SportsPulse: Breakfast, trash talking and guys being guys. That’s how B.J. Armstrong recalls his now now famous breakfast with Michael Jordan in 1995 that ultimately helped accelerate his return to the NBA.
Baseball was Michael Jordan’s first sports love.
At the celebration of life for Kobe and Gianna Bryant in February, Jordan shared a story:
“I remember maybe a couple months ago (Kobe) sends me a text and he said, ‘I’m trying to teach my daughter some moves. And I don’t know what I was thinking or what I was working on, but what were you thinking about when you were growing up trying to work on your moves?’ I said ‘What age?’ He says ‘12.’ I said ’12, I was trying to play baseball.’ ”
Episode 7 of “The Last Dance” features a segment on Jordan’s brief pro baseball career in 1994 following his retirement from basketball just before the start of the 1993-94 NBA season.
Privately, Jordan told people he wanted to give baseball a try, and after a three-peat with the Bulls (1991, 1992 and 1993) and the death of his father, James, the time was right, and Jordan joined the Chicago White Sox’s Class AA affiliate, the Birmingham Barons.
‘THE LAST DANCE’: Why Michael Jordan invented slights for motivation
“I’m doing something that I choose to do,” Jordan said in a 1994 press conference, “and that’s to follow one of the dreams I had as a kid.”
So while it was a vanity project, it was also personal. Jordan and his dad shared an appreciation of baseball, and Jordan tells viewers the last conversation he had with his father before he was killed was about whether Michael should give baseball a try.
Jordan and his dad talked about other two-sport pros, such as Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, and in that context, it’s easy to understand why Jordan shifted his focus to baseball.
Jordan’s friend, Ahmad Rashad, said being away from basketball gave Jordan an opportunity to adjust to life without his dad.
(Interesting aside: Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf also owned the White Sox – he still owns both today – and said he continued to pay Jordan his Bulls salary while on what turned out to be a hiatus and not a full retirement. “He was underpaid for his entire career, and he made a lot of money for a lot of people,” Reinsdorf explained.)
That 1994 season, Jordan had a batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage of .202/.289/.266. He had 88 hits (17 doubles, one triple and three home runs), 51 RBI, 30 stolen bases, 51 walks and 114 strikeouts in 436 at-bats.
The numbers aren’t impressive, but consider it had been 15 years since Jordan played any kind of competitive baseball. His stats aren’t as bad they look.
The decision to play was criticized, especially by Sports Illustrated, which featured Jordan on the cover swinging and missing with the headline, “Bag it, Michael! Jordan and The White Sox Are Embarrassing Baseball.”
The inside headline accompanying the story written by Steve Wulf wasn’t any more flattering: “ERR JORDAN – TRY AS HE MIGHT, MICHAEL JORDAN HAS FOUND BASEBALL BEYOND HIS GRASP.”
Jordan vowed to never speak to Sports Illustrated again, and by all accounts, it’s a grudge he kept. He said no one from “SI” – once a great publication – ever interviewed him for the story and he felt betrayed.
His manager in Birmingham? Terry Francona, who carved out 10 years in the big leagues as a player and toiled as a manager in the minors before moving to the big leagues and eventually becoming a manager who guided the Boston Red Sox to two World Series championships.
“After I met him, I quickly realized how much he respected what we were doing,” said Francona, now the Cleveland Indians’ manager. “With 1,500 at-bats, he would’ve found a way to get to the major leagues.”
Jordan, like many players who couldn’t reach the next level in baseball, struggled with breaking balls. But he worked at it.
“His work ethic was the best I’ve ever been around,” then-Barons coach Mike Barnett, who is now on Francona’s staff, said. “He would come in after regular batting practice, hit some more before the game and then would hit again after the game. … He kept getting better and better.”
Jordan had a 13-game hitting streak early in the season, struggled through the middle and started to find his swing late in the season, hitting .260 in the final month.
Don’t forget Jordan played in the 1994 Arizona Fall League and hit .252 in 120 at-bats. He also developed a friendship with Derek Jeter.
Jordan also endeared himself to his teammates. While a difficult teammate as the best basketball player in the world for the Bulls, he was, as a struggling minor-league baseball player, a consummate and humble teammate.
