he had got the “itch” for the round ball again and starting working out with the Bulls.
I have a lot of respect for Michael Jordan now that I am older for what he tried to accomplish. In 1994, I was 21 years old and felt the same way the world did…selfish. I felt I was being deprived of greatness, being deprived of what could have been the greatest dynasty since the Celtics of the 60’s. I wanted to see how far the championship run would go. In 1994 Michael Jordan wanted to do something that a lot of us are afraid or are unwilling to do…leave your comfort zone and try another challenge. He could have easily gotten a spot on the Chicago White Sox bench. Trust me. Jerry Reinsdorf is the owner of the White Sox as well. You think that Jerry saw dollar signs with the most marketable athlete in the world on your bench? As much as he loves money? All in all, Michael Jordan was an inspiration to people who want to go out on a limb and make their dreams come true. He ended up being a role model without the marketing term “Be Like Mike”. If we had been paying attention to the slogan, maybe there would have been no criticism.
James Jordan would have been proud.