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Most every sports fan knows Michael Jordan gave baseball a try. Right after winning a 3rd NBA championship in a row, he retired to pursue a dream of playing in Major League Baseball. Most every new baseball fan wonders, Was Michael Jordan good at baseball?
Most baseball people will say Michael Jordan was decently good at baseball ~ considering he had not played the game competitively since high school before being thrown into the mid-level minor leagues, and competing against true prospects. However, in terms of Major League talent, almost all baseball insiders would say he might have been average, if that.
Jordan is known by most as the best player ever in the National Basketball Association ~ or on any court in the world, for that matter. He twice won 3 consecutive championships, claimed multiple scoring championships and most valuable player awards, and was known as a clutch performer and very fierce competitor.
Yet the difficulty of hitting a round ball coming at you fast with a round stick proved extremely difficult for someone who at the time was among the very elite of athletes on Earth.
“He had it all. Ability, aptitude, work ethic. He was always so respectful of what we were doing and considerate of his teammates,” said Terry Francona, Jordan’s manager the only season he played with the AA-level Birmingham Barons. Francona later went on to win 2 World Series championships as manager of the Boston Red Sox, and today remains a successful manager for the Cleveland Indians.
“I do think with another 1,000 at-bats, he would’ve made it,” said Francona.
Yet, Francona seems an outlier from other opinions. Mostly, other judges of baseball talent acknowledged his foot speed and sheer athleticism, but questioned his skills in other areas primarily outfield defense, throwing arm, and especially his potential to hit well (and with power).
The general consensus was that maybe, just maybe, Jordan could have made it at the tail end of a Major League club’s 25-man roster, to come off the bench to pinch run, pinch hit, or help in the outfield. He still had at least one more regular season in the minors to learn through (AAA) ~ but ultimately he called it quits after the Arizona Fall League later in 1994.
Statistics from Jordan’s only year in the minors, 1994: .202 batting average, 3 home runs, 51 runs batted in, 51 bases on balls, 30 stolen bases and 17 doubles, over 127 games.
The numbers may seem underwhelming, but in certain areas they are at least of interest: the running speed is clear with a huge number of SBs for that many games, plus the doubles. Additionally, the 51 RBIs is rather impressive considering a limited number of base hits and home runs, so when he did make contact, he made it count much of the time. And the 51 walks indicated progress learning the strike zone and laying off “sucker pitchers” ~ a big deal to get through the minor leagues.
One must consider, too, that Jordan was 31 years old competing against men in their early 20s already with at least one season of minor league ball under their belts. Jordan had not played baseball competitively since age 18.
Plus, many future Major League ballplayers had underwhelming statistics in the minor leagues, among them Jeff Bagwell (8 home runs in 2 minor league seasons, a shortness of power that led the Boston Red Sox to trade him away to the Houston Astros, for a relief pitcher); former Marlins slugging infielder Dan Uggla; today’s star Josh Donaldson; and Hall of Fame member Roberto Clemente (he hit .257 in his only minor league season).
A lot of baseball professionals, experts, and fans will admit that minor league statistics are not always a good indicator of how a player will fare at the Major League level. On top of that, minor league players mostly are expected to improve year-to-year ~ and Jordan hit .257 in the Arizona Fall League after his AA season, and even was promoted to AAA ball before announcing his return to the NBA.
It’s unfortunate that Jordan played only a year of professional ball, because his performance at higher levels would have answered the question of whether Michael Jordan was a good baseball player, or not.
Many players who make it to the majors struggle in their first season in the minors. It’s a culture shock for most young men to go from living at home with parents, or in college dorms, to spending most of their time in hotels and on buses, broke most of the time.
Remember, Jordan went from cushy air travel and high-end hotels as an NBA player, only to jump right into long bus rides and crummy food, through the heat of summer in the South.
Jordan had to adjust to pitches at velocities higher than he experienced in high school. Just when it seemed he started to catch up to the fastballs, pitchers started feeding him a diet of breaking balls. The slider, in particular, caused him much grief.
But that’s true for almost every baseball player in the minor leagues, a reason why pro clubs have their prospects go from level to level of minor league ball. At each level, pitchers are better and more able to adjust to hitters who handle them well. Hitters, in turn, are expected to show that they, too, can adjust. And Jordan at least was showing hints of adjustment in fall 1994.
We’ll never really know if Jordan was “good” at baseball, or even above-average. We can only speculate due to his world-class athleticism, and unique drive to compete.
Statistics aside, did Jordan have any highlights from his 1994 venture into baseball? Certainly. Consider some of them:
- In the first month of his pro baseball career ~ a time of undeniable pressure for a world-renown athlete playing a different sport ~ Jordan showed off the clutch ability he displayed many times on basketball courts. On April 28, 1994, late in the game, Jordan drove a double that provided the go-ahead run. In the end, it was the game-winning RBI.
- Even before that, during spring training play, he laced a double down the left-field line against former major league pitcher Chuck Crim, knocking in a run that tied the score against the Chicago Cubs, in Wrigley Field in Chicago! He ended up with 2 RBIs for the game.
- As noted above, Jordan began hitting at least a little better in the more-instructional fall league. Starting to prove he could handle inside fastballs better, pitchers adjusted with a lot of breaking balls, which would test the patience of any new hitter. However in one game for his Scottsdale Scorpions, he waited back on a hanging curveball and sliced it to left-centerfield for a triple. (And then showed off his elite speed in the process!).
Michael Jordan is known by many as the best basketball player to ever step on a court, yet he sacrificed an NBA season in his prime to give professional baseball a go. That he played only a year at the minor-league level, and produced unimpressive statistics at that, made some question whether he was good at the game.
Still, there are some pro baseball experts, Major League managers among them, who believe Jordan just might have had enough baseball talent to reach the top level of play in that sport. They noted his solid work ethic, interest in learning and adjusting, and rate of improvement over a short period of baseball play, as attributes.
That Jordan quit baseball to resume domination in basketball (he returned to claim 3 more NBA titles, consecutively) means we’ll never know truly how good he was on the diamond.
Question: Have there been any other stars in other sports who struggled in baseball?
Answer: Yes. Perhaps the most well-known is football superstar Deion Sanders, who played in the Major Leagues for a few years in the early 1990s (including in a World Series, for the Atlanta Braves against the Minnesota Twins). Sanders was played more for his speed and outfield defense than for his hitting. Danny Ainge, who went on to win NBA championships with the Boston Celtics, played baseball briefly in the Toronto Blue Jays organization.
Q.: What position did Michael Jordan play in baseball?
A.: Outfield. He was not considered a good outfielder, at least initially. Some reports noted that his arm strength improved at least a bit as that year progressed. It would seem with his height that he might have made a decent first baseman, but with his foot speed it’s doubtful anyone would have tried that.
Q.: Did his minor league baseball teammates support Michael Jordan?
A.: Yes. Consider this comment from his hitting coach that summer with the Birmingham Barons, Mike Barnett: “Two more seasons, he would’ve been a legitimate extra outfielder for the White Sox, maybe even a starter.”