The feeling of seeing a sports legend in a different jersey underwent a twist in 1994.
Michael Jordan left the Bulls, stunning the basketball world and beyond, in order to play Double-A baseball for the Birmingham Barons.
Why? Jordan said at the time the recent death of his father, James Jordan Sr., who was shot to death in a sports car Michael had recently purchased for him, inspired him to try. Baseball was James’ favorite sport. Besides, Jordan had proven his basketball dominance.
So, he ended up playing for the Double-A farm team of the Chicago White Sox, a team owned by Jerry Reinsdorf, who also owned the Bulls. Terry Francona managed the team.
Jordan walked into a sport he had been away from since high school. He was now a 6-foot-6, 31-year-old, who became one of the world’s greatest athletes. But, nothing about his athletic pedigree assured he could accomplish a perpetually difficult task: hitting a baseball.
If Jordan shot 30 percent one season, he would be another guy who made it, very briefly, to the NBA. If he had a 30 percent success rate at the plate, he would end up in the major leagues for a decade. What counted as failure in each sport remains decidedly different.
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, a Chicago native who views Jordan as his favorite athlete, and spent his formative baseball years as a scout, saw a daunting task before Jordan. He also was impressed Jordan went for it.
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“I give credit, kudos for attempting it,” Rizzo told NBC Sports Washington. “There’s not many people with the broad appeal and the domination of a sport like basketball that’s going to risk the embarrassment of trying to play major-league baseball. That to me, personified what this guy was all about.. He was an athletic player on the basketball court. His skills, his body type, his quick-twitch lended for him to have all the skills and all the tools to be a great NBA player and NBA scorer.
“What people forget about is Jordan’s footwork, in my mind, offensively when he invented that fadeaway jump shot that was almost as unstoppable as Kareem’s Skyhook, is his defense, his mentality. Defense is all about athleticism and mentality and he had it in spades. It was something you could see was just burnt into him. To take that skill set and bring it to baseball, mentally, I thought it was a good matchup.”
There’s a large “but” to follow.
“I thought his body type, I’ve never seen him play up close and personally in the minor leagues, but seeing him on film, that body lends to success in the NBA but it’s a difficult body type to succeed hitting a baseball in the big leagues,” Rizzo said. “Long-levered guys, there’s just not a whole lot of them that have succeeded. The Dave Winfields of the world, and the Willie McCoveys. It’s a difficult body type and to me I thought I read he hadn’t played from like high school to that point.
“And you take off that sport, that’s such a finite skill set, for that long, the odds of him playing in the big leagues were astronomical. But, again, give the guy credit for doing something that could have easily embarrassed him and having such self-confidence and self-image within himself, said, screw it, I’m going to go for it.”
Jordan’s .556 OPS that single minor-league season proved Rizzo’s thoughts to be accurate. He stole 30 bases in 127 games (and was caught 18 times). He made 11 errors in 119 games in the outfield, but had six assists. Flashes of his world-class athletic ability existed. Unfortunately for Jordan, the reality of baseball shrouded them.
The following NBA season, he averaged 26.9 points, his lowest total since the 1985-86 season, his second season in the league. Jordan played just 17 regular-season games. He averaged 31.5 points per game in the playoffs. Chicago lost to Orlando in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The next three years? He led the league in scoring, and the Bulls put together another three-peat using those long-levers that betrayed him in baseball to again dominate basketball. So, baseball didn’t work, but it also didn’t leave a mark.
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