Earlier this week, the White Sox signed Cuban mega-prospect Luis Robert. This article is not about that (although this article is, if you want to get up to date on the teenager). Robert has been described by one anonymous scout as “the best player on the planet,” something that will definitely be super easy to live up to. The claim echoes sentiments about another freakishly talented Chicago athlete with baseball ties: Michael Jordan. This article is also not about comparing Luis Robert to Michael Jordan, although I’m not taking it off the table forever. This article is about how ridiculous it is for Jordan to have had even a modicum of success playing professional baseball after not playing the sport at any level for 12 years. If he hadn’t been literally one of the best athletes on the planet, he probably wouldn’t have even been able to put bat on ball.
In case anyone in the world needs background on this, Michael Jordan was basically the Babe Ruth of basketball for the Chicago Bulls, until he abruptly announced his retirement following the murder of his father in 1993. To honor his late father’s dream of seeing MJ play baseball, Jordan signed with the White Sox as a free agent before the 1994 season. He played in the minors for one year before returning to basketball and resuming his utter dominance.
So, let’s look at the numbers. Jordan was 31 years old in 1994, the one season he played for the Birmingham Barons, Double-A affiliate of the Sox even back then. That placed him seven years above the league average age, although Jordan wasn’t even the oldest player on the team that year — Steve Sax, on a rehab assignment, and Dan Pasqua, spiraling toward the end of his career, both made appearances.
Jordan played in 127 games, in which he hit .202/.289/.266, with three home runs, one triple, 17 doubles, and 51 RBI. He struck out 114 times against 51 walks. He stole 30 bases and was caught seating 18 times. He grounded into four double plays and made 11 errors in the outfield.
To give that a little bit of perspective, in 2016 for the Barons, Courtney Hawkins slashed .203/.255/.309 over 106 games, with 12 home runs, 25 doubles, and 60 RBI. Hawkins struck out more times than Jordan — 127 — and walked fewer — 28. He made seven errors, also in the outfield.
This isn’t so much to pick on Courtney Hawkins as it is to highlight the absurd difficulty of being a professional baseball player. 2016 was his second year in Double-A, and this is a guy who has played baseball continuously for basically his whole life. He also followed the minor league hierarchy: Rookie ball, Low-A, High-A, then Double-A; Jordan, meanwhile, picked up a bat after over a decade away from the sport and jumped straight into a level of baseball notorious for testing hitters without testing the water first.
In context with the rest of the Barons in 1994, Jordan’s stats don’t look so bad (still bad, but not so bad). Sure, he only hit three home runs, but only four teammates hit more than that. He did have the second-lowest batting average on the team for a regular, but overall, Birmingham only hit .248 that year. Jordan was third on the team in walks (and think of the strike zone). While he did get caught stealing with regularity, he trailed only future major leaguer Doug Brady’s 34 for the team lead in successful attempts.
Jordan played in the 1994 Arizona Fall League, traditionally composed of teams’ top prospects, and hit .252. Then, in 1995, the player strike continued, and not wanting to become a replacement player, he hung up the cleats and returned to basketball, resuming his mantle as the greatest of all time. So, not only did the strike deny us a White Sox/Expos World Series and an even-more-bonkers-than-usual year from Frank Thomas, we can thank it for derailing MJ’s South Side career.
Sure, he might have returned to basketball anyway, but it was generally agreed upon by Baseball People that he had a real shot at the majors (this post put together several quotes and information from after that AFL season). He probably would never have been a star, but even a fourth outfielder role would have been an impressive achievement, and he had the raw ability and the work ethic to make progress down that road. Instead, all we get is a vague sense of pride that he was affiliated with the Sox at all, and this beautiful memory.
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