“What a day for Michael Jordan!” Harry Caray screamed into the microphone at Wrigley Field, in his signature Harry Caray cadence, moments before the legendary Cubs broadcaster led the crowd in his thunderous rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
And April 7, 1994 was an incredible day for Jordan, no doubt. It was probably the best day in his baseball career. At the very least, it was his greatest public day wearing No. 45 for the White Sox. And we’ll revisit that day in a moment. But the baseball career of the greatest basketball player ever had more downs than ups — and that’s not a criticism.
Attempting to play professional baseball at 31 years old, after not having played the game at any level for over a decade, was an impossible task.
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“It’s just hard. If you’re a pitcher, it’s easier,” Scott Burrell, who was a teammate on Jordan’s 1997-98 Bulls team, told Sporting News in a phone interview last week. “You’ve just got to build your arm up again, focus on throwing strikes and trying to get your location back. That comes. But as a hitter, if you haven’t done it in a long time, it’s really hard to get that back. Really hard.”
Burrell would know.
Before he made the decision to stick to a career in basketball, he was drafted by two MLB teams — in the first round by the Mariners in 1989 and the fifth round by the Blue Jays in 1990 — and fashioned a 3.71 ERA in 14 career minor league starts. He didn’t know Jordan when MJ played baseball, but like everyone else in the sports world, he was watching.
“He’s a great athlete, and if he’d stayed with it, or maybe done it a little bit earlier and had the patience for it, I’m sure he could have been successful at it,” Burrell said. “But it’s just so hard to come back after being away from it for so long.”
Jordan played one full season in the minors, batting .202 with three homers, 51 RBIs and 30 stolen bases for the Double-A Birmingham Barons. He hit .252 in the Arizona Fall League and was back with the White Sox for spring training in 1995 — but that was in the middle of the worst strike in baseball history, and Jordan gave up the game.
Batting .202 might not sound great, but Double-A isn’t easy. That’s typically the level where teams put their talented prospects, especially pitchers.
“You’re going to face guys at that level who are going to be in the big leagues that year or the year after that,” Burrell said. “You’re facing some great pitchers.”
Anyway, today we’re going to look at the best moments of Jordan’s time on a baseball field, with a couple of not-so-great moments, too.
The Wrigley double
We’ll start with the day Caray told you about to start this piece. The regular season had actually already started; the White Sox went 1-2 in Toronto before coming back to Chicago for the exhibition against the Cubs on April 7. Jordan had long ago been assigned to Double-A, but he was brought to Chicago to bat sixth and play right field in this contest.
Good call. It was an exhibition. Give the people what they want.
Jordan went 1 for 3 in his first three plate appearances — the one hit a chopper that was deflected into foul ground for an RBI single. The unforgettable moment, though, happened in the sixth inning. Jordan’s White Sox were trailing by a run when MJ stepped into the box against Chuck Crim, a right-hander who was in his eighth big-league season and first with the Cubs. Crim led the AL in appearances back-to-back years with the Brewers, pitching in 70 games in 1988 and 76 in 1989, posting a 2.87 ERA in those 146 contests.
And, well, watch what happened.
Big moment (I mean, for a meaningless exhibition game), big player. None of the struggles Jordan had gone through in spring training mattered in that moment.
Now, watch this extended highlight package, which starts with a great interview with Caray.
The 1993 first pitch
Jordan was no stranger to Comiskey Park. He took plenty of batting practice hacks in the cage — remember his 1991 Upper Deck SP1 baseball card? — but this trip to the mound wasn’t super successful.
A bit low and a bit outside. Fun fact: This pitch happened on Oct. 5, 1993. On Oct. 6, 1993, Jordan announced his (first) retirement from basketball. In February 1994, Jordan had signed a contract to play baseball with the White Sox organization.
Not as a pitcher, though.
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The Birmingham home run
His first few months were rough. Jordan struggled to adjust to breaking pitches and the movement of fastballs up in the 90s — hard to replicate either of those things in the batting cages. When he did make contact, he wasn’t hitting for much power.
In fact, he didn’t hit the first of his three career home runs until July 30, when the Barons were playing the Carolina Mudcats.
It took a while, sure, but damn, that looked good, didn’t it? And he used the moment as a tribute to his father, James, who had been murdered the previous summer. From The Associated Press:
“Once I got across the plate, I just kind of paid tribute to my father,” said Jordan, who was given a wild standing ovation by the crowd and was mobbed at home plate by the entire Barons team. “I was going to point up to him and say that was for you. It was a great feeling.”
The 1998 first pitch
The Cubs finished the 1998 regular season with 89 wins, which meant they had to play the Giants in Game 163 to determine which team would earn the NL wild card. That had been a magical season in Chicago — Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game in May and Sammy Sosa’s season-long chase of Roger Maris’ single-season home run record.
So the Cubs brought out the biggest star they could find to throw out the first pitch. Jordan strode out to the mound wearing a Cubs jacket, then took it off to reveal his Sosa jersey. The crowd went crazy. The pitch did, too. Watch.
At least he didn’t throw it in the dirt, eh?
Thankfully for the Cubs, the wild pitch wasn’t an omen. They won that game 5-3 to clinch their first postseason berth since 1989. The LCS was a dud, though, as Chicago was swept by the Braves.
The Scottsdale triple
The Arizona Fall League is a special place. It’s where baseball fans can go and watch some of the best prospects in the game compete against each other, and for most games crowds are almost non-existent.
Jordan’s time there wasn’t like that, as is extensively documented in this excellent piece by The Athletic. With the full season at Birmingham under his belt, Jordan showed promise, to an extent, in Arizona. And with the TV cameras on him, he flashed that talent.