Reinsdorf: Michael Jordan’s baseball stint was no strikeout
By DARYL VAN SCHOUWEN firstname.lastname@example.org February 15, 2013 11:50PM
Michael Jordan as he prepares to take batting practice prior to his first game as a professional baseball player in 1994. | AP
Updated: February 16, 2013 12:26AM
Don’t even try telling Bulls and White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf that Michael Jordan’s attempt at baseball was a flop.
‘‘There’s a common misconception among people that Michael Jordan failed as a baseball player,’’ Reinsdorf said. ‘‘And in my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth.’’
Jordan stunned the sporting world on Oct. 6, 1993, when he announced he was quitting basketball. He doubled down on that shocker by later saying he was going to give professional baseball a try. He had played baseball in high school, the sport his father, James — who had been killed by robbers that July — had always dreamed Michael would play.
‘‘The last time he had played baseball was as a 17-year-old, as a pitcher, in Wilmington, N.C., where the competition was obviously not very big,’’ Reinsdorf continued. ‘‘The next time he played baseball, he was 31 years old, so he hadn’t played in 14 years. He was signed as a hitter, not a pitcher, and sent to AA ball. We don’t send anyone to AA ball when we draft him. You draft somebody after three years of college and he still goes to A ball. But we had to send him to AA because the facilities weren’t adequate to handle the media anyplace else. And he hit .202 in AA without having played for 14 years. I thought that was phenomenal. And then he went to the [Arizona] Fall League and he hit [.252] against the top prospects in Major League Baseball.’’
Determined to make it happen, Jordan secretly drove to Comiskey Park in the fall of ’93 — well before revealing his plan to play baseball — for daily get-togethers with Sox trainer Herm Schneider for the purpose of getting his body in baseball shape.
‘‘Nobody ever saw him because we had a plan where he would call me when he was five minutes away from the ballpark and I would go where the TV docks were at that time (along 35th Street) to let him pull in,’’ Schneider said. ‘‘I’d put the doors down right behind him.
‘‘We’d go to the training room and we started strengthening the hands, shoulders, elbows. It was totally different than what he was used to. You need your hands in basketball, but not as much as you do in baseball for gripping a bat, throwing a baseball and having a glove on your hands.’’
After going through spring training in Sarasota, Fla., Jordan hit three homers, drove in 51 runs and stole 30 bases (in 48 attempts) for Birmingham in 1994, his only season in pro baseball. Those around him were awed by his intense work ethic, focus and determination.
‘‘[Hitting coach] Walt Hriniak was the most intense person I think I’ve ever known, and he will tell you that Michael Jordan was the hardest working athlete he had ever come across,’’ Reinsdorf said. ‘‘The first day of spring training, he went up to Michael and said, ‘Is this some kind of joke that you’re here?’ Walter said, ‘You meet me at 7:30 in the batting cage.’ According to Walter, Michael was there every morning at 7:30, sometimes hitting until his hands were bleeding.’’
In the NBA, rookies are drafted into starting lineups and sometimes make All-Star teams. In baseball, first-round draft picks go to Class A ball with three years of college experience. There is a tougher learning curve and less reliance on getting by with pure talent in baseball.
‘‘You could put me on the court with the Bulls and I could take a jump shot and it might go in,’’ said Curt Bloom, the play-by-play radio man for the Birmingham Barons. ‘‘Or I might be able to catch a pass from Jay Cutler. But for a guy at 30 or 31, try to hit a 90 mph fastball with sliders and curves . . . You find the top 10 athletes today, and they’re going to struggle trying to make contact. It was just astounding. He worked so hard to succeed.
‘‘To me, the astounding number was the three home runs — all hit at home in a large, notorious pitchers’ park. I got to see the incredible work ethic. The sweat dripping in the batting cage. The seriousness. This might have been [a joke] to media, and Sports Illustrated took its shot [with a ‘Bag it, Michael!’ front page headline], but it was not a joke to him.’’
Jordan had talked to Reinsdorf before about playing Class A ball, so the baseball idea didn’t come as a huge surprise.
‘‘We had had a serious conversation where he said he couldn’t play basketball anymore, that he was burned out,’’ Reinsdorf said. “And he wanted to get away from basketball. That was a total shock.
‘‘I always thought basketball was where he belonged, but I was in total agreement with him after the 1993 season that he should step away. I didnt think he should step away forever — he was saying it would be forever — but I didn’t think it was a mistake because the guy was doing what he wanted to do.’’
If not for the strike that wiped out major-league ball from Aug. 12, 1994, to April 2, 1995, Reinsdorf believes Jordan would have played at the AAA level and gone on to reach the majors as a backup outfielder.
‘‘I don’t think he would have been a frontline player, but I wouldn’t put anything past him because he’s such a driven athlete,’’ Reinsdorf said.
Jordan got the itch to return to basketball, which he did in time for the 1995 playoffs. Missing two seasons may have lightened Jordan’s pile of championship rings, but it was necessary, Reinsdorf said. And it added to legend. He returned with that two-word ‘‘I’m back’’ press release.
‘‘I don’t know if baseball took away from his legacy, but the coming back was so dramatic,’’ Reinsdorf said. ‘‘The myth was bigger when he came back because he came back in the middle of the season and had a disappointing playoffs when we got eliminated by Orlando. And that caused him to spend the next summer working out like a madman bringing in players from all over the country to play with him. And if you remember the next season, we were 72-10. He was on a mission to prove something. Maybe playing baseball contributed to that.
‘‘It was huge: ‘I’m back. I’m back.’ He came back much bigger than when he left.’’