Lesson #1: If your head approves, follow your heart (even if that means leaving your perch atop the NBA to play minor league baseball)
by Jack M Silverstein (@readjack)
“I think he had to get away from everything. It all overwhelmed him.”
“I think he had gotten so tired of the hype and so tired of the media that he wanted to find a place where he could play and really just have fun.”
“I think Mike is doing this just so he can get away from the insanity of pro basketball.”
“Maybe Mike’s doing this because he just wants to be a player again.”
“Here’s a guy, the greatest of all times, letting nothing stand in the way of what he loves to do, and that’s just play ____________.”
— Marv Albert, Ahmad Rashad, David Robinson, Harold Miner, and John Thompson, February 1994
The best evidence that Michael Jordan’s 1993 retirement and subsequent short-lived baseball career was on the level and NOT a secret NBA suspension due to gambling, or an NBA marketing ploy to develop new stars in the Jordan vacuum, or any other theory, is simple: There’s no evidence.
“It’s not possible to keep a secret in the NBA,” Sam Smith said in the 2010 ESPN documentary about MJ’s time in baseball, “Jordan Rides The Bus.” “So this notion that somehow the NBA suspended the greatest player in the history of the NBA — forced him out of the game — and now, almost 20 years later, nobody still knows about this, is just ludicrous.”
The film’s director Ron Shelton phrased it to Deadspin quite similarly: “Every journalist I talked to said, ‘Don’t you realize, Ron? … ‘We went down there, we spent a year looking for the smoking gun! We would have won the Pulitzer!’”
Was Jordan suspended for gambling? The most realistic rumors I’ve heard over the years — word of mouth and otherwise — are not that he was suspended because of private gambling, i.e. golf and card games, but because he was gambling on pro sports, possibly the NBA, possibly his own games, possibly fixing games. If any of those scenarios were true, especially the latter two, would the NBA suspend him and let him return? And seriously, would NOBODY find out? Seems unlikely.
Additionally, there were Nike’s Johnny Kilroy commercials starting in January 1994 in which NBA stars, basketball media, and other celebrities speculated that Jordan “faked his retirement” to play semi-pro and minor league basketball under various aliases. The quotes above — from Marv, Ahmad, the Admiral, and everyone else — are actually from one of the Kilroy commercials referring to Jordan in disguise in semi-pro hoops, but the quotes allow for the double meaning of Jordan playing minor league baseball.
At least according to the dates on the clip below, that commercial, the third in the series, aired February 7, 1994, the day MJ signed his minor league contract.
What’s supremely odd about these commercials is that along with the playful notion of Jordan as Kilroy — a funny gag on its own — actors in the spots tease the actual MJ suspension conspiracy theory. In the first commercial from January 1994, narrator Steve Martin says the only conclusion to speculation that “Kilroy is Jordan” is that “Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time, is letting nothing stand in the way of what he loves to do.”
That line (“letting nothing stand in the way”) coyly suggests his retirement was not his choice. It’s repeated in commercial #3 by Coach Thompson.
Let’s say Jordan actually WAS secretly suspended by the NBA for gambling — and I’m not even talking about point shaving, fixing games, betting on his games, or even on the NBA, but the more mainstream version, that the league was letting the heat around his associations with, in his words, “goons,” and other unsavory issues, die down.
Would he really make a commercial joking about it, spurring fans, critics, reporters, and anyone else to search harder for proof? That would be the ballsiest and most reckless response possible to a legitimate threat to legacy and livelihood.
The theory posited in this Uproxx article from 2014 seems more plausible: that Jordan’s 1993 retirement was actually a marketing ploy by Jordan and the league. Jordan would get what he wanted, to take a break from basketball AND to play baseball, and the NBA would get to rebuild league suspense after three straight Bulls titles, develop new stars in the Jordan vacuum, and then re-insert Jordan into the mix like Ulysses returning home to fend off suitors to his beloved wife/championships.
Yet Jordan was talking about retirement as early as 1991. Sam Smith reported on MJ’s retirement thoughts in 1992’s “The Jordan Rules.” By the middle of the 1992-93 season, he’d pretty much made up his mind about retiring at the end of that season, and that was before the May 1993 Atlantic City gambling story, the Richard Esquinas book, and his father’s murder.
Those facts seal it for me. If someone has hard evidence that MJ was suspended, I’m obviously all ears. But in “The Mystery of Michael Jordan’s First Retirement,” I buy the simplest explanation of all: he needed a break. He said it repeatedly during that era.
He even told his teammates.
“And not just one night,” Jordan told sportswriter Melissa Isaacson in her 1994 book “Transition Game.” “We’d have a couple of beers after the game and they’d be complaining about this or that, pointing fingers as they liked to do, and I’d say, ‘Man, you don’t know how good you have it. You watch, I’m not going to be around here much longer. I think this is going to be my last year.’ And they’d say, ‘Sure MJ, sure.’ … I kept saying it. Not once, not twice, but three or four times. I could sense they didn’t believe me. ‘Sure MJ, you’re either pissed off or you’ve been drinking.’”
