Aside from the much-needed distraction, ESPN’s “The Last Dance” has given us all something we clearly all desperately craved: more Michael Jordan content. The NBA legend and Chicago Bulls icon has been flashed across our TV screens and phones every single day for the past few weeks, with new stories and hot takes emerging every minute.
Most of that, of course, is about his basketball career (or, most recently, his infamous affinity for gambling). But as many of us know, MJ took his talents from the court to the diamond for one weird summer in 1994, which has always been something of a fascinatingly enigmatic decision. Sadly, I don’t have any revelations as to why he stepped away from the game that he was dominating (perhaps we’ll learn more as the documentary continues), but there’s still so much about this feat that we can discuss.
And here to help is The Athletic’s Zach Buchanan, who tells the story of his final two months in professional baseball – in the prospect-heavy Arizona Fall League, which takes place after the regular season – with quotes and stories from the coaches, players, and personnel that were there at the time.
I think you’ll enjoy this one:
“I know who the f— you are, man!”
— The Athletic MLB (@TheAthleticMLB) May 4, 2020
One of the best quotes is right there in the embedded tweet, when Jordan introduced himself to Scorpions pitcher Mike Sullivan, who hilariously replied “I know who the f— you are, man!” And it was also particularly interesting to learn how the attendance would oscillate from a couple hundred fans on nights Jordan couldn’t attend to over 10,000 when he was in the lineup.
Chris Snopek, Scorpions infielder: One game we played, there were probably 10,000 people there. The next night, they were retiring his No. 23 jersey in Chicago and he was gone. We got to the park there were probably 150 people at the game. That made us all feel real good on how valuable the rest of us were! But really, it made it more enjoyable when you had 10,000 people at your game rather than 500.
Bob Herold, Scorpions hitting coach: The other teams would get 30 or 40 people a game. We were sold out. People would be lined from the bus to the entrance. Everybody had something for him to sign. He wouldn’t stop, but he would sign whatever he was handed. He might sign three things going in and three things coming out.
But possibly my favorite bit was the players conspiring with (then) Scorpions manager Terry Francona to get Jordan a new position:
Mike Bertotti, Scorpions pitcher: I spent the second half of the Double-A season with him, and he definitely had gotten better by the fall. But, to be honest, it took a while. They had him in right field in Birmingham and Michael didn’t have the strongest of arms. We used to kid with Terry Francona that if there was a runner on first and there was a base hit to right field, the runner always made it to third base. All the pitchers got together and said, “Tito, can we move Michael to left field?” Eventually, they did.
But even between all the jokes and gaffes, there’s one message that seems to shine through: Michael Jordan was an extremely hard worker, who did genuinely endeavor to improve at the game of baseball. In other words, he wasn’t just burning time and having fun, as he plotted his return to the NBA. Now, by most accounts he wasn’t all that productive, but relatively speaking, I think there’s a huge misunderstanding of his performance.
Before reaching the prospect-heavy Arizona Fall League at the end of the 1994 season – which, at the time, featured Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Giambi, Jason Kendall, Mark Grudzielanek, and other future MLB regulars and stars – Jordan played in 127 games at the Double-A level. If you’re not familiar with the various Minor League levels, Double-A is the second highest level of the Minors and the first from which prospects can realistically be called up to the big leagues. Similarly, the Arizona Fall League, then in its third year of existence, is often reserved for the best of the best (as that short list of participants can attest).
So to be blunt, the fact that Jordan wasn’t an UTTER embarrassment shifting over to baseball for the first time in his career, is truly astonishing.
In just under 500 plate appearances at Double-A that summer, Jordan slashed .202/.289/.266, with 17 doubles, a triple, 3 homers, 51 RBI, and 30 stolen bases. He also managed to walk 51 times, which is double-digit walk rate! Something, something, Moneyball! And in the AFL, Jordan finished with a .252 batting average in 120 plate appearances. For a guy who hadn’t played baseball since high school, hitting .252 against the best the minors had to offer is seriously impressive.
In any case, if you’re looking for an absolute treasure trove of comments and stories from the summer of 1994, be sure to check out the latest from The Athletic.