25 Years Ago, Michael Jordan Played Double-A Baseball, That’s Insane
Here’s a great read with an interesting angle on Michael Jordan’s season playing minor league baseball, which is – I can’t believe this – twenty-five years ago.
First, let’s take a moment to appreciate how insane this scenario was. Michael Jordan, the best basketball player on the planet, who has just completed back-to-back-to-back NBA titles, retires from basketball in his prime to go play baseball for the first time since quitting early on in his senior high school season. His reason for retiring has long been a topic of debate (gambling issues is one theory, and another is to honor his dad, who had been recently murdered, and who had thought Michael could’ve been a two-sport star). It would be like LeBron retiring after his Cleveland title to go play football in the CFL, or like Tiger Woods calling it quits at the height of his dominance to become a Navy Seal…but bigger.
Second, the writing is great, and the writer – Steve Wulf – matters. His story from this week is in some ways a correction to the story he filed for Sports Illustrated back in ‘94. In the earlier story, Wulf really goes at Jordan’s baseball ability after watching him in spring training, and now, all these years later, Wulf admits he was wrong, with the help of the coaches and players who were with Jordan that summer.
The manager, Terry Francona (ever heard of him?), still thinks Jordan could’ve made it to the Majors with 1,000 more at-bats. Others felt the same way, but we remember that .202 batting average and still categorize it as a lark. The guys that were there insist it was not. I honestly had no idea.
And then there are all the wonderful anecdotes about Jordan – remember, this is the most famous athlete on the planet – being one of the guys on a minor league team for the season. At 31, he was much older than most, and so he spent some of his time hanging with the coaches and some of the time hanging with the players. And while he arranged for a nicer bus, he was still playing cards with the crew. He was in the clubhouse going nuts on ping pong and giving English tips to Rogelio Nunez. This was when he wasn’t in the batting cage 3-5 times a day. Oh, and there were a few pickup basketball games thrown in there, too. Can you imagine?
Jordan would occasionally deign to play hoops with the mortals. “I can safely tell you this now,” Francona said, “but if I told you back in ’94, I might’ve gotten fired.
“We had just come back to Birmingham after a Sunday morning game in Huntsville [a 5-4 win on May 22, in which Michael went 0-for-5]. We decide to play a 4-on-4 game at Rime Village, where a lot of the players stayed. The three coaches plus Michael versus four of our better basketball players.”
Scott Tedder, a 6-foot-4 outfielder who was the all-time leading scorer as a shooting guard at Ohio Wesleyan, was one of the players. “Let’s see,” he said from his office at Hibbet Sports in Birmingham, where he’s a real estate manager. “It was me, our catcher Chris Tremie, outfielder Kevin Coughlin and pitcher Brian Givens, who was like 6-6. The game was to 16, win by two. One point for a basket, two points for a three.”
“Nobody was watching us at the start of the game,” Barnett said, “but by the end, there were hundreds of people ringing the court.”
“This was back in the day before cellphones,” Tedder said. “Word traveled fast.”
“Me and Barney were just along for the ride,” said Kirk Champion, who was the pitching coach and still works in the White Sox organization. “Once you gave the ball to either Tito or Michael, you weren’t going to see it again.”
“Scott was a really good shooter,” Barnett said.
“I hit maybe four 3s,” said Tedder, who’s now in the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame. “But you could tell Michael was holding back. When we get up 15-11 — one more basket to win — Michael says to me, kind of matter-of-fact, ‘Kid, you’re not going to score any more.’ The next thing we know, we’ve lost, 17-15, and the coaches are celebrating.”
Maybe this story is written for someone exactly my age, but reading it reminded me how incredible Jordan’s baseball detour was, regardless of the reason. It also gave a bit more insight into how serious he took it, and it really seems like he thoroughly enjoyed competing at a game without the circus that surrounded him as a basketball player. That picture of him playing what sure looks like a game of 500 during batting practice (a flyball shagging game where you compete with your teammates to catch the BP ball), sums it up best. That’s a dude not worried about the pressures of being the best of all time; that’s a dude just playing. – PAL
Source: “The True Story Behind Michael Jordan’s Brief-But-Promising Baseball Career”, Steve Wulf, ESPN (04/08/2019)
TOB: Wow, what a really good article. I got chills! I knew some of this stuff, having watched the 30 for 30 “Jordan Rides the Bus”, but it’s a good reminder. Also, while he hit .just 202 for Birmingham, that was in Double-A, which is a top prospect-heavy level. Plus, after the season the Sox placed him in the very highly regarded Arizona Fall League, which is full of top prospects. He hit a much more respectable .255.
