By Father Gabe Costa
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Mr Joseph Lucas is our guest blogger for this installment of By The Numbers. He recalls how the perhaps greatest of all cagers, Michael Jordan, swapped a basketball for a baseball.
Joseph Lucas: “Remember, kid, there’s heroes and there’s legends. Heroes get remembered, but legends never die. Follow your heart, kid, and you’ll never go wrong.” A vision of the Great Bambino (the Sultan of Swat! the King of Crash! the Colossus of Clout!) gave this advice to a restless Benny Rodriguez in the 1993 movie The Sandlot. Benny immediately knows what needs to be done and the rest is history (well… a movie).
In October of 1993, Michael Jordan, the basketball legend, retired from the National Basketball Association (for the first time). This closely followed the premature death of his father; MJ was undoubtedly having a tough time. Maybe, like the case of Benny Rodriguez, the memory of a giant reminded him to “follow his heart.” By March 1994, he had reported to spring training for the minor league system of the Chicago White Sox.
Jordan had been tightlipped about the cause of his retirement from basketball and his decision to play baseball. Most research suggests that the young champion was suffering through emotional turmoil. As a young athlete, he was scouted for his ability in both sports. Obviously, he had an extremely successful initial career in the NBA (he won three consecutive championships, showing an unparalleled dominance of the game since Bill Russell). But it may be that his father, with whom he was famously close, had earlier urged his son towards a baseball career. While discussing his retirement with Jerry Reisdorf, an executive with the Chicago White Sox and Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, MJ remarked “I want to play baseball. It was my father’s dream that I become a baseball player.” Maybe Michael’s move to baseball was an attempt to honor his father.
MJ did one season in the minors with the Birmingham Barons before returning to the NBA (and winning several more championships). The statistics generated from that season are nothing legendary, but the story is. Imagine, NBA Superstar Michael Jordan retires young and decides to switch sports. The media coverage consumed the Barons’ season. People weren’t only curious about Jordan’s performance, but his attitude, his work ethic, his coachability and his impact with regard to locker room atmosphere. It was through these intangibles that MJ showed his true character and the heart of a champion. These are the characteristics that made Jordan “the greatest basketball player of all time” (according to his biography on the NBA website). But would they carry over to baseball?
Despite his unquestionable athleticism, Michael Jordan doubtlessly had to brush up on the finer points of baseball. It’s been said that hitting against a major league pitcher is perhaps the hardest single acts in all of sports. The speed, the motion, the reaction time, actually putting the bat on the ball… is not nearly as easy as it looks on TV. Assuming he had the natural ability, how would an athlete learn to hit the fastballs, changeups, curves and sliders that they would definitely face in the majors? Hard work. MJ is recorded as showing up for individual batting practice at 7:30 every morning, at times batting through bleeding hands to perfect his swing. His coach cited Michael as “the hardest working athlete he ever had.” While this extra BP allowed him to post decent numbers during his season in Birmingham, scouts later remarked that Jordan wasn’t able to consistently hit curveballs. However, baseball lifer Terry Francona remarked that MJ would have needed at least another two seasons to reach his real batting potential.
What else did MJ really bring to the table? His competitive spirit. That edge was ever present in his basketball career, but one demonstration of it in his baseball career is pretty comical. Many of his Birmingham teammates remarked about the force of his personality and competitive attitude coming out in a team hobby: ping-pong. There was at least one clubhouse tournament in which MJ was in the final (he lost, but maybe he thought it was a seven game series). One teammate said “Baseball players are competitive; every single one of them, but Michael took it to another level over a ping-pong game.”
Michael Jordan is arguably one of the best athletes to have ever lived. In his prime, he had strength, speed, coordination, leadership and the championship rings to prove it. He was and is a basketball legend. And Jordan’s stint on the diamond offers a further glimpse into both his character and the difficulty of baseball. MJ was an extraordinary athlete and devoted his entire character and work ethic towards his baseball career. “This is a guy who with more time, he had a chance,” Darrin Jackson, a teammate, said. “Because of his determination, he would have probably made it. I’ve never seen anyone work harder than him.” While his first season statistics (batted .202) were nothing special, that is more a testament to the difficulty of the game than Jordan’s athleticism. The skills necessary to be a successful baseball player have to be developed and refined over years. While Jordan did play some ball growing up, his eventual focus on basketball during his formative years certainly cut into his baseball skill development time. If those years had instead been spent playing baseball, it is quite possible that MJ would have been able to be a successful baseball player. The skill required to be a consistent batter may be one of the most underrated in sports. Not only that, but baseball requires the speed, strength and judgment of other sports as well.
Jordan’s stint with the Birmingham Barons is a touching story. A young superstar, confused by the premature loss of his father, tries to find himself through the game of baseball. Everyone who witnessed the event speaks to the true depth of character of the man… his humility and dedication to greatness. The season also illustrated both Jordan’s extreme versatility as an athlete and the many challenges America’s pastime presents. In the end, it seems MJ must have found what he was looking for that season, as he returned to the NBA to win several more championships. Some people contend that his later basketball performance may not have been so successful without his baseball stint. They observed that he seemed to return refreshed with renewed focus and vigor.
In the final analysis, Benny Rodriguez said, “Man, this is baseball… just have fun.”
Michael Jordan had fun in two sports.