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.”
The Scottsdale Scorpions season ended on December 1, 1994, when they didn’t make the Fall League playoff. Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune wrote:
“I’ve learned a lot in all areas, but I think more so mentally,” Jordan said this week. “Being mentally strong to deal with disappointments day-in and day-out, and still having the energy to come back the next day and try to start fresh.
“It’s very easy to carry things over from game to game. But if you do, it’s just going to last a little bit longer. Mentally it’s been a real big challenge for me.”
When Jordan was assigned to the Arizona Fall League, White Sox General Manager Ron Schueler said Jordan likely would be promoted to Triple-A Nashville with a decent showing, despite hitting.202 in his debut season at Double-A Birmingham. Midway through his stint as a Scottsdale Scorpion, Jordan’s promotion was all but set, and he was even making a commercial for the Nashville Sounds.
Jordan finished the season hitting.252 with eight runs batted in, no homers and only five extra-base hits in 120 at-bats. He lead the team with 34 strikeouts.
“He’s definitely improving,” said Scottsdale shortstop Craig Wilson, who grew up watching Jordan on TV. “His hitting has come a long way. He’s stinging the ball pretty good and making tremendous strides.”
“He may not make it to the major leagues,” said Terry Francona, Jordan’s manager at Birmingham and Scottsdale. “He knows that. But he’s not going to stop trying.”
Most baseball insiders believe it is no longer a question of whether Jordan will one day play with the White Sox, but whether he will have earned his promotion by merit or because of his celebrity. His bat speed is still suspect, though one scout who asked for anonymity said Jordan has indeed made great progress since Sarasota.
“I thought he didn’t attack the ball last spring,” the scout said. “You have to hit the ball with authority, have that transfer of weight, the quick wrists and arm movement. He was content with making contact back then and he hit a lot of lazy popups and groundouts. But he’s come a long way.
“I think the majority of scouts feel the way I do. He’s gone from zero to where he’s at now. The scouts gained more respect as the year went on and we saw he was really committed to this. The.202 average doesn’t sound good, but a lot of guys in the minors have played all their lives and still hit around.200. It’s just too bad Jordan is almost 32. If only he had more time… ”
“Naturally, I’m going to be judged on my stats and I know that,” Jordan said. “Deep down inside I felt I made some progress and I’m very happy with my progress.
“I didn’t come in expecting to hit 15-20 home runs and put up some unbelievable numbers. I just came in to learn as much as I can, take it back with me over the winter, work harder and go into spring training with a little more information.”
The one certainty is that people come out to watch Jordan play. Birmingham drew a club record 467,867 fans this year, and Scottsdale has drawn a Fall League record 36,815 in 22 home games, nearly breaking the Summer league record of 38,568 in 142 games….
One Scorpions game was switched from Tempe to Tucson so that southern Arizonans could get their one and only glimpse of Jordan. His presence helped draw a Fall League record 7,836 fans, and he gave them what they came to see with a run-scoring single in his first at-bat and a pair of stolen bases later on.
“A lot of people will look at it as an opportunity for the league to get more exposure and certainly make some money,” Jordan said. “It’s a business and I realize that. The way I look at it is that I got something from it personally and experience-wise, so both of us should be happy.”
Nashville will be the next recipient of the Jordan gold rush, and team president and General Manager Larry Schmittou is eagerly awaiting his arrival.
“I was a doubting Thomas,” Schmittou said. “He was trying to do something after a 15-year layoff. But I watched him take 200-300 extra swings a day, and take extra balls in the outfield, and I saw a lot of progress when he came into (Nashville) in August. With two strikes, pitchers at least had to pitch to him.”
“I think he can go as far as he wants to,” Wilson said. “If he knows he’ll get a legitimate shot, he’ll stick it out. The most surprising thing to me is that the guy has accomplished everything you could want to accomplish in basketball, and then he comes out here and works his tail off.”
He has lasted longer than many folks expected. How much longer will Jordan stay with baseball?
“I still love the game,” he said. “As long as I continue to get better… I mean, I haven’t really put a time-frame on myself. I don’t have anything else to do. Why not just keep playing?”
The implication of these stories is that Jordan would have kept playing, for Nashville in AAA in 1995, if the strike hadn’t kept going and he hadn’t been asked to become a replacement player that spring. Instead, he went back to the Bulls. But a projection of his baseball career into 1996 would put him on track to get onto the White Sox’s roster, probably as a fourth or even fifth outfielder, not playing very well but not being simply a publicity grab by the Sox. Maybe he would’ve hit.270 or.280 for Nashville in ’95, hitting for just a little power, and drawing a decent number of walks. Getting called up to the Sox late in the ’95 season, then sticking on the roster in ’96.