What’s fascinating about Isaacson’s book is that it was published while Jordan was still playing baseball — that is, without the benefit of hindsight. For instance, Isaacson asked Jordan if he ever considered simply taking a sabbatical, a notion broached regularly now.
“I never would do that and Jerry Reinsdorf never suggested it,” Jordan told her about the Bulls chairman. Phil Jackson, on the other hand, did ask Jordan to consider taking a break rather than retiring.
“No, this is it,” Jordan recalled telling his coach. “I want to do it now because I don’t want it to linger on in my mind … and I don’t want you to have hope (of a comeback) in the back of your mind when actually there’s no hope.”
Four months and one day after his retirement, Jordan threw the sports world another curveball, signing a minor league contract with the Chicago White Sox, the baseball team owned by Reinsdorf, (who declined an interview request for this story). Jordan played 17 spring training games for the Sox and was optioned to the Double-A Birmingham Barons.
“He was having a hard time with basketball,” said Terry Francona, Jordan’s manager with the Barons and future Boston Red Sox skipper, in 2013. “He said he’d show up to the arena, he’d put his headphones on, he’d play the game, answer the media and leave. To this day, I think for that one year, I think trying to get a hit in Memphis or Birmingham meant as much to him as what the NBA used to.”
But wait — didn’t MJ totally embarrass himself as a baseball player?
For fans who believe Jordan’s baseball career was a placeholder while the NBA gambling heat cooled, his .202 batting average with the Barons is cited as proof of his diamond ineptitude. But there are three problems with that. The first is that the context is wrong. You can’t compare MJ’s .202 to the so-called “good average” .300. As Baseball Reference points out, the Barons as a team hit .248 “in a park that typically had low averages.”
In fact, two of Jordan’s teammates who made the majors in 1995 — catcher Chris Tremie and 2nd baseman Doug Brady — hit .225 and .248, respectively, in Birmingham in 1994.
The second was that baseball insiders viewed Jordan’s .202 average not with cynicism but with awe: how could this 31-year-old basketball player pick up a bat for the first time in more than a decade and actually hit .202 in Double-A ball?
The final problem is that .202 represents an incomplete sample set. In late March 1994, when Sports Illustrated ran its ill-conceived cover story (famous for a cover title “Bag it Michael” and an inside caption “Err Jordan”), Jordan was maligned for hitting under .200, the so-called “Mendoza Line,” which Jordan joked might be renamed “the Jordan Line.”
“If Michael keeps hitting .200,” Charles Barkley said in June of ’94, “he’ll be back here (in the NBA) next year.”
We’ll never know, because Jordan didn’t keep hitting .200. He hit .260 over the season’s final month, raised his average to .200 after his first 3-hit game of the season, and eventually reached .202 in 436 total at bats.
“This is like the fourth quarter for me,” Jordan said in August, referencing the season’s stretch run. “This is when I want to be my best.”
Jordan then went to the Scottsdale Scorpions in October and hit .252 in the Arizona Fall League, a league Francona characterized as “probably a notch above Class Double A.” One of Jordan’s teammates in Scottsdale was future Red Sox All-Star Nomar Garciaparra who in 1995 made his Double-A debut and hit .267, 65 points better than Jordan’s “laughable” .202. Not to mention that Garciaparra was 10 years younger than Jordan and fresh off a celebrated career at Georgia Tech plus a profile big enough in high school that he was drafted by the Brewers.
The biggest clue about Jordan’s seriousness to stay in baseball until he made the Bigs came in July 1994 when he played confidante to SuperSonics coach and fellow North Carolina alumnus George Karl, advising Karl to pull the trigger on a trade for Scottie Pippen. On the table was Pippen and the #21 pick for Shawn Kemp, Ricky Pierce, and the #11 pick, which the Bulls hoped to use on Temple guard Eddie Jones. (He went #10.)
Seattle pulled out when owner Barry Ackerly panicked, in part because Sonics fans complained in droves on local radio. Karl pushed Ackerly to do the trade regardless, largely due to Jordan’s guidance.
“You’ll be getting the better of the deal,” Jordan told Karl, assuring him that a Pippen-Payton partnership in Seattle would win the Sonics a championship. This of course suggests Jordan was serious about remaining in baseball rather than making it a pre-determined hoops hiatus, because he wouldn’t offer his assistance to aid a trade that would eliminate his best teammate.
In 2010 Jordan told ESPN’s J.A. Adande that he would have “probably not” come back to the Bulls in 1995 with Kemp instead of Pippen. That statement supports the theory that Jordan had no immediate plans to return to the Bulls and was looking out for Pippen’s best interest.
