Michael Jordan’s baseball sidequest in 1994 isn’t remembered in the fondest of terms. But in the latest episodes of ESPN’s The Last Dance, viewers are offered an alternative take: what if MJ wasn’t half-bad?
At first glance, Jordan’s Double-A stats don’t exactly scream success story; he had a .202 batting average as a 31-year-old rookie playing for the Birmingham Barons, part of the Chicago White Sox organization. That’s not the full picture, though. Chicago Bulls and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf says today that it’s remarkable Jordan hit over .200 in the first place—the only reason MJ even started in Double-A is because Single-A ball couldn’t handle the media circus he brought along.
The Last Dance offers other helpful refreshers. MJ didn’t join the Barons until there were only four days left in Spring Training, and he somehow began the season on a hitting streak. He drove in 51 RBIs, stole 30 bases, and most notably of all, the Barons manager at the time, Terry Francona, says that “with 1,500 at-bats, he would’ve found a way to get to the Major Leagues.” Francona is currently the manager of the Cleveland Indians, and previously led the Boston Red Sox to two World Series wins.
MJ’s baseball pursuits were a lifelong dream, his brother Larry says in episode seven of the 10-part series. When Michael’s father James was murdered in 1993, Michael felt even further disconnected from basketball. Michael's final conversation with his father was about whether he should retire and play baseball, a move his dad supported.
“He was a voice of reason that always drove and challenged me,” an emotional Jordan says.
There have long been rumors about whether Jordan actually retired from the NBA and switched to baseball because he had secretly been suspended by commissioner David Stern for gambling. Stern, who died in January 2020, refutes that claim in the documentary. “The urban legend that I sent him away because he was gambling was ridiculous and had no basis in fact,” Stern says.
When MLB went on strike in 1994, MJ refused to cross the picket line and play with replacement players, which essentially spelled the end of his baseball career. He returned to the NBA, suffered a rare defeat against the Orlando Magic in the 1995 playoffs, then regrouped. And The Last Dance hones in on what came of that: His Airness became even more hyper-focused on winning at all costs, including by bullying and demeaning his teammates.
“Let’s not get it wrong,” former teammate Will Perdue tells the cameras. “He was an asshole, he was a jerk, he crossed the line numerous times. But as time goes on and you think back about what he was actually trying to accomplish, you’re like, yeah, he was a hell of a teammate.”
Coach Phil Jackson fondly recalls his own attempts to play peacemaker at intense practices, but those attempts didn’t always work. In one exchange from episode eight of The Last Dance, another former teammate, Steve Kerr, gives a play-by-play of getting into a fight with Jordan.
“I have a lot of patience as a human being but I tend to snap at some point,” Kerr says. Jordan was actually impressed with Kerr’s willingness to square up and take a punch, and apologized to him after getting thrown out of practice. Now, Jordan reiterates his competitiveness (and mean-spiritedness)—whether it was in basketball or baseball—was an absolute necessity.
“I’m going to ridicule you until you get on the same level as me,” Jordan says. “And if you don’t get on the same level, then it’s going to be hell for you… You ask all my teammates? The one thing about Michael Jordan was he never asked me to do something that he didn’t fucking do.”
From MJ-branded watches to a Dennis Rodman T-shirt in every one of his hair colors, take a nostalgic stroll through the best vintage sports gear in recent memory.
Originally Appeared on GQ