It would have been a major coup for MLB to have the country’s biggest sports celebrity choose baseball over basketball, playing for the White Sox in a fairly marginal role when he could have been going after more NBA titles with the Bulls. And that’s one more reason why the ’94-’95 strike was such a mess for pro baseball.
Here’s a story from the San Diego Union-Tribune on Jordan’s Arizona Fall League debut on Oct. 6, 1994:
The game, an 8-7 victory over the Tempe Rafters, played a few miles from the scene of the Chicago Bulls’ three-peat in 1993, came one year to the day that Jordan left the NBA for the minor league bus trips.
It was an up-and-down Fall League debut for Jordan. He had an infield hit his first time up — but promptly was picked off. His second time up, with runners on second and third, he popped up. In the fifth inning he committed two errors in left field to help Tempe to four runs. But he followed up with a hard single in the sixth, then a single to drive in the tying and winning runs in the seventh and another single in the ninth (after a brushback). His line: 4-for-5, two RBI, two errors and a baserunning mistake.
The Scorpions uniform added a nice touch of coincidental irony. Jordan was once again dressed in red and black.
“I was taking another step in life, which a lot of people don’t seem to take,” Jordan reflected yesterday before the game. “Possibly being considered not-the-best, I was willing to (risk that). I was committed to that decision. I knew what I wanted to do. I just didn’t know if it would happen.”
It’s happening to the extent that organizers had to set up a makeshift area in a weight room for Jordan to address the media. With no baseball playoffs to cover, more than 70 writers and broadcasters covered the Fall League opener, and a record crowd of 6,116 (tickets: $4 and $3) filled all but one section of Tempe Diablo Stadium.
So this is what baseball has come to, in the year of the strike. Michael Jordan is suddenly the sport’s top attraction. Last year, the league lured fewer than 200 per game to watch baseball’s top prospects. Last Sunday, 800 people showed up to watch Jordan practice at a local high school, and hundreds of students played hooky to witness Scottsdale’s practices during the week. The league’s 2,200-seat season ticket package sold out.
Given his enduring fame, Jordan was asked before the game whether he would consider becoming a replacement player, should the labor strife drag on through the beginning of next major league season.
“I wouldn’t do that,” he said. “I don’t want to create any kind of controversy between the players and myself.”
“People don’t realize how difficult it is to hit a baseball,” said Birmingham manager Terry Francona, also managing the Scorpions. “I’ve been hitting.202 all my life. He did it after not playing for 15 years, since high school, and that was amazing. But he’s not going for amazing. He’s going for the big leagues.”
Midway through the season, that dream seemed so elusive that, after a game in Memphis, Jordan opened up to Francona. Jordan admitted yesterday that he was thinking about quitting. Francona convinced him to keep the faith.
“He was really struggling,” said Francona. “We talked for a long time. He wasn’t sure he was following the right path. More than anything, though, he was concerned about taking up a spot that somebody else might have deserved.”
Jordan rebounded to finish third on the team with 51 RBI, a noteworthy stat considering his batting average. Also, he tied for fifth in the Southern League with 30 stolen bases. What stoked Jordan was the final month, when he hit.260 and started to hit homers.
He began acquiring the knack of hitting behind the runner, among many of the sport’s subtleties. The batting swing felt “more natural,” he said, and, critically, he learned to handle the day-to-day frustration of swinging and missing. “Athletically and physically, basketball is harder,” said Jordan. “But mentally, this game is a lot harder. You have to deal with disappointment so often.”
“I’m not embarrassed,” he said. “I know I’m probably the last man on this team. That’s the challenge: to keep moving forward. I never thought I was too big to learn.”
Jordan went to Chicago’s Sarasota complex to continue his training in the Florida Instructional League before coming to Arizona last week. Now in its third season, the Fall League attracts top prospects, usually off Class AA and Class AAA rosters. Shortstop Derek Jeter of the Yankees, Baseball America’s ’94 Minor League Player of the Year, is with Chandler. Houston’s Phil Nevin, drafted in the first round out of Cal State Fullerton, is Mesa’s third baseman.
Here are a few final quotes. From Jordan: “Baseball is a passion, not an obsession. I love the game and enjoy playing it. As long as I keep improving and continue to enjoy myself, I’ll keep playing until the White Sox tell me to stop.”
And, from a Chicago Tribune article, one quote from Nashville’s Larry Schmittou: “I’ve never said this before, but I’ll say it now-the guy will make the big leagues. With his body and work habits, he’s at the big-league level now. He’s just still trying to learn the game. I think he’ll make the big leagues, and play as long as he played in the NBA.”
From Frank Thomas: “I’m looking forward to him being a teammate soon. He’s making some serious strides. I’ve seen him a couple times in Arizona so far, and he’s looking good. He’d be another positive person in that puzzle, and we need that kind of leadership.”