25 years, though? Geeze. I remember where I was when I found out*. It was Summer 1993, and we were on a family road trip to a dude ranch in Idaho. We had stayed the night at a motel in Jackpot, Nevada, right on the Idaho border. I think I had stayed back while my family got breakfast, and as we headed to the car my older brother told me Michael Jordan retired, almost as a taunt. I didn’t believe him. Bullshit. No way. Michael Jordan? Retired? Nah. I looked at my mom and I remember she had this nervous look, like she didn’t want to confirm. I made them get me the paper, USA Today, which I read in disbelief in the car.
*OR SO I THOUGHT. Funny how memories work. The details are mostly correct, but I just found out my long held belief that we were in Jackpot, Nevada on the way to Idaho is wrong. I tried to find the cover of that USA Today I mentioned, and when I did I found out that Jordan retired on October 6, 1993. Well into the school year, and we were not heading to Idaho at that time. But we were heading to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to meet my dad’s long lost cousin. I remember we did miss some school for that trip. I also remember we went to a big hot air balloon festival on that trip, and I confirmed the event occurred in early October.
Lukewarm Take: Major League is the Best Baseball Movie of All Time.
Field of Dreams? Very good, but only baseball-adjacent, plus you really gotta be in the mood. Bull Durham? Sorry, I think it’s overrated – sorta funny, but not that funny. And really dated. Sandlot? Very good, but I think you needed to be a kid when you saw it to really love it (I’m open to other opinions). Rookie of the Year? Garbage. Angels in the Outfield? Garbage. Little Big League? Fantastic, still very funny (even for adults), still holds up, and the baseball action is top notch, because they used a lot of professional players. I’ll watch it whenever I see it on. But it’s a close second to Major League, which has great baseball, is still funny and entertaining, and had an excellent cast of characters (and actors).
I happened to see Major League was on TV a few weeks back, just before I was set to go to bed. I thought I’d turn it on for five minutes and then head to bed. I was immediately sucked in and watched the Whole Fuckin’ Thing (give me an A+ for that reference, don’t mind the language).
It even gave me a quote I love to use whenever I watch a game (“Too high! Too high!” when the opposing team hits an obvious homer).
This week is the 30 year anniversary of the movie’s release which is wild because I turn 37 next week, and I remember my dad taking me to see this movie in the theatres (pretty sure, anyways), and when I was watching it recently I couldn’t believe my parents let me watch that as a still 6-year old. There’s a ton of profanity. I don’t think there’s nudity but there’s a lot of near-nudity and near-sex. I’m not complaining, but my oldest son is almost five and I don’t know when I’d be ready to show this movie to him but I don’t think it’s until he’s…11? In my dad’s defense, he probably didn’t know how bad it’d be. In his not-defense, the movie is rated R. Moving on.
Given the anniversary, The Ringer has done some coverage on the movie. There was a good Rewatchables podcast with Rembert Browne, who pointed out how insane it would have been for a woman to go home with Willie Mays Hayes and find a collection of dirty black gloves nailed to the wall. Also, I had no idea that the actor who played one of the movie’s villains, Clue Haywood, the big slugger for the Yankees, was Pete Vuckovich, a former major league pitcher who won the 1982 AL Cy Young. WHAT!?
Anyways, it’s a great movie. If you haven’t seen it in a while, do so. You might notice something you never had before. For example, The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh points out that in the one-game playoff against the Yankees that closes the movie, Cleveland batted out of order in either the 8th or 9th inning, which allowed them to win. Click the link to see how he figured this out. It’s fun.
