Diamonds aren’t forever: Remembering Michael Jordan’s first professional baseball game
There was always a sellout crowd on hand to see Michael Jordan. The most famous athlete in America was used to playing in front of a packed house, and the night of April 8, 1994 was no exception.
Up until that point, the crowds had usually come to see Jordan put defenders on skates. That night, 27 years ago today, they’d bought tickets to see His Airness do something completely different.
They wanted to see if the GOAT could hit a curveball.
There has been much debate over what actually pushed Jordan to play a different sport after winning three straight NBA titles. Some have latched onto a conspiracy theory that claims Jordan’s season of riding buses in the Southern League was a clever way to mask a secret gambling-related suspension.
The more obvious explanation is Jordan’s visceral reaction to the murder of his father James, who had been killed three months before Jordan announced his retirement from basketball. James had at one point wanted Michael to be a baseball player. Michael played baseball all the way through high school, and played reasonably well. Basketball, of course, quickly became his primary sport. You could say he wound up having a decent career on the court.
But in retrospect, Jordan’s sudden veer onto the diamond makes some sense. He told the press that he didn’t feel the competitive fire for basketball anymore. He needed time to process his father’s death, and he did that by returning to the game James loved.
Jordan’s move to the White Sox was already a national media circus by the time Jordan suited up for his first game as a Birmingham Baron. He’d recorded two hits against the Cubs in an exhibition game at Wrigley Field the night before, which in and of itself felt like something of a miracle. But now the games actually counted.
Jordan was obviously one of the most gifted athletes of all time. Could that athleticism alone really manifest the ability to hit a baseball?
The sellout crowd saw Jordan go 0-3. The Barons were outscored 10-3. It was, in a vacuum, a rather miserable night at the park. But I don’t think anyone showed up that night expecting to see brilliance from Jordan.
In truth, it’s hard to imagine that many people – both inside and outside of the ballpark – expected Jordan to succeed. He was 31 years old and playing a sport he hadn’t played since high school, and he was doing it at a professional level. Double-A baseball is no joke. It’s two steps away from the big leagues, where the real prospects are separated from the organizational chaff. This was where Jordan had dropped anchor.
He didn’t get his first hit until his third game, and he hit safely in the next 12 games after that. There were struggles and high points, and he finished the season with a paltry .202 batting average.
That’s a small number. It’s also a minor miracle.
How many people could roll into Double-A and hit above the Mendoza line? How many could build on that to hit .252 in the Arizona Fall League? Because that’s exactly what Jordan did. Almost nobody expected Jordan to thrive in baseball, or even to scrape by for that matter. But that’s exactly what he did. It took him just under a year to turn into a passable hitter.
However good an athlete you think Michael Jordan was, he was probably even better than that.
Full disclosure: I didn’t grow up in a basketball house. My dad was a baseball guy, which meant that we watched baseball. On top of that, Michael Jordan played his final game in the NBA about a month before my eighth birthday.
All of that meant that I never really got to experience Jordan’s total dominance on the court. Even as a toddler, though, I knew. My knowledge of Jordan’s greatness was largely gained through context clues; from seeing red number 23 jerseys everywhere I went and from “Space Jam.” I may have been a small child, but I knew that making a movie with Bugs Bunny was a privilege reserved for only the most elite stars.
And that’s the very essence of Michael Jordan, right? Elite. I didn’t even watch basketball and I knew that Jordan was a living god. He had sneakers. He was in commercials. He shot a perfect 22-22 against technicolor alien behemoths. Jordan was Jordan.
That’s why people flocked to Birmingham, and to wherever else the Barons played in 1994. They wanted to see an icon perform, even if that performance was middling at best. He was Michael freaking Jordan, man. Why wouldn’t you go see Michael Jordan play baseball?
The people who went to Birmingham 27 years ago today knew what they were signing up for. They were signing up for a glimpse at greatness.
Nick Stellini is a columnist and reporter. He has conned NBC Sports, The Athletic, NJ Monthly and other unfortunate outlets into publishing his work.