Michael Jordan didn’t leave baseball. Baseball left him.
Twenty years ago, on Aug. 12, 1994, the owners and players of Major League Baseball tested the patience and allegiance of America’s sports fans with yet another full stop – the eighth work stoppage since 1972, at that point.
Little did they or anyone else know that they inadvertently were doing a great service to the NBA. The MLB strike that brought that sport to its knees, grinding to a halt some of the most exciting team and individual seasons ever, helped propel Jordan out of baseball’s minor leagues and back into uniform with the Chicago Bulls. Once restored to his primary athletic pursuit, Jordan won three more NBA championships in perhaps the most successful comeback in pro sports history and establishing his legacy as the league’s GOAT.
All because the baseball guys couldn’t sort things out in fewer than 232 days.
It was bad enough that the summer game threw itself into winter just as pennant races and statistical chases were heating up. The Montreal Expos were both MLB and the National League’s best team (74-40) on Aug. 12 in their best chance yet at a World Series. In the American League, the New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians all had legitimate shots at 100 wins.
San Diego’s Tony Gwynn was hitting .394 in the latest, greatest shot at .400 since Ted Williams did it in 1941. San Francisco third baseman Matt Williams was going after Roger Maris‘ record of 61 from 1961 four years before Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa staged their performance-enhanced show. Frank Thomas crammed a full season (38 home runs, 101 RBI, 106 runs, .353 BA and 1.217 on-base plus slugging percentage) into two-thirds of the schedule.
Meanwhile, that Jordan guy was plugging along with the Class AA Birmingham Barons in the Southern League. Showing up early, staying late, humbling himself in search of a new (or at least renewed) skill set. Jordan was riding a bus – admittedly a spiffy luxurious one, paid for by revenues he helped generate – and struggling to keep his batting average above .200 for the Barons when the big leaguers walked out. He was 31 years old, spending his days and nights with a crew of recent high school and college kids.
And from many accounts, he was having the time of his life. One of them, anyway.
“When MJ was with us, it was kind of a whirlwind,” said Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona, who was the Barons’ skipper in 1994. “It had all the makings of turning into a circus, but it never did. I think that was mainly because of the way Michael handled things. He respected the game of baseball so much. He was so eager to learn, even the lingo and how the guys talked. And he understood … what the players weren’t making and how hard they had worked just to get to the Double A level.”
Francona recalled how coachable Jordan was that summer in a video for the Barons’ Web site earlier this season. “I think it’s kind of fashionable to maybe come down on MJ for playing baseball. … And I always wanted to be very protective of him because of how respectful he was of the game.”
Jordan’s so-called dalliance with baseball – or his exile, if you bought into rumors that the NBA had considered an investigation into and possible suspension for Jordan’s gambling associations – was driven in part by his late father, James, and his love of that sport. And it might have continued if only the big leaguers had found labor peace more quickly.
Jordan had batted .202 in 127 games for Birmingham, with 17 doubles, one triple, three home runs, 51 RBI and 30 stolen bases in 48 tries. He committed 11 errors in the outfield. But he went to the Arizona Fall League, where he batted .252 as his long, loping swing evened out and he learned to protect his rather large strike zone.
Jordan reported to spring training a week early in February 1995 ready to resume his grand crossover. Only, the MLB strike persisted. Jordan did not want to cross the players’ picket lines, nor was he willing to be considered as a “replacement player” simply as a way for the owners to sell tickets. (The Barons had shattered their home attendance record, drawing 467, 867 fans at Regions Park and even more (517,318) on the road.)
So on March 10, with no end in sight to the strike, Jordan announced his retirement from baseball.
On March 18, Jordan faxed his now-famous “I’m back” statement, announcing his return to the NBA. He played for Chicago the next day, scoring 19 points on 7-of-28 shooting at Indiana.
Baseball reached a collective bargaining agreement to resume on April 2. Three nights later, Jordan scored 37 points in a 108-101 victory at New Jersey. The Bulls got eliminated by Orlando from the Eastern Conference playoffs, but roared back for a second three-peat of championships. With a renewed, more teammate-oriented Jordan leading them.
“I don’t know if baseball took away from his legacy, but the coming back was so dramatic,” Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2013. “[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.”