What Michael Jordan’s Baseball Odyssey Reveals About Hope and Faith
We mere mortals often misunderstand sports stars.
We can’t help it. Their lives of money and fame seem glamorous in the extreme. They can fly anywhere they want in the off-season, and seemingly don’t bat an eye. They can drop hundreds of thousands of dollars in Las Vegas in a night, and walk away unscathed.
No mere mortal can understand that.
Yet there’s a more human side to these stars. They have hopes and dreams just like anyone else. They want to please their parents, just as most people do…and they want to do something special, something no one else expects them to do, just like everyone else.
In 1993, basketball star Michael Jordan seemingly had the world at his feet. His Chicago Bulls team had just won three NBA titles in a row. He was the best player in the NBA. And he’d just celebrated his enormous success with his teammates and his father, James Jordan.
Then his father James was murdered.
This threw Michael Jordan into a tailspin. He loved his father. Loved him without reservation. And without his father, life did not seem to have much savor.
All of this was chronicled at the time, mind. Michael Jordan’s relationship with his father was very well-known. And Michael Jordan’s grief was open and palpable — a wound that would not heal.
Then Michael Jordan did something completely unprecedented. In his prime, he walked away from the NBA — and became, of all things, a minor league baseball player. The Chicago White Sox organization signed Jordan, and assigned him to play in Double-A for the Birmingham Barons.
The conventional narrative was that Michael Jordan had completely lost his head. Why would anyone want to walk away from fame and glory, and put up with the indignity of striking out several times a night, much less having to ride a bus everywhere he needed to go rather than taking short plane rides on luxury jetliners?
The ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Jordan Rides the Bus discusses this time in Jordan’s life. It makes the case that Jordan’s odyssey in the minor leagues has been completely and totally misunderstood.
You see, at the time, sportswriters tended to believe that it was either all about Michael Jordan’s ego — the best basketball player in the world believing he could be just as good at baseball despite not playing it since high school — or that maybe Jordan had such a big gambling problem, then-NBA commissioner David Stern had unofficially given Jordan an ultimatum to stay away from the game for a year.
But neither of those things was true.
Jordan was grieving. He loved his father. And his father had asked him, apparently more than once, if he’d go play baseball again. His father must’ve remembered games Jordan played in high school, and believed that as an athlete, Jordan could compete at the highest level in any sport Jordan wanted to play.
But baseball is a game of timing. Repetition. Day after grinding day of hard work will lead to results, yes…but you have to be willing to put in that hard work.
The conventional wisdom was that Michael Jordan would not do that. He was a mega-star. So why should he?
Yet Jordan Rides the Bus disproves that theory, too. Michael Jordan actually worked hard every day, and improved so much that in the fall of 1994, he was sent to the Arizona Fall League — where the most talented prospects get sent — in order to keep working on his swing.
I also learned several other things about Michael Jordan from Jordan Rides the Bus that I’d sensed, but had never before been explained.
You see, even before James Jordan died, Michael Jordan had become burned out by the game of basketball. This may seem very strange to us mere mortals, but ask yourself this: Have you ever been burned out by something you love?
Then ask yourself this question: What would you do if you’d just lost the person you loved most in the world?
What Michael Jordan did is a testament to hope and faith. He somehow believed, deep inside, that trying something new was necessary, perhaps in order to help himself heal from the deep wounds inflicted by his father’s murder. He had to know that he’d not succeed immediately, and that perhaps he’d not succeed at all.
But he did it anyway.
He put up with the jeers from the sportswriters, who didn’t understand. He put up with the multitude of fans, some of whom assuredly asked him, “Why don’t you go back and play with the Bulls? You’re so good…why do this?” (And some, I’m sure, were not nearly that polite about it.) He put up with the difficulties of the minor leagues — the lousy hotels, the bad food, the long bus rides, the poor lighting of the ballparks.
And he did so with class and grace.
This was possibly the worst time in Michael Jordan’s life. So to embrace change, and turn it into something hopeful and optimistic, is a story worth telling.
Ultimately, Jordan did not become a major league baseball player. Instead, he went back to the Chicago Bulls and led them to three more championships. He resumed his place as the best player in the NBA.
But his coach, Phil Jackson, said that Jordan’s odyssey in baseball’s minor leagues made him “a better teammate,” and also quite possibly a better person. It reminded Jordan of how hard it was to become a professional athlete — something Jordan hadn’t thought about in a long time — and how much he’d taken for granted.
Hope. And faith.
Those two things can take you very far indeed, albeit not perhaps everywhere you want to go.
Even if you’re Michael Jordan.