That time Michael Jordan left the Bulls, went to baseball’s minors, and chased his childhood dream
Where would Jordan be if he’d chosen baseball over hoops? Where would we be?
On a fall night on the South Side of Chicago, the hero of the city, and greatest basketball player on the planet, took the mound of Comiskey Park’s diamond. It was Oct. 5, 1993. Game 1 of Major League Baseball’s American League Championship Series between the Chicago White Sox and Toronto Blue Jays. Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan was the home team’s guest of honor.
Four months before the ALCS, Jordan led the Bulls over the Phoenix Suns in a best-of-seven NBA Finals series to claim their third consecutive title. The summer of celebration for Jordan, however, was overshadowed by the murder of his father, James Jordan Sr., who was found dead in a South Carolina creek in August 1993. Yet, heading into a new NBA season, the expectation remained that Jordan’s dominance on the court would continue — that not even family tragedy could stop His Airness’ reign. So, as the White Sox looked to clinch their first World Series berth in 34 years, who better to launch a chase of history than a man emblematic of fortitude and perseverance?
In front of an announced crowd of more than 46,000, Jordan threw out the game’s ceremonial first pitch, the ball sailing low and outside of the strike zone framed by White Sox catcher Ron Karkovice. The 6-foot-6 shooting guard then delivered the ballpark wave and a sly smile before taking his seat in the skybox suite owned by Bulls and White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.
In the seventh inning, the shape of the night, and the landscape of the entire sports world, took an abrupt and unexpected turn: The game’s broadcast cut to on-field reporter Pat O’Brien for a breaking news update. “The Chicago Bulls have called a press conference for tomorrow morning,” O’Brien said, “and there’s high speculation that Michael Jordan will retire from basketball forever.”
The next morning, the Chicago Sun-Times published a story with an official statement from Jordan, while The Denver Post received confirmation of the retirement from Bulls head coach Phil Jackson. Later that day — Oct. 6, 1993 — in a news conference held at the Bulls’ training facility, Jordan officially announced his departure from the game of basketball. “If you ride a roller coaster for nine years, don’t you want to ride something else? That’s the way I feel right now — I want to ride something else.”
Less than a week later, Toronto defeated Chicago, 6-3, in an ALCS-clinching Game 6 at Comiskey. With the loss, the White Sox fell a mere two games shy of winning the pennant and reaching the World Series, although the club’s performance inspired the city with hope for another deep playoff run the following season. Led by 1993 AL MVP Frank Thomas, the White Sox were on a short list of 1994 World Series contenders.
“In ’94, the anticipation was for even more,” said Mark Ruda, an MLB reporter for Chicago’s Daily Herald at the time. “But the White Sox said, ‘Let’s see what can we do. Let’s bring Michael Jordan to spring training to spice things up.’ ”
On Feb. 7, 1994 — 10 days shy of his 31st birthday — Jordan inked a minor league contract with the White Sox, effectively channeling his newfound freedom into fulfilling a childhood dream of playing major league baseball. Upon retiring from basketball, Jordan had informed Reinsdorf of his baseball aspirations, so the transition was seamless. The White Sox chairman made it happen.
“The Sox didn’t need that crap,” added Ruda, who also served as a Chicago correspondent for Baseball America, a national (and still printed) publication dedicated to identifying the game’s top prospects. On the brink of spring training in 1994, which Jordan was scheduled to attend as one of the newest members of the White Sox, the magazine reached out to Ruda for a potential cover story for its AL Central top prospects issue.
His assignment? “Scouting Air Jordan.”
“This is just a nuts two-page package, in retrospect,” Baseball America editor-in-chief John Manuel said via phone. He’s perusing a copy of the issue that hit newsstands across the country on Feb. 21, 1994. The issue went public before Sports Illustrated’s infamous March 14, 1994, “Bag It, Michael!” issue — the cover of which, and accompanying story, “Err Jordan,” ticked off the greatest of all time so much that he hasn’t spoken to the magazine since.
Back then, Manuel was a college senior (ironically, at Jordan’s alma mater, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill), months away from graduation and two years removed from his first job at Baseball America. He looks back fondly on this unique period in baseball history, when the best hooper in the world ventured to become a major league right fielder.