Source: “The Dramatic Ending of ‘Major League’ Never Should’ve Happened”, Ben Lindberg, The Ringer (04/10/2019)
PAL: Man, Field of Dreams is pretty damn good. I’m a sucker for it all: the Berkeley folks back-to-earth premise. The farmlands of the midwest caught in all its poetic, dusky beauty, building a baseball field. The curmudgeon writer sidekick. And (quiet weeping) the goddamn game of catch. Field of Dreams is the romance in baseball; Major League nails the idiocy of baseball:
But also the game action is outstanding in this movie. They somehow legit captured the emotion and excitement of a big baseball game better than any other baseball movie.
That idea of Willie Mays Hayes taking a date home, only for her to see a bunch of dirty black gloves nailed to the wall is the funniest thing I’ve heard all week. I was laughing so hard. Also, Randy Newman’s song, ‘Burn On’, which opens the movie, is excellent. Excellent baseball movie. Probably taught me how to use the f-word creatively, which can’t be ignored.
More on Jordan’s Baseball Pitstop
Sorry! Yes, more. But I read that 1994 article by Wulf written during Jordan’s lone spring training and there was just too much to comment on, so I broke it out here.
What’s interesting reading Wulf’s 1994 story is that he was so incredibly harsh: “So shame on them for their cynical manipulation of the public. And shame on them for feeding Michael’s matchbook-cover delusion—BECOME A MAJOR LEAGUER IN JUST SIX WEEKS!” It was still only Spring Training. Michael hadn’t yet hit just .202. But I’d like to take a moment to note that, for the average human, .202 in Double-Freakin-A would be incredible. .202 wasn’t even the worst on the team! Ok, it was second worst. But still, another guy hit .191. And Wulf was shaming the White Sox for giving Jordan a spot.
This passage especially amused me:
The huffing and puffing over Jordan’s supposed sacrilege is so intense you almost want to root for the guy, just to prove all these baseball snobs wrong. But they are right about one thing: He will never, ever hit. “It’s called bat speed,” says one American League scout, “and he ain’t got it.”
He ain’t got experience, either. Next to his name and vital statistics on the official list of 1994 White Sox, where his ’93 batting stats should be, it reads DID NOT PLAY. It should read HASN’T PLAYED IN 15 YEARS! Says one American League Central manager, “What’d he hit in high school, .280? Pathetic. I’ve got players in my clubhouse who are only now starting to hit after living and breathing baseball for 15 years, and this guy thinks he can become a hitter in a couple of months. It’s a disgrace to the game. All I know is that I wouldn’t want to be [White Sox manager] Gene Lamont, having to tell a Mike Huff or a Warren Newson that they didn’t make the team because Michael bleeping Jordan did.”
Indeed, either Huff or Newson would have to go in order to make room for Jordan. The 30-year-old Huff isn’t a great hitter, but he has made only two errors in 217 major league games, and no player has been more helpful in teaching Jordan to play the outfield than Huff. Newson, 29, isn’t much bigger than Muggsy Bogues, but last year, between Triple A Nashville and Chicago, he hit .333.
So there was some poetic justice at work in the second inning of last Thursday’s intrasquad game, the most heavily covered intrasquad game in baseball history. Jordan lined prospect James Baldwin’s fastball into left centerfield, and Newson made a diving, backhanded catch to rob him of a double.
Wulf spends three paragraphs tearing down Jordan for not having the bat speed or the ability to ever hit, and then relays a story where MJ damn near lines a double off a top prospect! That pitcher, James Baldwin, would finish second in the Rookie of the Year race two years later and even made an All Star team. In Wulf’s story this week, he owns up to how harsh he was. But still, the 1994 was hard to read. No one likes a grumpy jerk.
One final thing: Man, baseball players were corny as hell. Here are two quotes from Wulf’s 1994 story:
While the White Sox try to rationalize Jordan’s audition, baseball’s other uniformed personnel are almost irrational about it. “He had better tie his Air Jordans real tight if I pitch to him,” said Seattle Mariner fireballer Randy Johnson. “I’d like to see how much air time he’d get on one of my inside pitches.”
“Be like Mike?” scoffed one Houston Astro. “Hell, Mike right now only wishes he could be like Frank.”
