The passage of time accomplishes plenty — but not all.
Seven years after writing the 1994 story topped by a cover headline that so incensed Michael Jordan that Jordan never spoke to Sports Illustrated again, Steve Wulf wrote an apology column for ESPN The Magazine.
Wulf, the decorated longtime journalist, reported and wrote an even more detailed mea culpa in April 2019 for the same publication on the 25-year anniversary of Jordan’s baseball foray.
That experiment, which followed Jordan’s stunning first retirement from basketball, is also viewed more favorably by decades falling off the calendar, including in Episode 7 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary. The challenge rejuvenated Jordan, who returned to the NBA in 1995 when a labor dispute sidelined baseball.
But time hasn’t healed one wound. Jordan still won’t talk to Sports Illustrated.
“I think he’s perfectly within his rights to maintain that stance. The headline was over the top,” Wulf said during a phone conversation. “And I know SI thought, ‘Well, we put him on the cover so many times. What’s the big deal about this?’ Well, you know what, we disrespected him.”
The headline in question — “Bag It, Michael. Jordan and the White Sox Are Embarrassing Baseball” — ran by a photo of Jordan swinging and missing a pitch by a significant margin. In “The Last Dance,” Jordan admitted he felt betrayed by the treatment.
“Going back and reading my original story, it was snarky. And I was pretty hard on him. But it certainly didn’t match the headline that Sports Illustrated put on the cover,” Wulf said. “I did acknowledge in the story that he was working hard and that he was willing to go from being ‘The Guy’ to being one of the guys. He was pursuing a dream, which was great. But at the time, I didn’t see any real natural ability. That’s basically the story I wrote.”
Wulf, who said he has been “entranced” by the documentary, knew that the film would eventually tackle Jordan’s baseball sojourn. Episode 7 didn’t use a current interview of Wulf, instead airing an old interview of him calling Jordan’s attempt to play baseball “delusional.”
Editors write headlines, not reporters or writers. In the original story, which Jordan is quoted in from group interviews, Wulf also reported on the significant, initial skepticism that Jordan faced.
“It felt like a commercial marketing enterprise as much as anything else. That’s what turned off the baseball hardliners. I was definitely in that chorus,” Wulf said. “But once that headline came out and I had to take a lot of guff for it, I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, people are going to be asking about this 25 years from now.’ And here we are.”
Indeed, the passage of time has validated Jordan’s pure intentions to chase a boyhood dream, complete with the blessing of his late father, James. Couple Jordan’s natural athletic gifts with his legendary work ethic, and progress from Jordan's Spring Training in Sarasota, Fla. to a Double-A assignment with the Birmingham (Ala.) Barons was almost inevitable.
Wulf, who already knew then-Barons manager Terry Francona, followed and noticed Jordan's progress himself back in 1994. He eventually traveled to Birmingham in August of that year to report and write a story on Jordan’s progress. It never ran.
“They basically told me to, ‘Bag It, Steve.’” Wulf joked. “We’re not interested in doing a mea culpa.
“I was blown away by how much he had improved. He had become a legitimate baseball player. He was totally willing to become just one of the guys in the clubhouse. He really was interested in becoming a better baseball player. And he worked really hard at it.”
Wulf left Sports Illustrated for a stint at Time Magazine shortly thereafter before joining ESPN in 1997.
Francona, who later won two World Series with the Red Sox, has said many times, including in “The Last Dance,” that working with Jordan made him a better manager.
As both Francona and hitting coach Mike Barnett opine in “The Last Dance,” Wulf said he believes Jordan would’ve made it to The Show had the labor dispute never happened.
“He would’ve probably needed another year at Triple-A. But he did great in the Arizona Fall League after Birmingham. And given his natural talents and work ethic and sense of competition, I think he could’ve been in the majors in 1996,” Wulf said. “Tito (Francona) and Mike Barnett the (Barons) hitting coach to this day maintain had Jordan got another 1,500 at bats, he would’ve made it. He might not have been a starting outfielder. But he could’ve been a fourth or fifth outfielder.”
Instead, Jordan returned to the Bulls. And the passage of time accomplished plenty. Such as, in a nod to Francona’s later success, what Wulf wrote in his 2019 ESPN The Magazine piece:
“How many last-place Southern League teams can claim they're responsible for winning two World Series and three NBA titles?”