Synopsis: Michael Jordan categorically is one of the top three players to ever play in the NBA. There’s even a very compelling argument that he’s the greatest NBA player of all-time. On the other hand, MJ doesn’t deserve consideration as an accomplished dual-sport athlete because he failed in his attempt to play professional baseball. I never imaged having to expose Jordan’s lack of baseball skills because I assumed it was incontrovertible. However, it appears that revisionist history may being confusing the matter. The truth is that Michael Jordan was a complete bust as an MLB prospect.
MICHAEL JORDAN – TOP 10 MLB BUST
In full disclosure, I hated Michael Jordan while he played in the NBA. He destroyed the title hopes of some of my favorite players (e.g. Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone). At the same time, I always respected him for his insatiable competitive drive to win. Given his success on the court (especially when it mattered most), I consider him to be the NBA GOAT. I provide this caveat to avoid being labeled simply as a “Michael Jordan Hater” before exposing him as a T10B MLB bust.
In my last post, I exposed the failure of Dodgers manager Dave Roberts during the 2018 World Series. As a contrast, I highlighted accomplished coaches/managers such as Phil Jackson and Terry Francona. I even contemplated including a side story about Michael Jordan because they both had the privilege of coaching him during their careers (i.e. Jackson in the NBA and Francona in Double A baseball). After doing some research, I realized that “His Airness” warranted a separate post. I include that specific nickname because it serves as a desirable pun for someone with serious hops in basketball but is less complimentary for someone who whiffed at a lot of pitches in baseball.
In his first managerial role after playing 10 MLB seasons, Terry Francona had the opportunity to coach Michael Jordan in the minor leagues. I generally heard negative assessments of Jordan as a baseball player, so I was surprised to learn that Francona made the following statement to a Chicago Sun-Times reporter a couple years ago.
[Jordan] had so many raw tools. He hadn’t played in so long. I thought it was actually a miracle that he did what he did. And again when he went to the fall league, he got better. I’m going to guess, if he would have invested a couple more years, I bet he would have found his way to the big leagues.
JORDAN GETTING BETTER?
The statement surprised me because I heard Francona imply the complete opposite a few weeks ago on Fox Sports Ohio. Appealing to a regional crowd, the channel aired an Indians-themed show during which Terry Francona, Mike Hargrove and Rick Manning played 18 holes of golf with Jimmy Hanlin.
While Jimmy Hanlin might seem like an outlier in the group (and not just because of his pants), he has built a following based on his television show during which he plays golf with a buxom woman wearing a tight top.
JIMMY HANLIN WITH NATALIE GULBIS
JIMMY HANLIN WITH HOLLY SAUNDERS
JIMMY HANLIN WITH A FILL-IN
As a quick aside, my son (“E”) and I had a first-hand encounter with Hanlin this summer. While playing a round of golf prior to his high school tryouts, E hit an errant shot that may have hit the golf pro’s house. I didn’t think much about it until I saw the “TV star” come out of the clubhouse after we finished our round. I stopped worrying when Hanlin jovially said, “Hey” to the both of us before climbing into his SUV and driving off. In retrospect, he may have responded that way because he saw me staring at his truck as I wondered who would leave a running vehicle parked horizontally across a couple handicapped spots.
I used to be able to outdrive E by 40-50 yards, but he outdrove me that day by 20-30 yards. With added length, he lost some consistency; ergo, the shot in Hanlin’s backyard. Fortunately, my son avoided inconsistency when it mattered most during his high school district tournament. From the 5th position on his varsity team, E had a team low of 79 and missed qualifying for the state tournament by only four strokes.
I’m sure my son and I will be back to practice on Hanlin’s home course next summer. Now that I know where the golf pro lives, I may try to hit a ball near his yard in case he’s being visited by one of his co-stars. If it’s not obvious, I’m only kidding. That is, unless I spot any inflated balloons on his back porch.
