I knew about Michael Jordan’s time playing for the Birmingham Barons in 1994, but I hadn’t heard that he played in the Arizona Fall League that year as well. Here are a few stories on his time in the Fall League. This, from Scott Miller of the St. Paul Pioneer Press in December of ’94:
“In the first two years of the league, we’d get calls in the office from local people saying, ‘Hey, I’d like to play in the fall league,”‘ said Steve Gilbert, the league’s media-relations director. “They thought it was a semipro league.”
But then the Chicago White Sox placed Jordan in the league, and the national spotlight swung toward Arizona, and the calls from untalented locals trying to join stopped. Jordan finished his season with a .252 average (31 for 123), including 34 strikeouts, but he boosted the league’s ticket sales from last year’s total of 35,568 to more than 100,000.
“He’s been everything for this league,” said Dan O’Brien, the league’s director of baseball operations. “Everything. He’s the linchpin. He’s the primary focus who has really brought identity to the league. “As good as the league is – and it is good – the first two years it was just a rumor in the valley here.”
So far, one in every three players who passes through this league has made the majors for at least a short while. Each major league team must contribute six prospects. The White Sox petitioned the league to see, with Jordan, if they could place seven. “I don’t like to think of any of us as fools,” O’Brien said. “We know what he did for the Southern League. People just lose their minds when they see him.”
“He’s a very nice guy,” says a pitcher named Dan Carlson, a San Francisco Giants prospect. “He’s probably the biggest superstar in the world, compared to anybody, and he’s down to earth. You can talk with him and joke with him.”
Perhaps the most amazing thing so far is this: Despite his struggles, despite nearly 10 months of the daily baseball grind, despite no ticket to the majors in clear reach, Jordan is still at it.
“Right now, mentally, I’ve hit a wall,” Jordan said one night toward the end of the season. “There’s mental fatigue, but not physical. Earlier in my career, I hit a wall until I learned what was asked of me and how to deal with the season. But learning this will help me for next year. It will give me mental stamina for next year.”
And there will be a next year, Jordan vows.
“My offseason is very crucial to me,” he said. “It’s crucial to me more than most. That’s really when I am going to make my gains so that when the season comes around I am better than I was last year.” Which is why he has a stack of videotapes waiting nearby. He has not yet watched tapes of himself batting, but he will do so soon. “That’s the one thing I want to do in the offseason,” he said. “From Day One until now. It’s going to be crucial to me.”
One of the biggest hurdles along Jordan’s base line is driving the ball consistently. He is making more contact than he used to but still isn’t hitting the ball with authority. Jordan cooled off some at the plate because he didn’t see as many fastballs as he did earlier this fall. And therein lies Jordan’s biggest problem: He got fastballs early and was able to adjust and hit them. So pitchers adjusted and fed him more curveballs. Now, Jordan must make another adjustment. And if he does, pitchers will readjust and throw more smoke, and then can Jordan adjust again? The process will repeat itself over and over, and Jordan will not become a serious major league prospect until he can master it.
“He’s improved,” Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. “In the short amount of time I’ve seen him in spring training and in the short amount of time I’ve seen him here, he’s improved his reactions, his first-step quickness, his ability to make decisions on the bases. You can see it. That doesn’t cover the fact that he’s 32. He still needs at-bats to see various types of pitches – split-fingers, left-handed pitchers and what they have to offer, right-handed pitchers and what they do, relievers… he just needs at-bats.”
“I’m still tentative,” Jordan said. “I’m still trying to learn what a major league player is. Little by little, I’m getting better. I have to learn how to hit to the opposite field. I have to work on my fundamentals before I can even think about power. I see the ball well, but I’m still trying to learn how to stay back.”
If Jordan starts next season in Class AAA, as expected, he is close enough for a recall to the majors – particularly when rosters expand next September or, if Chicago either has the division clinched or needs to generate some late-season interest if it doesn’t win the division.
The White Sox still aren’t completely sure what to do with him, but they are amazed that Jordan has stuck with this as long as he has. “First of all, I couldn’t believe he would do it,” General Manager Ron Schueler said. “The impact he had in basketball – I don’t care how good he gets in this, he is not going to be as good as he was in basketball.”
But, according to Jordan, he can find here what he could no longer find in basketball.
“Getting to know the guys, seeing professional players before they are (major league) players,” he said. “There are a lot of great players on this team who are going to be greater players. To relive the stages I had to go through in basketball is very gratifying. That’s part of this whole dream. I’ve been to the top. Now, I want to see what the stages are in getting there.”