Even with Phil Jackson speculating that Jordan would ultimately treat baseball like a long vacation from which one returns to work, a comeback at this time seemed, as Sam Smith wrote, “unlikely.” The day after he pushed Seattle to acquire Pippen, Jordan told reporters he didn’t see himself returning to hoops any time in the “near future” or even the “far future,” adding that if pushed to lean one way or the other, he was willing to say, on the record:
“I will never play basketball again, except recreationally.”
Yet a baseball work stoppage was looming. On August 12, the strike began. Jordan was approved for the Scorpions two weeks later, hit .252 with Scottsdale in 123 at bats, and then was promoted to Nashville for 1995.
That was the good news. The bad news were the folks suggesting Jordan was being fast tracked to the Bigs as a hedge during the strike against lost revenue. This was the last thing Jordan wanted. He’d been vocal about not wanting to earn a spot on the Sox roster as a replacement player, and equally adamant that he did not wish to be used by either the players or the owners as a bargaining chip.
“A lot of teams were willing to put me on their 25-man roster,” Jordan told Isaacson. “But I knew it wasn’t genuine. I knew it was only a business decision and not a baseball decision.”
Even White Sox GM Ron Schueler couldn’t talk about Jordan’s career without sounding like a man trying to convince himself of a truth he doesn’t yet believe. And certainly the economic impact Jordan had on the minor league system was unprecedented: the Barons set a home attendance record with 467,867 fans, and both the Southern League (where the Barons played) and the Fall League (where the Scorpions played) set season ticket-sales records.
Speculation about any non-merit-based advancement is irrelevant, though, compared to the hard facts of Jordan’s steady improvement and everything we know about his will and work ethic.
Jordan came back to the NBA twice in his life and played until he was 40, so I suspect he would have returned to hoops eventually. Indeed, throughout his retirement Jordan contacted friends in the league — including B.J. Armstrong and Joe Dumars — to pick their brains on young players. Sam Smith’s “Second Coming” quotes Jordan talking to reporters in Birmingham during the spring of 1994 about the possibility of returning to the NBA:
“Yes, once in awhile I think, ‘What if I was still there?’ But it’s more in the context of the young guys,”Jordan said. “I’ve proved my point with the Barkleys and Drexlers. It would have to be a shot at the (Anfernee) Hardaways and the Webbers. I’d like to teach those rookies a lesson.”
But there were no indications in the fall of 1994 that he would be back in the Bulls starting lineup within four months.
That’s where the strike comes in, along with my favorite conspiracy theory that NO ONE talks about: the possibility that Jerry Reinsdorf was partially motivated to be hard on the baseball players’ union to force his best athletic asset back to the place where said asset was most valuable.
Everything on the record says that the sequence moving from the threat of minor league strikebreakers to Jordan leaving baseball and returning to the Bulls was — from the NBA’s perspective — a fortuitous turn of events.
All I’m saying is that in a world where sports fans slobber up half-baked conspiracy theories like drunk teenagers at 3 a.m. who don’t want to wait for the Tombstone to finish cooking, a world where a good percentage of hoops fans actually believe that Michael Jordan’s baseball retirement was a secret gambling suspension from the NBA that no reporter has ever uncovered and no thirsty witness has ever leaked — in THAT world, it’s odd to me that no one wonders about the circumstances around Jordan, Reinsdorf, and the strike.
Because we clearly have four facts about Reinsdorf and Jordan which, taken in concert, could plausibly point to a particular conclusion, were one so inclined to believe it:
- Reinsdorf was paying MJ his hoops salary ($4 million) to play minor league baseball
- Reinsdorf was probably just as competitive as Jordan and viewed winning championships as the primary purpose of owning a team
- Reinsdorf surely knew about Jordan’s insistence on reaching the majors on his merits
- Reinsdorf was popularly credited as the baseball owner who took the hardest line against the players’ union
In the end, the strike left Jordan with no appealing baseball options. Rather than report to Nashville, he called Reinsdorf in March and said he was heading home to Chicago. In “Michael Jordan, The Life,” author Roland Lazenby reported Reinsdorf trying to talk Jordan out of leaving the White Sox organization, telling Jordan he was “quitting baseball for the wrong reasons.”
So fine, perhaps there’s no conspiracy. Yet conspiracy or not, the impact of the strike on Jordan is inarguable.
“If it wasn’t for the baseball strike,” Curtis Polk — a former colleague of Jordan’s agent David Falk — told Bleacher Report last year, “I’m not sure he would’ve come back (to basketball) at that time, or ever.”
Reinsdorf was even more definitive in a USA Today interview in 2014: “I think he would have definitely given it one more year if not for the strike.”
“I didn’t plan to come back,” Jordan said before the 1995-96 season. “And in some ways that was probably good, because I fixed my mind away from the game. I totally forgot about the game. And then once I got a taste of it again it was a different kind of taste — a taste that I’d been looking for for so long.”
Next chapter: “Lesson 2: Don’t be afraid to push your limits — or to find peace and excellence within them” AKA “33-23 = 1.8, but 33+23 = 72”
WANT MORE MICHAEL JORDAN FROM READJACK? How about 13 more stories?