BACK TO THE STORY: FRANCONA ON JORDAN
At one point during the episode, Francona told a story about Jordan dunking over some hacks during a pickup basketball game. I couldn’t remember the exact wording, but it sounded familiar to what Sheldon Ocker reported for Ohio.com. Specifically, Ocker quoted the coach as saying:
Sometime during the season, it probably was inevitable that a pickup basketball game would break out. It happened at an outdoor court in Birmingham, and word spread quickly that Jordan was playing. When one local player began to challenge Jordan with some physical play, he reacted.
He told the guy he was going right there [pointing to where the man was standing]. Then he took off and slammed the ball so hard that he tore the rim off the backboard.
In the version I heard, Francona commented that he tried to provide a screen before MJ summarily told his coach to get out of the way. Francona also recounted that Jordan jumped over the defender in the process of making the dunk. Furthermore, I had the privilege of watching the Indians’ manager tell the story while attempting a flop shot from five yards behind the green with a stogie hanging from his mouth. After barely making it to the surface, Francona putted 10 feet past the hole before picking up what could only be considered a Presidential “gimme.” For a reference, ask anyone who has ever described playing golf with Bill Clinton.
As the only two post-season Indians’ managers in the last 70 years, Hargrove and Francona seemed to have a special connection during the round. At one point, Hargrove put Francona on the spot and asked whether Jordan could actually play baseball. The current Tribe manager basically laughed while emphatically saying, “No!” After recognizing the camera crew, Francona softened the blow by saying that Jordan impressively stole a lot of bases. MJ stole 30 bases for the Birmingham Barons but was caught stealing 18 times for an unimpressive steal percentage of 63%. In other words, he didn’t have a future simply as a pinch runner.
JORDAN – THE STATS
In addition to being a 3 (HR) and 30 (SB) player, Michael Jordan had the following stats in 127 games of Double A ball.
- Batting average of .202 (88 hits in 436 at bats).
- Clearly, not worthy of an MLB call-up.
- On-base % of .289 (139 times in 497 plate appearances).
- After being caught stealing 18 times, he effectively had a .243 OBP.
- Hopefully, you don’t need me to tell you how pathetic that number is.
- Slugging % of .266 (based on 17 doubles, 1 triple, and 3 home runs).
- After netting out his steals, Jordan effectively had a .294 slugging %.
- Again, that stat is really, really bad for a potential MLB prospect.
- Fielding % of .952 with 11 errors in 203 chances.
- Go back to the earlier image of Jordan trying to catch a ball in practice.
- In case you don’t appreciate the magnitude of the number, Jordan had 3x more errors than an average MLB outfielder.
- I don’t appreciate Wins Above Replacement (WAR) as a stat, but I wonder what Jordan’s WAR would have been as a minor league player. I’d especially like to know his defensive WAR.
As a numbers guy, I would have thought that these stats prove that Jordan didn’t deserve consideration as an MLB prospect. Yet, somehow the opposition exists.
In a recent article for SI.com, Ted Keith wrote:
One regrettable SI cover aside, Jordan wasn’t too bad at the national pastime. At 30, having not played since high school, he batted .202 with three homers and 30 stolen bases. Another year or two of seasoning and he might have been on the Sox team that missed a playoff spot by three games in ’96.
THE “REGRETTABLE SI COVER”
Keith continued by writing:
If not for the 1994 strike, would Jordan really have made it to the majors? [Former MLB All-Star Kenny] Lofton didn’t give Jordan a chance, although [MLB scout Jim] Callis thinks otherwise. ‘If there hadn’t been the strike and the lockout, I think we might have seen Michael Jordan in the big leagues,’ he said. ‘Would Michael Jordan have earned it solely on merit? Probably not. But if not for the lockout — and he wasn’t going to cross the picket line — we might have seen Jordan in the big leagues in 1995.’