“I wish I’d gotten to write something this cool,” Manuel said while examining Ruda’s scouting report on page 6, which breaks down Jordan’s baseball skills in five categories: hitting, fielding, throwing, speed and makeup (aka personality and character). The story traces Jordan’s baseball roots back to his days as a pitcher at Laney High School in his hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, where he led the “junior-varsity team by hitting .433, and later played varsity ball before becoming ineligible for his senior season after playing in the McDonald’s basketball all-star game.”
Jordan quit baseball at the age of 18, just two games into his senior season at Laney, which meant that by the time Jordan, at 31, reported to spring training in February 1994, approximately 13 years separated him from his last official baseball game. So one line from Ruda’s report really stands out, still to this day: “At first, Jordan ruled out playing in the minor leagues.”
“Yeah … that’s what I heard back then,” Ruda said, “ … a rather vainglorious attempt by him to think he could just go right into the major leagues.”
Yet Jordan ultimately wanted to be treated like any other prospect, starting in spring ball in Sarasota, Florida, where he met Cleveland Indians star outfielder Kenny Lofton. Having played four years of college basketball at the University of Arizona, Lofton was Jordan’s archetype in the realm of making a transition from basketball to baseball (opposite of Ruda’s scouting report in the Baseball America issue is a full-page feature titled “Lofton Shows Jordan the Way”).
The two outfielders immediately connected. Jordan shared with Lofton why he chose to go after a spot in the major leagues at the peak of his NBA supremacy. Despite rumors that his foray into baseball resulted from a secret suspension levied by the NBA for gambling, Jordan maintained that he gained inspiration from his late father, who played semipro baseball and frequently had conversations with his son about making the switch.
“Michael told me, ‘Baseball was my first love,’ ” recalled Lofton, a six-time All-Star, four-time Gold Glove Award winner and five-time AL stolen base leader in his 17-year MLB career. “He was … this great basketball player, and maybe he felt like he accomplished whatever he needed to accomplish … at the time, like, ‘Lemme try to accomplish my childhood dream.’ But [baseball] players looked at it as: ‘You know what? We understand you’re the greatest basketball player ever, but in baseball, man, you ain’t gonna have no chance.”
Jordan was far from a top prospect, not even listed in Baseball America’s 1994 Chicago White Sox top 10 — but he was Michael Jordan. So the magazine slotted him in the AL Central cover’s lead photo, which was draped over a thumbnail of the division’s highest-rated prospect — a young Cleveland Indians outfielder named Manny Ramirez, whose 555 career home runs rank 15th all time in MLB history.
“Michael Jordan could’ve gone to be a curler somewhere and people would’ve been really interested in how he was going to do in curling,” said MLB.com senior writer Jim Callis, a former managing editor of Baseball America. “We were just kind of feeding off that.”
The cover photo itself, taken by Tom DiPace, is one of few pictures from Jordan’s brief baseball career in which he wore his famed basketball No. 23 on the back of a White Sox uniform. (The covers of an April 1994 issue of Beckett Baseball Card Monthly and May 1994 issue of Sports Cards magazine also feature Jordan in No. 23.) “He was super nice to me, and respectful,” DiPace recalled of shooting Jordan early in spring training for both Baseball America and the Upper Deck trading card company. “He wasn’t acting like Air Jordan. He was trying to fit in as a regular guy.”
On team photo day, before his debut at White Sox spring training, Jordan didn’t pose in No. 23 but rather donned the No. 45, which he sported on the diamond as a kid and took with him in the minors. Ditching the No. 23 was a statement — the beginning of his quest to rebuild Jordan the basketball superstar into Jordan the baseball prospect.
“I remember thinking like, ‘Wow.’ It’s going to interesting to see how he’s going to try to transform his whole mindset from being the best player ever,” Lofton said, “to go from flying on private jets to playing in the minor leagues — when you’re going to be on a bus.”
When spring training came to a close, the White Sox assigned baseball’s biggest project to the club’s Double-A affiliate Birmingham Barons. And in Alabama, playing in the Southern League under future World Series-winning manager Terry Francona, while making $850 a month with a $16 meal allowance on road trips, Jordan’s baseball education began.
