“The Last Dance,” ESPN’s documentary about Michael Jordan, recently chronicled his year in baseball.
After temporarily retiring from basketball, he spent the 1994 spring training with the Chicago White Sox in Sarasota, Fla., then played for the Class AA Birmingham Barons. He also played in the 1994 Arizona Fall League, giving a massive boost to the league’s popularity.
How hagiographic is “The Last Dance”? It portrays Jordan as a promising baseball player.
But he did posterize two Minnesota Twins.
In spring training, Jordan was 0-for-12 before getting his first hit, off Twins prospect Jeff Innis. Jordan also stole his first base in that game and had a tub of Gatorade dumped on him by teammates.
“He was capable of putting fastballs in play, with no power. Once they started to throw breaking balls at him, it was going to be a real difficult thing to watch.”
In that game, Jordan made a diving catch on Twins first baseman Gene Larkin, although Twins manager Tom Kelly said after the game that he wasn’t sure if it was a “diving catch” or a “catch and a dive.”
“That play is still shown on ESPN all the time,” Larkin said Thursday.
In the ’94 Fall League, Brian Raabe was a Twins infield prospect playing for the Chandler Diamondbacks. Jordan played for the Scottsdale Scorpions, who were managed by Terry Francona.
Raabe and Jordan could not have been more different. Raabe was an exceptional minor league player who would be held to 29 big-league at-bats because of a lack of power and fielding range. In his last four minor league seasons, he would bat .305, .351, .352 and .327, but in his case, accomplishments didn’t matter as much as scouts’ projections.
Jordan was coming off a Class AA season in which he batted .202 with an anemic .556 on-base plus slugging percentage while playing against players in their young 20s, many of whom would not make it to the big leagues.
“Even though I didn’t have a long and glorious big-league career, I did have some very cool things happen to me,” Raabe said. “My double-play partner in Arizona was Derek Jeter. And I got to play against Michael Jordan.
“When Jordan came in, it was a freaking zoo. When he came up the hill from the parking lot to get to the clubhouse, his entourage was massive and there were autograph seekers everywhere.”
Raabe remembers one particular at-bat against Scottsdale. He came to the plate and saw Jordan playing in deep left field, almost to the warning track. Raabe was a contact hitter. “I thought, this is perfect, there’s so much room in front of him,” Raabe said. “But I hit one pretty good, and I thought it was at least off the wall. But because he was out of position, playing so deep, he just reached over and caught it.”
Francona has said Jordan could have become a big-league player if he had gotten 1,500 at-bats or stuck with the game for three years. In 1994, I saw Jordan play in Sarasota and Arizona, and the big-league scouts I relied on told me Jordan had no chance. Kelly all but sneered when talking about Jordan.
“Because of his athletic ability, when you were in the same ballpark, you were fascinated by everything he did at the ballpark,” said Larkin, the former Twin who is a partner in Nevers Larkin Baseball, an instructional school. “He looked very athletic in all aspects of the game — except when he was in the batter’s box. He did not look fluid there.
“His swing left a lot to be desired, as should have been expected after him being away from the game for so long. He was trying to play catch-up. I always felt that was the great equalizer in the batter’s box — hitting something soft. He was capable of putting fastballs in play, with no power. Once they started to throw breaking balls at him, it was going to be a real difficult thing to watch.”
Larkin noted that if an outfielder couldn’t hit for power, his role on a big-league team would be “24th or 25th man, at best.”
Of Francona’s optimism, Larkin said, “I didn’t agree with that at all.”
What should be remembered is that Jordan was considered the world’s greatest athlete at that time. He possessed otherworldly hand-eye coordination, work ethic, strength, agility, flexibility and gamesmanship. He was a brilliant and ruthless competitor. And he hit .202 with no power against kids, many of whom wouldn’t make it to the big leagues or stay there long.
In a way, Jordan’s struggles highlighted the greatness of Bo Jackson, who became a star in the NFL and baseball. Larkin played first base against Jackson and the Class AA Memphis Chicks in one of Jackson’s first pro baseball games in 1986.
“He hit a routine grounder to short and he ran with such force down the line that he sounded like a locomotive,” Larkin said. “I also remember him hitting a ball into the right field upper deck at the Metrodome, and I don’t know if any other righthanded hitter ever did that.
“Bo looked menacing in the batter’s box. Michael Jordan never did.”
Staff librarian John Wareham contributed to this column.