The blockbuster ESPN docu-series The Last Dance has dredged up a great deal of Jordan nostalgia. The strangest moment of his career is easily his time away from the NBA. Immediately following his third NBA championship win, MJ shocked the world and left to live the life of a minor league baseball player in Birmingham, Alabama.
The Last Dance doesn’t unearth any new details on Jordan’s baseball interlude. However, it does provide perhaps the most complete telling of what it felt like, as a fan, to see Jordan walk away from the NBA. And it highlights a crucial detail often ignored: The Chicago Bulls still paid Jordan the whole time.
The pressures that pushed Michael Jordan away from the NBA
In the summer of 1993, Jordan was riding high. His third championship win ensured his indelible place in NBA history. He was a pop culture phenomenon that was bigger than basketball itself. Then his father was murdered, in a random act of violence by two strangers.
During the same period, Jordan’s recreational gambling led to intense pressure from the press. Jordan didn’t have a squeaky clean image, certainly not after his Bulls practice antics were revealed in the book The Jordan Rules a year earlier. But the accusations kept piling up. There was no indication he bet on NBA games or his own games, but the implication was getting increasingly prominent.
Jordan had enough, and decided to walk away from the NBA entirely. Some reporters theorized this was actually a suspension, related to his gambling, Then-NBA Commissioner David Stern vehemently denies this. Regardless, the pontificating on that topic quickly became irrelevant, because the next big Jordan story came shortly after. He’d join the Chicago White Sox organization and begin training to play for the Birmingham Barons immediately.
Why Jordan was justified to test himself in baseball
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Jordan’s baseball excursion is often brought up mockingly. The fact that he never made it to the major leagues rankles some fans. Others point to his penchant for strikeouts. After all, he hit .202 by the end of his run in Birmingham, according to Baseball-Reference.
That .202 deserves a closer look. First, note that the Barons were a AA team. That meant Jordan was skipping the usual slow path up from the lowest levels of the minor league system that almost every player develops their skills in. He essentially dropped into a new sport, as an older player from an entirely different sport, and was holding his own.
Then, consider what the people who actually played with him thought of his development. His manager, Terry Francona, praised Jordan’s continual adjustments, reports The Ringer. As the Arizona Fall League geared up, he says Jordan already looked indistinguishable from the average player there. Remember: these are all professional baseball players. Jordan hadn’t picked up a baseball bat in a competitive setting since he was a teenager.
What sent Jordan back to the NBA
Jordan was trending up as a baseball player. He finally had a hang of how to improve his swing, shortening it in batting practice. And he didn’t have the external pressures minor league players usually face. Instead of the paltry $1,000 a month salary most receive, Air Jordan still took in his Bulls salary for that year: $4 million, accord to Grunge.
It was circumstances out of his control that pushed him out of baseball. The 1994 MLB strike just happened to coincide with his short stint in the game. The league made an absurd attempt to field players not involved with the strike. Jordan wasn’t interested in joining in. His attention turned back to his Bulls, and MLB’s loss was the NBA’s massive gain.