In 1993, Michael Jordan was already the most famous athlete on the planet. His basketball team, the Chicago Bulls, had just won their third consecutive NBA championship and seemed poised to win more. Jordan, only 31 years old, was on top of the world.
Except that he didn't feel that way. As Jordan's fame grew, his privacy diminished, and he seemed to be having less fun on the basketball court. The 1992 Olympics had made him a global star, and there was no place where he could take a vacation. Moreover, he was an avid golf gambler, and when the media learned that he had lost hundreds of thousands of dollars to unsavory characters, Jordan first felt the sting of the tabloid machine.
Then his father died. James Jordan had been driving late at night that summer, and he pulled over to the side of the road to rest. A group of thugs stole the car and killed him.
It was a horrible ordeal for Michael, and one that forced him to re-think his priorities. James' funeral was a public affair, a fact that sickened Michael. Couldn't he get away? Couldn't he return to a more innocent time?
Couldn't he play baseball?
At the news conference, Jordan was a little sassy. He referred to the media as "you guys" 21 times. He commented that this was the first time that so many media members showed up to do a story on him that didn't involve a scandal.
At first, Jordan did not say what he would do as a retiree. But baseball had been in his mind for a long time; right after the 1993 NBA Finals, months before his retirement, Jordan instructed his trainer to prepare baseball drills. Jordan had not played baseball since high school, but he had fond memories of the sport. Moreover, his father had always loved taking him to Little League games.
Conveniently, the owner of the Chicago Bulls, Jerry Reinsdorf, also owned the Chicago White Sox baseball team. It was no trouble to invite Jordan to the White Sox' spring training in February of 1994. Predictably, spring training became a media circus, as hundreds of reporters watched Jordan strike out and wondered if he would earn a roster spot in a publicity stunt. (One of the more savage critiques came from Sports Illustrated, whose cover story read, "Bag It, Michael." It was years before Jordan forgave the magazine.)
But many observers applauded Jordan. He worked as hard as anyone else, arriving at 6:30 in the morning and leaving at sundown. He did not pretend that he was as talented as the "real" major leaguers. This did not stop thousands of fans coming to watch his every move; in one memorable scene, having been told to pick up stray baseballs, he shot fadeaway jumpers into the bucket.
Jordan did not make the White Sox. Instead he was sent to the Birmingham Barons, the AA affiliate of the White Sox in the minor leagues. There, he continued to work hard, but in 436 at-bats the outfielder batted a disappointing .202 with 46 runs and 51 RBIs. He stole 30 bases, which is good, but he was also thrown out 18 times, which is not.
By all accounts he was the perfect teammate. His teammates were hopeful kids and washed-up veterans who made nowhere near the $30 million annually Jordan still earned from Nike, but Jordan impressed them with his work ethic. His wealth also made friends on the team. Instead of flying on chartered jets, minor-leaguers traveled via 10-hour bus trips; ever magnanimous, Jordan chartered a luxury bus that was quickly christened as the "JordanCruiser." (It is still in operation in Birmingham and is available for rentals.)
But try as he might, Jordan was not going to be a baseball player. His instincts still defaulted toward basketball; he continually referred to umpires as "refs." More damning was his body type at 6-foot-6, Jordan had a huge strike zone, and his skinny legs were not helpful as a hitter. Baseball players may look fat, but they depend on enormous abdominal and thigh muscles to torque their bodies when swinging. As many scouts said, Jordan just didn't have good bat speed.
As the baseball season ended in the fall of 1994, Jordan kept up with his former teammates on the Bulls, especially guard B.J. Armstrong. Jordan asked up about the newer players in the league Latrell Sprewell, Jason Kidd, Anfernee Hardaway. Jordan's basketball itch was coming back.
In their infinite wisdom, baseball's owners sealed the deal. The end of the 1994 major-league season was wiped out by a nasty players' strike, and during the winter the negotiations made no progress. The owners, taking a "screw 'em" approach, forced minor-leaguers to come to the major-league camps in the spring of 1995 and become scabs, if need be. (The Baltimore Orioles were an exception). Jordan would have no part of this, and he quit baseball and returned to the Chicago Bulls for the end of the basketball season.
In his NBA return, Jordan was good but not his usual self. He wasn't in shape for a basketball season, and his productivity was inconsistent. The Bulls lost in the playoffs to the Orlando Magic, led by Hardaway, Shaquille O'Neal and former Bulls power forward Horace Grant. Even with Jordan back at guard, the Bulls couldn't contend with the Magic's strong post players.
After the loss a reporter asked Jordan if the Magic's victory represented a changing of the guard. Jordan shook his head. "We're just a rebounder away a power forward away," he said.
That off-season, the Bulls signed Dennis Rodman.
They would then win the next three consecutive NBA championships.
HALBERSTAM, D. (1999) Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made. New York City, Random House.
WULF, S. (March 14, 1994) Err Jordan in Sports Illustrated. New York City, AOL Time Warner. On the Internet at: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/basketball/nba/1999/jordan_retires/archive/940314/
BIRMINGHAM BARONS WEB SITE. Michael Jordan. On the Internet at: http://www.barons.com/jordan.shtml