Baseball is, like, wicked hard to play well. Sure, Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw make it look easy, but it really isn’t. And sure, Bartolo Colon isn’t exactly the Platonic ideal of an athletic specimen, but neither was Babe Ruth. While athletic gifts can be a huge benefit to a player, it requires more than just physical talent. It takes a very particular set of skills to even be an average baseball player.
There have been a handful of professional two-sport athletes in my lifetime, and more before that, but there haven’t been any recently. That is mostly attributable to the fact that it is enormously difficult to succeed in one, let alone two, at the pro level. The last two successful dual-sport athletes were Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders – both transcendent football talents who also dabbled in baseball. But the last inimitable athlete to attempt to play a different sport was when the greatest basketball player ever, Michael Jordan, showed the world just how hard it is to hit a baseball.
I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when the news broke that Jordan was going to try playing baseball during his “retirement” from the NBA. At the time, Jordan was the most famous person on the planet, as well as the best basketball player, and he’d just capped off a third consecutive season with a world championship. He’d decided to walk away from basketball a few weeks earlier, and most guessed he was stepping away because of a combination of factors: fatigue, the death of his father, and a secret suspension for gambling were the most prevalent theories.
Whatever the reasons, Jordan walked away from the basketball court at his peak, but he couldn’t just walk fairways and greens – he still had the drive to compete and test himself. And so, despite having not played baseball since high school in 1981, Michael Jordan signed with the Chicago White Sox and attempted to become a professional baseball player at the age of 31. The news broke while I was trudging along on a treadmill and the guy next to me immediately quipped, “who knew MJ was jealous of Deion?”
Two-sport stars have all but disappeared in the 21st century, but in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there were only two athletes on the planet that could claim to be as famous as Jordan: Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders. Jackson was a freak of nature who could do anything before his hip injury. Sanders – considered the greatest cornerback in NFL history – was the consummate showman in addition to being one of the most gifted athletes of his generation. Jordan was the unquestioned King of Basketball when he retired but the doubters emerged immediately – could Jordan hit a curveball? Sanders couldn’t, Jackson couldn’t – both were successful major league players (in addition to their NFL careers), but neither was a good baseball player. Jackson was better than Sanders, but both were average or slightly-above average players at best – not the “best” that they were on the gridiron.
Jordan gamely went to play for the ChiSox’s AA affiliate, the Birmingham Barons, who were managed by future Hall of Famer Terry Francona. And Jordan was lousy. He hit .202/.289/.266 in 497 at-bats with the minor league team. By all accounts he tried hard, he put in the work, he gave it his best effort – and he stank. The most gifted, and talented, basketball player ever was a failure on a baseball diamond.
That’s because baseball is an incredibly difficult game to play at a high level. It requires not only tremendous physical and athletic gifts, but also timing and patience along with a host of mental skills that are nearly impossible to master. Supremely gifted athletes like Jackson and Sanders could survive as average major leaguers but couldn’t be superstars because baseball is hard. Michael Jordan proved it beyond a reasonable doubt when he couldn’t hit a curveball in AA in the summer of 1994.
Jordan’s Hall of Fame coach, Phil Jackson, summed up the ill-fated foray thusly: “’Jeez, this guy wants to go play baseball in the major leagues?” But then I realized basketball players are always fantasizing that they could play baseball.” Great players – great athletes – believe they can do anything. Jordan believed he could play big-league baseball. But he couldn’t because playing baseball really well is something only a very special few can do.
Soon, the greatest baseball players on the planet will descend upon the spring training fields in Florida and Arizona – and the worst of them will have been the best player (by far) in their hometown or on their travelling team. They will have been working out all winter to maximize their chance of making the team, of competing with their peers and teammates. And the very best of them will still fail to hit the curveball in seven out of ten chances. Baseball is hard, and Michael Jordan’s foray proves it.