“For the last nine years, I lived in a situation where I had the world at my feet. Now I’m just another minor leaguer in the clubhouse here trying to make it to the major leagues,” Jordan told The New York Times.
It was rumored Jordan bought a bus for the Barons to travel from Southern League city to Southern League city, but in Roland Lazenby’s expansive and impressive book, “Michael Jordan: The Life,” that’s not true. The bus company upgraded the bus after Jordan looked into helping the team get a better ride.
(Lazenby’s book also noted Jordan was working out with White Sox players, including Frank Thomas, the fall before he joined the Barons. He also worked with prominent hitting coach Walk Hriniak).
But still, Jordan ingratiated himself. He played basketball, Yahtzee, table tennis and card games with his teammates and coaches and helped catcher Rogelio Nunez learn English, giving him $100 for every new word he learned, according to Lazenby’s book and an ESPN story.
Francona maintains that Jordan’s baseball career rejuvenated his competitive fire, leading to his NBA return.
Baseball was a cathartic experience for Jordan, and years later, hindsight reveals it wasn’t the failure many presumed at the time.
Video of the day
Check out Jordan at the 1994 Arizona Fall League with Terry Francona mic’d up.
1994: Michael Jordan hitting a triple in the Arizona Fall League with coach Terry Francona mic’d up. pic.twitter.com/ettGiDxgwZ
— Stirrups Now! (@uniformcritic) May 6, 2020
Video of the day, part two
OK, we cannot let this spectacular Julius Erving layup on May 11, 1980, go without mention. It is one of the most incredible, graceful shots in NBA history.
What to Watch
Baseball: You want to see a pitcher in command of his pitches? Check out this Max Scherzer game on MLB Network (3 p.m. ET) as the Nationals pitcher strikes out 20 batters against his former team, the Detroit Tigers.
Basketball: If you’ve missed recent “The Last Dance” episodes, ESPN2 has episodes 5, 6, 7 and 8, starting at 7 p.m.
Want some scoring with your NBA playoff games? This Portland-Phoenix game from the 1992 Western Conference semifinals has you covered – Blazers over the Suns 153-151 in double overtime (NBA TV, 6 p.m.).
Football: San Diego Chargers 41, Miami Dolphins 38 in a 1981 AFC divisional playoff game (5:30 p.m., NFL Network). Go watch Dan Fouts and Don Strock chuck the football all over the field.
May 11 in sports history
1919: Walter Johnson of the Senators and Jack Quinn each pitched 12 scoreless innings. The game was called because of darkness.
1923: Cy Williams hit three of Philadelphia’s 10 home runs in a 20-14 victory over St. Louis.
1928: Walter Hagen won his third of four British Open championships, beating Gene Sarazen by two strokes.
1963: Dodgers great Sandy Koufax threw his second no-hitter in an 8-0 victory over the San Francisco Giants. No hits for Felipe Alou or Willie Mays. Losing pitcher: Juan Marichal.
1980:Pete Rose steals second, third and home in the same inning for the Philadelphia Phillies against his former team, the Cincinnati Reds.
1985: Fifty-six people died and more than 200 injured in a fire at Bradford’s soccer stadium in England.
2001: Toronto’s Vince Carter made eight 3-pointers in a half as the Raptors defeated Philadelphia in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
What we’re missing
NBA and NHL playoff games
Major League Baseball
- Los Angeles Angels at Baltimore Orioles
- Cleveland Indians at Detroit Tigers
- Texas Rangers at Tampa Bay Rays
- Miami Marlins at Atlanta Braves
- Philadelphia Phillies at Pittsburgh Pirates
- Seattle Mariners at Houston Astros
- Kansas City Royals at Minnesota Twins
- Arizona Diamondbacks at Milwaukee Brewers
- New York Mets at St. Louis Cardinals
- Washington Nationals at Chicago Cubs
- Cincinnati Reds at Colorado Rockies
- Chicago White Sox at San Francisco Giants
- Toronto Blue Jays at Oakland Athletics
- San Diego Padres at Los Angeles Dodgers
- Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt