Most people remember Michael Jordan‘s NBA career as an unblemished masterpiece. They equally recall his time as a baseball player as a nightmare best forgotten. It’s hard to argue with his record on the hardwood, but Jordan was much better at baseball than he gets credit for.
Some of the stats don’t look great at first glance. When compared to his fellow minor leaguers, however, MJ was a cut above most. In fact, the idea that he could’ve made it to the majors isn’t so absurd if you do a deep dive into the numbers.
Michael Jordan’s decision to play baseball shocked nearly everyone
In 1993, Jordan was on top of the world. He’d just led the Chicago Bulls to a three-peat of titles. He also won three MVP awards — all while being a one-person cultural shift in American pop culture. But all of the influence, success, and power came with consequences.
Becoming the best basketball player of all time required an incredible amount of energy. On top of this, the media scrutiny and endless fan adoration left Jordan exhausted and jaded about his celebrity status. After his father’s tragic murder, Jordan needed to step away from basketball to find peace. Or at least grieve in private rather than in front of cameras, reporters, and packed arenas.
Jordan’s decision was unprecedented. A player of his quality had never stepped away in the middle of his prime. That he then chose to pick up a baseball bat was even more stunning. Conspiracy theories around Jordan’s gambling were created to justify the move, but they’ve been debunked numerous times.
After six months of retirement, Jordan signed a minor league deal with the Chicago White Sox (also owned by Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf). He joined the Double-A Birmingham Barons. It didn’t make sense to the outside world. But for Jordan, the choice was a tribute to his late father who was a massive baseball fan.
Michael Jordan wasn’t nearly as bad at baseball as people recall
Jordan’s one-year stint in baseball is viewed as a joke. However, the people who were with him throughout the process make it clear that he was more impressive than he gets credit for. In 127 games (497 plate appearances), Jordan hit .202, with three home runs and 51 RBI. Viewers confused by his NBA departure used these numbers to clown MJ. But his fellow Barons understood that what he was doing demanded respect instead of criticism.
Birmingham was not a good hitting team overall. They only had 40 home runs as a squad. Every other team in the Double-A Southern League hit at least 63. While Jordan suffered a slump after hitting .265 in his first month, the homers all came in the second half of the season, displaying his increased aptitude for the sport.
Jordan left his ego at the door and brought his legendary work ethic to a new sport. He started with no idea how to properly swing a bat or the difference between a two-seam and four-seam fastball. Also, he wasn’t aware of how seriously baseball treats its unwritten rules. Jordan even turned down an MLB contract with the Oakland Athletics because he understood how much he had to learn and didn’t want to cheat the game.
“Michael was playing for the right reasons,” said Terry Francona, the Barons manager and future World Series champion, according to Sports Illustrated. “The whispers that he was there for not the right reasons kind of bothered me. I knew why he was playing baseball. I knew his intention. And it was pure. He made himself a member of the Birmingham Barons in every way. He won over everybody.”
Jordan also treated his teammates well. He enjoyed the increased camaraderie of baseball locker rooms, frequently playing cards and Yahtzee before games. He even used his influence to get the team a $350,000 bus, known as the Jordan Cruiser.
Could Jordan have been the next great two-sport athlete?
Jordan’s strikeout percentage (22.9%) was higher than the league average in the Southern League (16.4%), but it’s in line with modern baseball. The average strikeout percentage in MLB in 2019 was 23%. So he may have just been ahead of his time as a hitter.
Jordan showed continual growth as a player. In the Arizona Fall League, a developmental league for the top prospects in each organization, he hit .252 in 123 at-bats. That’s a better average than Mike Trout, who batted for .245 in the same league in 2011 as a three-year pro. It’d be outlandish to say that a 30-something Jordan could’ve been a Hall of Famer. But all indications are that he could’ve been a legitimate major league player.
“I do think with another 1,000 at-bats, he would’ve made it,” Francona told ESPN. “But there’s something else that people miss about that season. Baseball wasn’t the only thing he picked up. I truly believe that he rediscovered himself, his joy for competition. We made him want to play basketball again.”
Ultimately, Jordan left the game because of the 1995 strike. Minor leagues weren’t affected, but when it became clear that Jordan would be crossing the picket line alongside replacement players, he got himself out of the situation. He returned to the NBA renewed and ready to dominate once again.