I couldn’t roll my eyes hard enough. Corny AF. -TOB
Source: “Err Jordan”, Steve Wulf, Sports Illustrated (03/14/1994)
Air Density and Barometric Pressure: The Mind of Golfer Bryson DeChambeau
I am not the biggest golfing fan, but, man, I love me some majors. I had this story about Bryson DeChambeau (that’s the best golf name of all-time) linked here before he jumped out to a share of the lead after the first round of The Masters. For those of you who know a little about golf, DeChambeau is the guy whose irons are all the exact same length (a peculiarity in golf).
DeChambeau is an over-thinker. Always has been. He’s a why guy. When he was a kid golfing with his dad, and his dad told him the green broke one way, DeChambeau wanted to know why. His mind never stops, and so thinking about golf differently isn’t a way for him to look for a competitive advantage; rather, it’s a way to relax his mind.
Having a brain that never stops, and hating surprises led his dad to idea of having his son work with a radical golf coach in the Clovis, CA area. Mike Schy had been developing a different approach to golf. It was a much more scientific take on the sport, one that had no time or patience for “feel”, and that was perfect for a young DeChambeau.
“Feel is the enemy,” Schy said. “You get to the first tee and there’s water left and 1,000 people right. How do you feel now? That was why he bought into the whole process. When you look at everything he does on [the] course, it all makes sense. It gets him out of that moment of trying to guess or feel something.”
There was some real risk to adopting this philosophy, which is based off a book published in 1969 called The Golfing Machine, which looked to science, not hand-me-down tips, to build a golf swing.
Before working with Schy, DeChambeau had interest from a number of college golf programs and beautiful traditional swing. When they came back, they saw he completely retooled his swing. Some programs were scared off.
He won in college, became an easy story on the PGA tour (‘hey, look at this weirdo), but also became a legit contender. He’s currently ranked sixth on the world, so all of the goofy clips of him talking about air density or some other rando tidbits aren’t just amusing.
What gets lost is what DeChambeau gets out of the way he plays. For him, The Golfing Machine is a way of thinking about and working on the game. It satisfies his interests and relaxes his mind. Jon said that if Bryson weren’t a golfer, he would build things for a living, similar to how he’s built his golf swing.
He’s challenging how we play the game, and there are few sports more up its own ass about “the right way to play” than golf, which almost makes me want him to beat Tiger. Almost. – PAL
Source: “Why Is the Golf World So Scared of Bryson DeChambeau?”, Tully Corcoran, Bleacher Report (4/11/19)
TOB: BEAT ELDRICK! This article is great. I love DeChambeau already. Here’s my favorite part of the article:
Broadcasters and golf pros and caddies and other golfers have come up with all sorts of reasons why DeChambeau shouldn’t be playing the way he does, despite his rise from 153rd in the world in 2017 to No. 6 today. Some of the most common complaints are that he plays too slowly and his methods will never win at the highest level.
Hahahahahahahaha. Yeah, 6th in the world. What a terrible golfer. He should really change his game. Also, I’m with him on the length of irons: someone will need to explain to me why they should be different lengths. That always bugged me as I was learning to play.
PAL: Update – he’s nearly holed this one on 18:
How to Standout in a Crowded Sportswriting Field
In a short amount of time, Eno Sarris has become one of my favorite writers. I try to read almost everything he writes because his mind seems to think differently than most sportswriters, so he always has an interesting angle from which he approaches a story. His article this week on San Diego Padres rookie Chris Paddack is a good example. Sarris saw Paddack throw a high, inside front door breaking changeup for a called third strike. The pitch was unlike anything Sarris had ever seen, so he went to work. He interviewed Paddack, his manager, his catcher, his Double-A manager, and even Padres great Trevor Hoffman, who made the Hall of Fame on his changeup. He used advanced stats, charts, and video, to explain how rare the pitch is, and why it’s so effective.
Eno does such a good job of blending traditional sportswriting with advanced stats, and I always learn something when I read one of his articles. I’d say he’s worth the subscription fo the Athletic all on his own. -TOB
Source: “How a Single Pitch Could Launch Chris Paddack’s Career”, Eno Sarris, The Athletic (04/11/2019)
Video of the Week
(Action starts at 00:45)
Tweet of the Week
Gif of the Week
PAL Song of the Week – Randy Newman – “Burn On”
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