Growing up, there were very few moments more shocking than the day Michael Jordan announced his initial retirement. I was six years old and at the very beginning of my basketball-watching life. To me, the only two men who mattered outside of my pops were Marcus Allen and Michael Jordan. I wanted to be able to answer all the questions on Jeopardy, jump over 300-pound linemen to score touchdowns for the Raiders, and be the coldest mofo to lace up a pair of sneakers simultaneously.
17 was my favorite number, because that’s what my dad wore on his high school football and baseball teams, but when that number wasn’t an option, I was sporting either 32 or the ubiquitous 23. In the first grade, if you had MJ’s number, you were the man. The dude epitomized basketball for a generation of elementary school-aged kids by dunking on cats, hitting last second shots and winning championship after championship after championship.
I still remember when my dad told me that he was leaving the game of basketball to play baseball. At that time, I couldn’t understand why someone so great at what they did would want to leave what they were doing. But us in the first grade weren’t the only ones confused; the whole world was. Not only was he leaving basketball, but he was leaving it to play baseball. Admittedly, I thought he was going to pick up the sport and start knocking balls out the park like Matt Williams. I didn’t get a chance to watch any of his games, at least I have no memory of watching them, but my memory of that era was Jordan failing. When you’re six, if the greatest becomes just another guy, some scrub playing minor league ball in Alabama, that’s a huge failure in your book. The media has an overwhelming power over elementary kids, and they showed me clips of Jordan striking out, hitting soft pop ups like the girls on my softball team and playing in right field (where all of the worst fielders end up at the age I was at the time). 17 years later, I know better – we all know better – and Ron Shelton’s film, Jordan Rides The Bus, did a great job of shedding light on MJ’s plight.
The reality of Jordan’s stint with the Birmingham Barons is that he accomplished what 95 percent of grown men probably would not be able to accomplish in today’s sports world. We’re talking about a man who completely dominated a sport for 90 percent of a decade, was dubbed the greatest ever in that sport and left at the top of the game to take on the most difficult of the three major American sports. In baseball, .333 is a success, and finding guys who can bat .333 isn’t an easy task. As of right now, only two major leaguers are recording hits on one third of their at bats, and THIS is the sport that Michael Jordan took on. Those of us who watched Jordan in our childhoods are now well into our twenties, and I can bet the majority of us would have trouble hitting against high school pitchers, and Jordan went out and took on guys on the cusp of making the major leagues.
Not only was stepping into professional baseball physically challenging, but the guy was being berated by sports reporters, living a completely different lifestyle and was being asked to essentially be a role player. His agent, David Falk, said, “When you take an individual who can walk away after three consecutive championships, MVPs, you’re the most popular athlete in the world and do something where you’ll essentially be anonymous, and the likelihood of success, as measured by his terms, is remote. It takes an enormous amount of courage to walk away from being the king and sort of walk with the common men.” The best part of the documentary was that it showed the side of Jordan everyone who wants to accomplish things in life should see.
The guy had a competitive streak that FORCED him to work hard at everything he did. He took extra batting practice before AND after games while playing a full minor league schedule. There were at least three different occasions where someone said they had never seen anyone work that hard. Fundamentals were corrected, numbers improved and critics were hushed. Was he the best? Of course not, but he had a more than noticeable improvement in his game. His swing toward the end of his baseball-playing career looked so much better than that weeble-wobble ass swing from his first minor league at bat.
Shelton really shed light not only on Jordan’s life as a baseball player, but how much his celebrity had on his teammates, that Birmingham community and both leagues – the baseball minor leagues and the NBA. He was such an overwhelming force in the sports world, that it would only take the best of athletes to make a film on someone trying out minor league baseball such an intriguing story. Toward the end, we got an idea on how the experience made Jordan a better, more encouraging teammate from what he was during the “Jordan Rules” days, which really helped him win three more titles before retiring again. Ron Shelton did a fantastic job in telling the story of Jordan’s time in the minor leagues. If you missed it, it’ll air again August 26th at 1 am on ESPN 2, and for those of you who aren’t insomniacs, you’ll have to wait until Saturday, October 9 at Noon to catch it again at a regular time.
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