McGrath: 20 years after Jordan tried and failed, baseball’s still tough

Staff writerMarch 29, 2014 

JORDAN

Birmingham Baron's outfielder Michael Jordan prepares for batting practice on the first day of practice as a minor league ball player on April 6, 1994.

DAVE MARTIN — ASSOCIATED PRESS

Twenty years ago – on March 31, 1994 – the Chicago White Sox assigned an outfielder of dubious potential to their minor league system.

At 6-foot-6, strong and quick and unusually coordinated, his athletic skills were obvious. But as a baseball prospect, at the age of 31, he was a long shot; somebody whose raw talent needed years to polish.

Michael Jordan gave it one season. In the spring of 1995, Jordan returned to the sport he was destined to dominate, announcing his comeback with a two-word press release:

“I’m back.”

The reasons behind Jordan’s startling decision to retire from basketball in his prime – he had led the Chicago Bulls to three consecutive NBA championships, and would lead them to three more, all in a row – remain obscure. Grieving the death of his father, murdered at a highway truck stop, Jordan insisted it was a simple case of basketball burn out.

Conspiracy theorists posed another explanation: The NBA, which long had known of Jordan’s participation in high-stakes games at legal casinos, slapped him with a suspension for gambling outside legal casinos.

Whatever happened is secondary to a fascinating fact: Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player in the world, devoted a year of his life toward swinging a bat and attempting to make contact with baseballs that approached him at various speeds and trajectories.

He wasn’t good at it.

Jordan hit .202 for the Double-A Birmingham Barons in 1994, with three home runs and 51 RBI. He stole 30 bases, a remarkable number for a .202 hitter and illustrative of his superior athleticism.

He also committed 11 errors, illustrative of a superior athlete’s challenge to make outfield plays regarded as routine.

But Jordan tried, earnestly tried, believing his fierce competitive instincts could overcome his struggle to chase down line drives, or recognize the late break of a pitch he presumed to be a fastball.

Major League Baseball could have celebrated Jordan’s attempt to reinvent himself in 1994, regardless of his mysterious motives, but careening toward a labor stalemate that ended up shutting down the season in August, the marketing of Michael was not a priority.

Reviews of Jordan’s spring training work, meanwhile, ranged from negativity to mockery. (Jordan didn’t help his case by referring to an umpire as a “ref.”)

Sports Illustrated published a cover story with the headline “Bag It, Michael!”

Randy Johnson, a Hall of Fame-bound left-hander who won the first of his five Cy Young Awards with the Mariners, took the mound with a general disdain for the human race. But Jordan’s quest to play baseball particularly irked him.

“He had better tie his Air Jordans real tight if I pitch to him,” Johnson groused. “I’d like to see how much air time he’d get on one of my inside pitches.”

You’d think a basketball superstar’s determination to excel on a baseball field in 2014 – or at least not embarrass himself – would be embraced with arms more open than they were 20 years ago.

Imagine, say, LeBron James quitting the Miami Heat for an opportunity to play outfield for the Jacksonville Suns, the Double-A affiliate of the Miami Marlins. James’ conversion from an NBA living legend to a bus-riding Marlins wannabe would be the ultimate endorsement of baseball’s allure, no?

Maybe not.

Jordan’s 1994 sojourn with the Birmingham Barons underscored the long odds of a world-class athlete mastering a difficult sport he hadn’t played since high school. Instead of inspiring kids to become curious about baseball, Jordan’s humiliating experience sent the opposite message: stick with basketball or football. Try soccer.

When the clock is down to its final ticks and a team is down to its final shot, there’s a place to hide on a basketball floor. And if you’re not a quarterback in football or a goalie in soccer, you can disappear without anybody noticing but the coach.

Baseball is different. Every starting position player is required to stand in the batter’s box and broach the possibility of striking out or, worse, getting plunked in the ear. A pitcher can delay a bases-loaded jam by stepping off the mound and taking a breath to collect himself, but if nobody’s ready in the bullpen, he’s got to return to the mound and deal.

The quarterback who breaks a huddle and sees a defensive alignment that surprises him typically calls for one of the three timeouts each football team is allowed per half. The point guard who can’t find a teammate open for a pass typically calls for one of the 148 timeouts allowed during the last minute of a basketball game.

Umpires will grant the batter a timeout in pro baseball, but only for a few seconds, and never for a chance to go over strategic options with the manager. Pitchers are permitted one such discussion per inning, but the “time out” is limited to maybe 15 seconds before the umpire ambles to the mound and decrees 15 more seconds of shop talk.

Otherwise, baseball players are on their own, with nowhere to hide and nobody available to reassure them.

Somewhere in this favored land, the sun was shining bright in 1994, and somewhere a public-address announcer bellowed: “Now batting for the Barons, No. 45, Michael Jordan.”

The best basketball player in the world usually followed his introduction by swinging at a pitch and missing it. But on those three occasions when Jordan made enough contact for the ball to carry over the fence, he had to dream of a future in the big leagues.

Michael Jordan never realized that dream, and never even came close. Which is just as well.

It spared him the chance of standing 60 feet, 6 inches away from Randy Johnson, seething and furious, with a baseball buried in his left hand, to be thrown toward an opponent unable to call a timeout.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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