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The Last Dance: When Michael Jordan Made Baseball Cool Again

Jordan's year playing pro baseball is his most underrated contribution to "The Culture."

Baseball has gone from the No. 1 sport for Black folks in America (remember Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947?) to a sport that is considered “white” or “Hispanic.” 

The prevailing thought is that baseball turned its back on Black people long ago and vice versa. The man who is often blamed for this is Michael Jordan, whose presence and talent on the basketball court changed sports marketing forever and helped make hoops the specialty sport of the Black athlete. 

There are other factors that have contributed to MLB going from 18.7 percent Black in 1981 to the 8.4 percent we have today. There are socio-economic and race factors that make it deeper than Jordan, but his love for baseball as a kid, and his eventual ascension in hoops has become the blueprint for Black athletes in 2020. 

The Last Dance

The Last Dance Episode 7 taught us that despite his dominance as the basketball GOAT, Jordan admirably attempted to give back to Black baseball what he stole from it by mesmerizing and brand-washing the sports world into steering black kids towards hoop goals instead of diamond dreams. 

Shortly after his father’s tragic murder, while taking a nap on the side of the road in his Lexus following a golf outing, Jordan retired from the game and decided to fulfill his father’s lifetime dream of seeing his son play pro baseball. 

Now, kids of today might not understand why the greatest basketball player in the world would want to play baseball, but when MJ was coming up in the 70s, baseball was the sh*t in the Black community. There was endless inspiration for kids of color, from Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron and Willie Mays and Willie Stargell to Ken Griffey Jr. and all of the Hall of Fame players that dominated the game of baseball in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. 

Yup, once upon a time, Black kids wanted to play baseball just as much as basketball — probably more. Jordan’s brother said that the family thought MJ would become an MLB player when he was an adolescent. Somewhere along the line, destiny took hold and six titles and a GOAT status later, the rest is history. 

MJ Plays For Chicago White Sox Organization

Jordan’s brief baseball career with the Birmingham Barons, a Double-A minor league affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, however, is an important piece of his legacy. For a couple of months, MJ took his star power and shifted the eyes of the sports world back onto Black baseball. 

On April 8, 1994, at the Hoover Met, Jordan made his official professional baseball debut wearing No. 45, his old Laney (North Carolina) High number. Jordan drew a record crowd of 10,359, as well as 130 members of the media. 

The media circus was on and with all eyes on MLB, which was embarking on an inevitable strike-shortened season, Jordan brought Black people and an NBA-style swag back to baseball — if only for a moment in time. 

Jordan Actually Did His Thing On The Baseball Field

Anyone who plays the sport of baseball knows how hard it is. Even when you are one of the best to do it. It’s a game designed for failure with unwritten rules and etiquette that attracts a certain kind of athlete. Balancing swag, emotion and a conservative mind state is the beauty of baseball.  

For Jordan to start his career with a 13-game hitting streak and then fight through the trials and tribulations of adjusting to offspeed pitches and carve out a respectable season in pro baseball, is truly an understated success story that’s overshadowed by a career bursting with accolades and incomparable excellence on the court 

And who knows? If Jordan decided to continue to chase his MLB dream, he might have gotten a call up from the White Sox one day. It’s hard for people to believe, but Jordan had great potential and as soon as he touched down with his minor league team, he convinced everyone that he wasn’t there to be a sideshow but to compete as a baseball player. 

The 31-year-old Jordan, who hadn’t swung a bat since he was 17-years-old,  batted .202 with three home runs, 51 RBI, and an impressive 30 stolen bases. He also rocked out with the Scottsdale Scorpions in the 1994 Arizona Fall League, batting .252 against elite prospects in baseball

Veteran MLB manager Terry Francona, who led the Boston Red Sox to the franchise’s first World Series in 86 years, was Jordan’s minor league manager at the time. 

“He had it all,” Francona said one morning during spring training in Goodyear, Arizona. “Ability, aptitude, work ethic. He was always so respectful of what we were doing and considerate of his teammates. Granted, he had a lot to learn. I remember once, we’re up 11-0 against Chattanooga and Michael doubles. Then he steals third! I’m pantomiming an apology to Pat Kelly, the other manager, and he’s laughing. After Michael comes in, ‘I’m like, ‘What are trying to do, get us killed?’ And he says, ‘Well, in the NBA, when you’re up by 20, you try to go up by 30.’

“I do think with another 1,000 at-bats, he would’ve made it. But there’s something else that people miss about that season. Baseball wasn’t the only thing he picked up. I truly believe that he rediscovered himself, his joy for competition. We made him want to play basketball again.

“And he made me a better manager.”

On March 18, 1995, after a 17-month hiatus from hoops, Jordan announced his return to the NBA with two-word fax: “I’m back.” The next day — more than a year after his retirement from the game — Jordan was back on the floor with the Chicago Bulls to take on Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers.

He would go on to win three more champions in 96, 97, and 98 and solidify his basketball legacy. But his impact, courage and ambition as an athlete are undisputed and his brief, unexpected and bizarre dive into the world of baseball is another cultural win. 

If anything, he let young Black kids know that you don’t have to choose one sport over the other. He almost immediately helped change perceptions about baseball in Black communities that had strayed from the spot. And undoubtedly inspired many to embrace the sport again, or at least find out why it was so damn popular to their fathers and grandfathers. The most revered basketball God on the planet played baseball and he didn’t lose any cool points for it.

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