August 13, 1993. James R. Jordan, the father of NBA superstar Michael Jordan, was found dead, a victim of a random highway robbery.
October 16, 1993. Michael Jordan decides to retire from basketball to play … baseball.
The unthinkable had happened. The greatest basketball player in the history of the game had lost his desire to play basketball. The man who, the previous three years had led the Chicago Bulls to the NBA Championship, was burnt out.
Mind you, Jordan still possessed plenty of passion; the focus was just different. You see, playing baseball was something he’d been considering for a while. His father, at one point, had even challenged him to take action on his baseball aspirations.
The reaction to Jordan’s retirement and his decision to play baseball was instant and worldwide.
Disbelief. Criticism. Ridicule. Even laughter. Some thought it was a hoax. A publicity stunt.
Steve Wulf, a writer for Sports Illustrated, said the idea of Jordan playing baseball was ridiculous.
Players were resentful, Wulf said. He quoted one manager as saying, “It takes some guys 15 years to learn how to hit a baseball, and this guy thinks he can just walk on and do it?”
Even though he hadn’t played baseball since he was 18 years old, Jordan insisted this was no gimmick.
“I won’t be a sideshow for anybody. If my skills are not good enough to be there, I don’t want to be there. It doesn’t hurt to try. I don’t think it damages the sport,” he said.
If you’re old enough to remember the year Jordan played minor league baseball, you may look back and think of it as being “unsuccessful.” A strange and unusual blip on the otherwise stellar career of one of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen.
But I, for one, would disagree.
It’s a story of a man devastated by a personal tragedy. And who, as a result, made a decision to follow his passion. To take up the challenge of the man he loved and respected most in the world — his father.
The qualities Jordan exhibited are the qualities anyone needs to be successful in any field, whether you’re a doctor, a bricklayer, or a freelance writer.
I invite you to be inspired by Jordan’s year of playing minor league baseball by looking at five important actions he took as the right fielder for the Birmingham Barons:
1) Don’t let criticism slow you down.
Aside from the talking heads across the land, Sports Illustrated published a story with the headline: “Bag It Michael, Jordan and the Sox Are Embarrassing Baseball.”
The press then started a rumor that the death of James Jordan was somehow related to Michael’s gambling habits. As recently as 2010, Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated admitted, “There’s no question that when Michael’s father died, it was right around when all the gambling was swirling around, and we in the press, being who we are, just couldn’t help looking to somehow put that together.”
Through it all, Jordan soldiered on. He never let the criticism he received slow him down or force him to take his eye off his intended goal.
The lesson to be learned? The next time you receive criticism from a peer or a client on something you wrote, take it in stride. If your inclination is to automatically react back in kind, stop and take a deep breath. After you’ve cooled down, evaluate the criticism and respond in a calm, thoughtful, appreciative manner — effectively turning the critique into an opportunity to take your craft and knowledge up a notch.
2) Be generous; be nice.
“I can’t imagine he was able to sign every single autograph, but he was so gracious and spent an awful lot of time to do just that.” — Barons’ teammate Kenny Coleman
During his year with the Barons, Jordan asked for no special consideration from the team and was extremely accommodating to his fans. He even visited the local bar/pool hall and played pool on four tables at once to give more of his eager fans the right to say, “I played pool with Michael Jordan.”
In business, people like to deal with people they like. People who have a sincere passion for what they do. Who are self-confident, but not arrogant. The moral of the story? Always keep your ego in check and always be looking for ways to help others.
3) Work harder than everyone else.
“Michael Jordan’s work ethic was unlike any other player’s I’ve ever seen, and that’s a true credit to why he’s had success.” — Barons’ hitting coach Mike Barnett (1993-1995)
At around 12:30 p.m., Jordan would start batting practice in the batting cage. After that, he’d start a more formal batting practice session. Then he’d hit off the curveball machine, followed by regular batting practice with the team.After team batting practice, he’d take a few more swings in the cage, which he’d repeat again just before the game. Then after the game, after all the questions were answered, it was back to the cage for more batting practice.
“To watch a guy that did not leave any stone unturned and was going to make himself the best, and he was going to get better every day no matter what he had to do, I’d never seen a player that worked like that,” said Barnett. “By the end of July he started to drive balls out of the park in batting practice, and they weren’t long fly balls windblown; they were line drive rockets.”
To be the best, you have to work harder than everyone else. You have to practice and train harder. You have to be willing to commit and sacrifice for your goals in ways that others simply aren’t willing to do. Put the necessary hours in, and success will come faster and easier than you may ever have imagined. A good starting point is to block off a set period of time each day that you dedicate to learning more about your craft.
4) Prove the naysayers wrong.
Late in the season, Sports Illustrated writer Steve Wulf (author of the “Bag It Michael” article) went down to Birmingham to see how Jordan’s minor league career was progressing.
“That’s when my eyes were opened. I was totally blown away. He was totally a different player than the player I had seen in spring training. He had a great swing. He was hitting the balls on the screws [a phrase that means he was hitting the ball great]. He looked really good. He had turned himself into a baseball player, and I was astounded,” Wulf said.
Wulf was so impressed with Jordan’s transformation that he wrote a follow-up story saying how wrong he’d been. But Sports Illustrated refused to run it, stubbornly sticking to their idea that Michael Jordan should not be playing baseball.
If you have family or friends who aren’t supporting you, don’t let that bother you. Just stick to it and prove them wrong.
5) Love what you do.
“I wasn’t there to make money. I wasn’t there trying to endorse a product. I was truly there for the love of the game.” — Michael Jordan
No secret here. As Mark Twain once said, “The secret of success is making your vocation your vacation.”
Jordan’s manager in Birmingham (and future Boston Red Sox manager) Terry Francona says that Jordan “did more than what some legitimate prospects did in Birmingham. He stole 30 bases. He drove in 50 runs. [51 to be exact.] He was getting better.”
And although he only batted .202 during the regular season, Jordan raised his batting average by 50 points in the Arizona Fall League as a member of the Scottsdale Scorpions.
With the baseball strike looming and Jordan refusing to cross the picket line, he decided it was time for him to go back to basketball.
Francona says he’s confident that if Jordan had pursued it, he would have found a way to play in the big leagues.
Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf agrees …
“If it hadn’t been for the strike, Michael would have played next season. And I think Michael would have made it to the major leagues.”
Bulls Coach Phil Jackson says that the Michael Jordan who came back was an even better version. “He was more generous with his time and much more encouraging to his teammates,” Jackson says.
The Bulls, who, without Jordan, posted 57 wins against 27 losses and lost in the second round of the playoffs to the New York Knicks, would, starting in the 1995-1996 season, go on to win the NBA Championship the next three years.
Jordan retired on January 13, 1999, only to come back and play two more seasons with the Washington Wizards, where he also served as a co-owner.
His year playing minor league baseball remains, in my opinion, one of the great sports stories. Not only does it demonstrate that a true champion is a champion no matter what he does in life, but that you, I, and anyone can be a champion with the right attitude backed up by hard work.
Note: A big “thank you” to the ESPN Sports “30 for 30” documentary Jordan Rides the Bus for providing much of the source information for this article.
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