The SI.com writer tried to support his argument by quoting a scout who acknowledged that Jordan’s appearance in the big leagues would not have been based solely on merit. OK, enough said.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
Imagine finding yourself on the mound in Double A ball with Michael Jordan at the plate and Don Quixote (a.k.a. John Quiñones) interrupts you. Specifically, imagine the hidden camera humanist questioning your intentions before pitching to a NBA superstar who couldn’t play baseball. I contend that most of you (myself included) wouldn’t throw your best stuff against him.
Thankfully, Rob Neyer of Complex.com gave me the fodder I needed to support this contention by interviewing pitchers who faced MJ. To start, Neyer properly assessed the situation with the following quote.
Leaving aside the autograph opportunities, pitching against Michael Jordan was a no-win situation because every Double-A pitcher was expected to overwhelm him at the plate. In his first at-bat with Birmingham, he faced Chattanooga’s John Courtwright and flied out. In his eighth at-bat, he stroked a single off Knoxville’s Joe Ganote for his first official, professional hit.
I’m sure that Joe Ganote has retold the story of giving up Jordan’s first hit thousands of time. On the other hand, John Courtwright’s story is less interesting because pitchers got Jordan out 4 out of 5 times. I bet Courtwright would have preferred giving up a hit so Jordan still might talk to him.
Neyer continued by providing quotes from numerous pitchers who faced “His Airness” in the minor leagues. I’ll focus on three.
LaTroy Hawkins of the Nashville Xpress
I knew there was a chance I’d pitch against him, because Birmingham was in our league. When I was still in Fort Myers, I heard about him from some of our rovers, and I thought that pitching to him would be one of the coolest things that could ever happen. I grew up 35 minutes away from [Chicago Stadium], watched every game on TV, was a huge Bulls fan.
I think I started against them twice. Jordan got a hit off me, and then I picked him off first base. I also punched him out at least once—I think I faced him five times total. One game at home, one at their place. I told him later, ‘My mom told me to throw you all fastballs. That’s why you got that hit off me.’
C.J. Nitkowski of the Chattanooga Lookouts
I made 14 starts with Chattanooga, two of them against the Barons, and faced Jordan for a total of five at-bats. Of course everybody asks me, ‘How’d you do?’ Well, I struck him out twice…and me being me, I also walked him three times.
I also tell people that with all the great hitters I faced in my career, I was nervous on the mound only twice: facing Michael Jordan that first year, then later facing Frank Thomas.
You should get Michael Jordan out. It’s a situation where you’ve got nothing to gain and everything to lose. So if anything, it’s about not embarrassing yourself. The idea was basically just to throw fastballs he couldn’t catch up with, get ahead, and then he’d have no chance on a good breaking ball.
Jeff Ware of the Knoxville Smokies
Everybody did their best to get him out. I wasn’t going to throw him any cookies, that’s for sure. With Jordan’s long arms, the idea was to pound inside with fastballs. Well, I didn’t get in there far enough and he hit it out in left-center [Ed. note—one of Jordan’s three home runs that summer]. I was a little pissed off at myself.
I talked to Jordan the next day in the outfield. Before our BP, he was shagging fly balls and I went out and shot the breeze with him, said, ‘Why do you gotta take me deep like that?’ He was great, seemed like just another guy on the baseball team. I got two baseballs signed, which I still have.
Based on these quotes, I truly wonder what Jordan’s average would have been if he simply were a 6’6″ gangling player who didn’t warrant special attention. It really doesn’t matter because Jordan’s .202 average already was low enough to disprove the myth that he had a future in professional baseball.
By writing this article, I have no delusions about diminishing the greatness of Michael Jordan as an NBA player. I contend that MJ became an even greater basketball player after realizing that he didn’t have a future as an MLB player. In particular, the 1995-96 Bulls team that went 72-10 in the regular season and 15-3 in the playoffs en route to the NBA title is the best team I ever saw. I hated that team, but still can appreciate its greatness based on the contributions of “His Airness.”