‘The Last Dance’ helps show Michael Jordan was a promising baseball player — but could he have made the majors?
“Major League” Michael Jordan – has a ring to it, huh?
The Last Dance – ESPN’s docuseries about the rise of the Chicago Bulls’ championship dynasty in the early-to-late 1990s – shed new light on Michael Jordan’s foray into baseball after retiring from basketball in 1993.
And from the looks of things, whether Jordan could have made it to the majors is actually up for debate.
— MLB (@MLB) May 11, 2020
Jordan’s decision to leave the hardwood and make his way to the diamond stunned the sports world. He signed a minor league contract with the Chicago White Sox in early 1994, an organization that was owned by Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf. We learned in The Last Dance that Jordan had begun telling those close to him at least a year prior that he was going to leave basketball for baseball, a plan he discussed with his father before his death in the summer of 1993.
Following spring training in 1994, Jordan was sent to the White Sox’s minor league affiliate, the Double-A Birmingham Barons. There, Jordan found some success, despite having not played organized baseball since his senior year at Laney High School in Wilmington, North Carolina.
After not playing baseball since high school, Michael Jordan jumped right into AA at age 31 :
MJ also played in the Arizona Fall League and hit .252 pic.twitter.com/ArD3Bj0imh
— Starting 9 (@Starting9) May 11, 2020
However, a strike-shortened MLB season in 1994-95 helped trigger Jordan’s return to the NBA the following spring. And after falling short in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 1995, Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to three more championships in 1996, 1997, and 1998.
But there’s always that ‘what if.’
In this case, what if Jordan had stuck with baseball? Would he have made it to the major leagues? Just how good was MJ on the diamond?
Michael Jordan hitting .200 in Double-A after not playing baseball for a decade is one of the most impressive athletic achievements ever. I’ll be taking no further questions at this time.
— Céspedes Family BBQ (@CespedesBBQ) May 11, 2020
It’s a question the sports world is asking thanks to a man who knows a thing or two about both title-level, big league ball and Jordan himself. Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona – a 2-time World Series champion as manager for the Boston Red Sox in 2004 and 2007 – managed the Birmingham Barons during Jordan’s baseball-break, and he had a front row seat during MJ’s first season.
Francona said this week that he believes that with more time, Jordan would have worked his way to the highest level, just based on his drive to be the best.
“I think if he would have been willing to commit three years, I think he would have found his way to the major leagues. I really believe that. One, because of some of the tools he had, but the other one, and maybe more important, and I found out firsthand, when you tell Michael ‘no,’ he finds the answer to be yes.”
And when you look at the numbers, Francona seems to have a point.
Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci broke it all down:
Jordan totaled 51 runs batted in, 51 walks and 30 stolen bases. How impressive is that combination? Over the previous four seasons, there have been 1,218 player/years in the White Sox organization, majors and minors included. None of them reached the thresholds of RBIs, walks and stolen bases that marked Jordan’s year at Birmingham.
Take a longer view to further appreciate what Jordan did in his first year in pro ball. Over the past 30 seasons (1990–2019), there were roughly 8,000 player/years in the White Sox organization. Among all those yearly statistical lines, which include combined minor league stats for players at multiple levels, Jordan is one of only nine players to reach 51 RBIs, 51 walks and 30 stolen bases. Five of those nine players reached the big leagues.
SI Daily Cover: Michael Jordan was good enough to eventually reach the majors, writes Tom Verducci, but baseball didn't know how to grapple with its most famous minor leaguer https://t.co/PLMLi5ZSfO pic.twitter.com/r5GXBTTpqh
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) May 11, 2020
Jordan did don a White Sox uniform once in his time on the diamond, for an exhibition game at Wrigley Field in the spring of 1994 against the crosstown rival Chicago Cubs.
Already with an RBI single on the day, MJ laced an RBI double down the third base line late in the game, tying the score. The double came off of Chuck Crim, an 8-year MLB veteran.
Even the Wrigley faithful cheered for the Chicago legend.
One thing is for sure: Jordan had the “one of the guys” aspect of baseball down to a science, at least according to San Francisco Chronicle columnist Scott Ostler, who covered MJ’s year in Birmingham for the Chronicle decades ago.
Wrote Ostler in a recent column:
Jordan was a source of awe in Birmingham, but behind the scenes, he was just one of the fellas, a scufflin’ minor-leaguer, enjoying the adventure.
Looking back, that season must have been a massive emotional relief for Jordan. The main theme in “The Last Dance” is how Jordan drove his teammates relentlessly, a bully and tyrant. In Birmingham, Jordan didn’t have to lead or bully. He couldn’t have done that even if he wanted to. A guy hitting .200 can’t be a tyrannical leader, he can only hope to fit in, and Jordan did.
In 1994, Michael Jordan quit basketball to play minor-league baseball in Birmingham, Ala. @scottostler was there to cover it for The Chronicle, and it was one of the oddest assignments he’s ever had. https://t.co/Vedm7KiG3P
— San Francisco Chronicle (@sfchronicle) May 13, 2020
Yet despite Jordan’s early success, on the diamond and in the locker room, not everyone was convinced that he had a future in the big leagues.
Shannon Sharpe argues that due to his age, being a star in the baseball majors just wasn’t in the cards for Jordan.
“Two, three, four seasons in the minors? He didn’t have that kind of time … Only the best would have done for him. He would have needed to be Barry Bonds, he would have needed what we see of Mike Trout now in order to deem that a success. I don’t know if he would have been able to stick around long enough to wait it out at that point in time. He was 31, 32 years of age – and to stick around another three or four years – I don’t see it happening.”
"I always felt that MJ would come back to basketball, so I don't believe he would've been around long enough to make it to the majors. Also, 14 years is too much time for someone to be away from baseball and come back to try and compete at the highest level."
— UNDISPUTED (@undisputed) May 11, 2020
Jordan was 31 years old during his time with the Barons.
Jim Souhan of the Minnesota Star Tribune, who saw Jordan play in spring training back in 1994, gave his assessment of Jordan’s baseball ability after watching the latest episodes of The Last Dance – and his review isn’t glowing.
What should be remembered is that Jordan was considered the world’s greatest athlete at that time. He possessed otherworldly hand-eye coordination, work ethic, strength, agility, flexibility and gamesmanship. He was a brilliant and ruthless competitor. And he hit .202 with no power against kids, many of whom wouldn’t make it to the big leagues or stay there long.
— Star Tribune Sports (@StribSports) May 15, 2020
Former NBA superstar Tracy McGrady, also a baseball lover who pitched in the Atlantic League for four starts, wasn’t as down on Jordan’s skills on the diamond as he was unconvinced that MJ would stick to baseball, due in large part to his love for the game that made him an international superstar.
“MJ was mentally and physically just drained from the game … and so to take that break, go play baseball, which I think was probably his first love, he got a chance to reset his mind. Get away from basketball and all the scrutiny that he had with the game of basketball – and then he started to miss it. He started to miss the game that he truly loved.”
Hmm…if only I knew a Hall of Fame basketball player who also dabbled in minor-league baseball who I could ask about Michael Jordan's stint with the Birmingham Barons… OH WAIT I DO…Here's what Tracy McGrady had to say about MJ's flirtation with MLB: pic.twitter.com/0eYhPwDC6D
— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) May 12, 2020
Would Jordan have been an MLB All-Star? Probably not.
But could he have made the major leagues? Well, based on what we’ve seen from Jordan when a challenge is placed in front of him, we wouldn’t rule it out.
Whatever the sport, we’re lucky to have had His Airness. No one will ever doubt that.