“The Sox gave him every darn chance with that setup. Birmingham, even back then, that was really the launching pad for all the prospects,” Ruda said. “If you were a hot-stuff prospect in the Sox organization, you may have very well made the jump to the bigs from Birmingham.” Yet, in 127 career games in the minors, Jordan posted a meager slash line (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) of .202/.289/.266, with 51 RBIs on 88 total hits, including 17 doubles and three home runs.
“He had a .566 OPS [on-base plus slugging] and hit .202. It’s not that impressive, but the guy hadn’t played baseball in 13 years and he went to Double-A,” Callis said. “He drew 51 walks. He didn’t strike out excessively. Were they great numbers? No. But it looked like he had reasonable command of the strike zone. In retrospect, hitting .202, even if it was a soft .202, after that layoff, is impressive when you put it in context.”
The greatest athlete in the world simply couldn’t hit a baseball — or at least not with the same ease with which he could hit jump shots, drive the lane and dunk a basketball. “You take a guy who had the most impact on the culture, and on basketball of anybody, arguably, ever in sports,” said Manuel, “then you put him in baseball, and as a player he had very little impact with the bat.”
Yet Jordan kept grinding in the batting cage, at the plate and beyond. After his year with the Barons, he traveled out West to play in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit a respectable .252 in 35 games. But as he continued his chase to play in the majors, basketball found its way back into the mind of the slowly improving right fielder.
The longest players’ strike in MLB history began on Aug. 12, 1994. It led to the cancellation of the final six weeks of the regular season and the entire postseason, including the World Series. Come February 1995, Jordan arrived a week early for spring training, eager to get back to work on the field. But the strike dragged on, and Jordan had no intention of crossing the picket line or becoming a replacement player if a settlement wasn’t reached, so he chose another path. On March 2, 1995, he packed his bags and left Florida. Eight days later, he announced his decision to leave baseball. And eight days after that, Jordan released a famous two-word statement, “I’m back,” marking his return to the NBA.
“I had no idea of coming back. I don’t think I would have come back if there hadn’t been the baseball strike. They started throwing me into that dispute, something I had nothing to do with,” Jordan wrote in his 2005 best-selling biography Driven From Within. “I was having fun down there playing baseball. And it was an opportunity to prove something. I was getting better all the time. All I needed to get that urge back was to hang around the basketball court for a while.”
It’s difficult to look back at Jordan’s nearly 13-month baseball career, which feels like it ended before it began, and not contemplate two big ifs:
First, if not for the 1994 strike, would Jordan really have made it to the majors? Lofton didn’t give Jordan a chance, although Callis thinks otherwise. “If there hadn’t been the strike and the lockout, I think we might have seen Michael Jordan in the big leagues,” he said. “Would Michael Jordan have earned it solely on merit? Probably not. But if not for the lockout — and he wasn’t going to cross the picket line — we might have seen Jordan in the big leagues in 1995.”
Secondly, if Jordan began his baseball career earlier in his life, how far could he have gone? The sense was that it was already too late when he retired in 1993 and pursued baseball. It’d be an uphill battle for any 30-year-old returning to the game after more than a decade, even for an athlete as immortal as Jordan. But maybe his baseball story tells us that the truest “everything happens for a season” moment in sports history took place when an 18-year-old Jordan chose basketball over baseball. For a brief moment in 1994, he gave the game he first loved a shot. And in the process, baseball proved that even a small part of Jordan could, athletically, be human.
This was of course until he made the return to basketball, won three more NBA titles, presented the world with performances such as the “Flu Game” and Game 6 of the 1998 Finals, and turned his signature line of basketball sneakers into a billion-dollar brand. The culture needed Michael Jordan on the basketball court, not on a bus.
“I’ll give him credit. I saw a lot of trying. I saw a lot of effort being put forth,” said Ruda. “Had he done it sooner, who knows? But then again, would the world have been denied an all-time great basketball player at the possible expense of maybe an average baseball player? Who knows? But, from what I saw, I don’t think there would’ve ever been a Michael Jordan statue in front of Comiskey Park. He’s got one in front of the United Center — and it’ll always be there.”