Tuesday, June 28, 2016

History of Fitness Episode 4: Michael Jordan's Baseball Career

Michael Jordan. The name elicits a vast array of emotions for anyone who lived during the 1980s-early 2000s. Even those who were not sports fans could tell you who he was; perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time. However, in the year 1994, after winning 3 straight NBA championships, Jordan decided to retire temporarily (although the choice seemed permanent at the time) to pursue a career in professional baseball.

Now, the popular consensus has largely been that Jordan's baseball career was a disaster (reference baseball segment in original Space Jam movie). However, that's not necessarily the case.

I think a couple things should be considered before we make that harsh criticism of Jordan. First, the man hadn't played baseball since high school, or over a decade. Imagine trying to play in a professional orchestra because you played cello ten years ago. Any amount of achievement in that venture would be considered a success. Second, Jordan was certainly motivated by his father's murder. "It was really his father's dream that he play baseball," Phil Jackson observed. "His father wanted to play pro ball and did play semi-pro. When his father passed away, I think Michael was kind of living out his father's dream." So, quite possibly Michael was hated for trying to pay a tribute to his dad and work through the grieving process after his father's murder. The hatred came because he was a successful pro basketball player. If your everyday Joe tried to do the same thing, they would be praised for their courage, etc. and I'm willing to bet that the majority (Maybe 99.999%) of those who criticized Jordan would not have achieved anywhere close to the success he did given the same circumstances. Believe it or not, he actually was successful.

First thing to consider, he started his career in the AA level of the White Sox organization. Thousands of very talented, professional athletes never even reach this level. Also, many times players are called up to the major league level from the AA team, so this was not easy or light competition. If you include guys sent down for injury rehab, etc, eight of the seventeen position players who spent time on the Baron's roster (Jordan's team) played at the major league level to some extent or another, including the great Steve Sax.

Jordan stole 30 bases this year, second on the team, trailing only Doug Brady who recorded 34. Brady would go on to see some time on the MLB club the next year. Brady also had 70 more plate appearances than Jordan. Jordan had a higher walk rate than Brady, and more RBIs. (Runs Batted in, a stat that essentially measures how many runs are scored due to your at bats). In fact Jordan ranked fourth in the team with 51 RBIs, only trailing slightly Kerry Valarie's team leading 58. Incidentally, Jordan and Valarie both hit 3 home runs that year. In fact, Jordan's 3 home runs were only bested by 4 of his teammates, including Glenn Disarcina, who slugged 7 and lead the team in that category. Jordan also had 46 runs scored, 17 doubles, and posted a .202 batting average. (It should be noted that the team batting average was .248, so Jordan wasn't as far off that mark as some think) True he did lead his team in strikeouts with 114, but he hadn't played baseball in over a decade, not to mention his strike zone was quite large due to his 6' 6" frame. Jordan actually had a decent season (and in some categories, excellent) against high level competition, while dealing with the constant criticism and magnification of any perceived mistake. There is a reason Terry Francona, who coached Jordan, and would go on to win 2 World Series coaching the Red Sox, stated, to paraphrase "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.” (Two more years in the minors, which isn't unthinkable since Doug Brady, whose stats were eerily similar to Jordan's, played on the big stage the next season.)

There is a lot we can learn from Michael's baseball story. First, people can always find something to criticize if they really want to. In spite of the odds, and the fact that he had just lost his father, Michael put together a good first year. However, our society often doesn't value relative success, but absolute success. "He was such a great basketball player, why would he waste his time in baseball?" Or, in a gym scenario "That was a pretty good lift, but nothing compared to what I saw on YouTube." Popularity is fleeting anyways. If Michael Jordan couldn't maintain 90% public approval his whole life, who can? Therefore, the goal of popular adoration is a vain pursuit, as it is often very temporary. Surely the criticism hurt, but Michael was able to overcome it by focusing on what he could control. For any worthy goal, this is vital, even goals outside the gym. You can only control what you can control. Tune out the negative, and focus. The next thing we can learn from "His Airness" is success happens over time as you are consistent. Michael practiced as hard as anybody and knew success happens bit by bit, not all at once. His methods were beginning to pay off, as he achieved a .252 batting avg. in the fall league, a full .050 higher than his time with the Barons.

The next point we can learn from Jordan is his lack of fear for failure. As he once said "I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and missed. And I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." Failures and setbacks will always be part of the path to success, no one is exempt from this. Anyone can be a critic. It's easy to find fault with others, whether real or imagined. Many people take joy in kicking a "dog when their down." Listening to people like this will not get you anywhere. Also on that same note, as you seek to help and lift others instead of tearing others down, you will find that you yourself will be uplifted, and even perform better. It is ok to have setbacks, because they are temporary. I hope we can follow Michael's example, and follow our heart over popular opinion.


1. 1994 Birmingham Barons Statistics -- Register | Baseball-Reference.com. (n.d.). Retrieved June 23, 2016, from http://www.baseball- reference.com/register/team.cgi?id=dfd224a8 2. Terry Francona says Michael Jordan could've played in the MLB. (n.d.). Retrieved June 23, 2016, from http://chicago.suntimes.com/sports/terry-francona- says-michael- jordan-couldve- played-in- the-mlb/ 3. Lazenby, R. (2014). Remember Michael Jordan;s time in baseball, 20 years later. Retrieved June 23, 2016, from http://www.sportsonearth.com/article/74071860/chicago- bulls-michael- jordan-20th- anniversary-retirement- baseball-white- sox 4. Michael Jordan Quotes | Basketball Quotations | Bulls | MJ. (n.d.). Retrieved June 23, 2016, from http://www.sportsfeelgoodstories.com/michael-jordan- quotes/

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