On Oct. 6, 1994, Michael Jordan shocked the world when he retired from the game of basketball at the peak of his career to pursue a dream of playing professional baseball.
It’s not every day that a 29-year-old with very little injury history steps away from their professional sport during their prime, but Jordan cited the recent death of his father – who loved baseball – and a fading love for the game of basketball as the main reasons he wanted to chase a different career path in a press conference with Chicago media.
Nine-straight All-Star appearances, seven-straight scoring titles (averaging over 30.0 points per game each year), six-straight All-NBA and All-Defensive First Team selections, two MVPs, one Defensive Player of the Year honour and most importantly, three-consecutive NBA Championships. That is the resume that Jordan left behind when he elected to take his talents to baseball.
As the most popular athlete on the planet and undeniably the best player in the NBA at the time, the news shook the league, though rumors and reports had begun to leak out the day or two before. When Jordan officially announced his next career move, his decision was pretty much the worst-kept secret in sports.
Was Michael Jordan good at baseball?
Jordan officially signed with the White Sox — Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf owned the Sox, too — on Feb. 7, 1994, 10 days before his 31st birthday. He’d been regularly taking batting practice at Comiskey Park, and he’d talked pretty openly about his desire to try his hand at baseball, now that he’d hung up his very famous sneakers.
Jordan loved playing baseball as a kid. His father loved baseball. Jordan nearly gave baseball a shot the previous summer.
So when he stepped away from the basketball court officially, he decided to try baseball the next spring, partially as a tribute to his father, who had been murdered in the summer of 1993.
But the motivation — and work — he put into becoming a better baseball player? Well, that was the inner drive that helped make him into a basketball superstar. He was intensely competitive, and it didn’t matter what the competition was. This story, written by longtime Sporting News columnist Dave Kindred, ran in the Jan. 17, 1994, issue of TSN (published about a month before he officially signed with the White Sox).
All of this hot stove talk reminded Jerry Krause of a story. Krause built the Bulls into a three-time NBA champion after a decade as a baseball executive. Whenever Jordan went off on one of his I-can-do-anything speeches — Jerry Reinsdorf says that Jordan once bowled two strikes by throwing the ball backward between his legs — Krause would be there to challenge Jordan’s claims.
“Michael was always talking about himself as a baseball hitter,” Krause said. “So I said, ‘Let’s go to Comiskey, and you get in there against a batting practice pitcher. You won’t hit one out of the infield.”
So, Jerry, what happened?
“Michael hit a couple in the seats.”
Jordan started slowly in spring training games, which was to be expected. No amount of swings in the cages — against a pitching machine or batting-practice pitcher — could have possibly prepared him for live, major league caliber pitchers.
In typical Jordan fashion, though, he did have this unforgettable spring training moment on April 7, when he went 2-for-5 in the Windy City Classic exhibition game against the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
“I don’t think I’ve proven I can make the team,” Jordan told writers that spring, as reported in TSN’s Chicago White Sox team notes. “That’s just being honest. … But I’m not going to give up. I’m trying to squeeze five years into eight weeks. It just hasn’t happened the way I wanted it to.”
What were Michael Jordan’s baseball stats?
Jordan played 127 regular-season games for the Birmingham Barons, the White Sox’s Double-A affiliate, in 1994. Here are the basics:
None of those regular-season numbers are particularly good, as you can see. The 30 stolen bases are nice, but the 18 times he was caught stealing negated that value.
Here’s a bit of context: Yes, he only hit three home runs, but nobody really hit homers for the Barons that year. They popped 40 as a team, last in the Double-A Southern League. Jacksonville, then a Seattle affiliate, led the league with 131, and every other team other than the Barons hit at least 63. Jordan did hit all three of his homers in the second half of the Barons’ season, even though his average took a bit of a tumble after a decent start (he hit .265 in his first month with Birmingham).
Jordan struck out 114 times in 497 plate appearances. That’s 22.9 percent of his PAs. The league average in the Southern League that year was 16.4 percent, pretty significantly below Jordan’s rate. But maybe he was ahead of his time. Know what the average MLB strikeout percentage was in 2019? Exactly 23.0 percent.
Jordan played right field for the Barons. He struggled at times, but by all reports seemed to get better as the season progressed.
Here’s something you might have forgotten: Jordan didn’t quit on his baseball dream immediately after the 1994 season, even though that major-league season ended in August with the players strike. Jordan played in the Arizona Fall League that year, batting .317 in his first 41 at-bats and finishing with a .252 average in 123 ABs.
Could Michael Jordan have played in MLB?
Terry Francona, who went on to a fair bit (OK, a TON) of success as a MLB manager, was his manager in Birmingham and in the AFL. He said, as quoted in TSN, “He just needs to play. He hasn’t played that much. It’s a good building block for next year.”
Even though the MLB strike continued into the 1995 season, minor league players were not affected, so Jordan showed up at spring training. He departed when the official spring training games with replacement players were set to begin, as neither Jordan nor the White Sox had any intention of getting him involved with that ugly element of the game.
In March, Jordan returned to basketball. The what-if of baseball would never be answered.
“I do think with another 1,000 at-bats, he would’ve made it,” Francona said, as quoted in this ESPN article. “But there’s something else that people miss about that season. Baseball wasn’t the only thing he picked up. I truly believe that he rediscovered himself, his joy for competition. We made him want to play basketball again.”
Maybe he would have eventually made the big leagues. Probably not, but maybe. He was ticketed for Triple-A Nashville for the 1995 season. And if that was his only goal, there’s no doubt he would have put in the work necessary. But starting at 31, without more than batting cage swings, he was just so far behind the players he was competing against.
From another Kindred column in TSN, shortly after Jordan returned to the Bulls.
Early in Jordan’s season at Double-A Birmingham, Rangers pitching instructor Tom House said: “He is attempting to compete with hitters who have seen 350,000 fastballs in their pro lives and 204,000 breaking balls. Baseball is a function of repetition. If Michael had pursued baseball out of high school, I don’t doubt he would have wound up making as much money in baseball as basketball. But he’s not exactly tearing up Double-A, and that’s light years from the big leagues. At Double-A, pitchers can’t spot the fastball and the breaking ball. It will take him several years to learn the chess game played by big-league pitchers with exceptional control.”
Returning to basketball was the right decision, of course. He led the Bulls to three more NBA titles — in 1996, 1997 and 1998.
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