In one of the stranger siestas in sports history, Michael Jordan joined the Double-A Birmingham Barons in 1994. He put together some reasonably impressive numbers for someone who hadn’t played baseball since high school. Jordan might have done more if given the chance … so let’s give him the chance.
What if major league baseball settled its strike in 1994? The Expos would have gone on to win a World Series, but that’s not what we’re going to focus on here. No, in this scenario, the Chicago White Sox have the chance to call up Jordan in September, giving him a taste of playoff baseball … and like a shark craving blood, he wants more. Much more.
Jordan reaches The Show
Jordan returns to spring training in 1995 determined to make the majors from the jump. He’s spent the entire offseason learning how to hit the curve, and when the final cuts come, Jordan’s on the majors side of the line. Sports Illustrated runs a “We Goofed” cover, with Jordan in a White Sox uniform shredding the infamous “Bag It, Michael” cover from last year.
The All-Star ballot that year features an “M. Jordan (CHI)” among the American League outfielders, and an overwhelming fan vote ensures M. Jordan joins Ken Griffey Jr. and Kirby Puckett in the AL starting lineup. Randy Myers, the last of the famed early 90s “Nasty Boys,” and now with the Cubs, brushes back Jordan. Myers gets traded from Chicago three days later.
The Bulls, with no Jordan in the lineup, don’t trade for Dennis Rodman prior to the 1995-96 season. Rodman opts to retire from the NBA and creates “Dennis Rodman’s Traveling Freak Show,” a reality series that racks up millions of viewers, three dozen arrest warrants, 14 lawsuits and zero Emmys over its 10-year run.
Shaq and Penny own the NBA
Over in the NBA, the Shaq-and-Penny Magic steamroll the Eastern Conference during the ’95-96 regular season, but lose to the Pippen-led Bulls in a major upset. The Seattle SuperSonics will win the NBA Finals that year, but the big news is out of Orlando, where O’Neal openly campaigns to cut loose coach Brian Hill and bring in Phil Jackson.
By 1996, Jordan is fully established as a major leaguer, though not a particularly successful one. He’s still voted onto the All-Star team, but his struggles to stay above the Mendoza line are the source of much amusement among baseball media and players. Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick begin a nightly “Err Jordan” segment on “SportScenter”, highlighting Jordan’s latest botched play or ugly swing, and there are plenty.
Over in the NBA, O’Neal gets his wish, strong-arming Hill out of Orlando and bringing in Jackson, who’d grown disaffected with the entire Bulls organization.
Out in Los Angeles, a teenager named Kobe Bryant joins the Lakers, and immediately gets smothered with “next Jordan” comparisons. The team, made up of weary vets like Nick Van Exel and Cedric Ceballos, has little patience for Bryant’s give-me-the-ball arrogance.
The Magic, led by Shaq and Penny and coached by Jackson, bury the Utah Jazz for two straight titles to end the ’97 and ’98 seasons. In Akron, Ohio, a high school phenom by the name of LeBron opts to start wearing a “1” in honor of Hardaway.
The White Sox are the toast of baseball
As the decade rolls on, the Chicago White Sox are the hottest team in baseball, at least on the merch and publicity front, and Reinsdorf authorizes the team to open up the vault. They sign Roger Clemens in 1996 and Wade Boggs in 1997, and Jordan — despite his lack of elite-level baseball talent — galvanizes the team with his work ethic. The White Sox obliterate the Florida Marlins to win the 1997 World Series, making Jordan a champion in two sports.
But by 1999, Jordan is feeling the burn to play basketball again. He doesn’t want to return to Chicago without Jackson on the bench. He makes an appeal to Jackson to join Orlando, but Jackson has his eye on a younger version: Kobe Bryant, who’s suffered through three lackluster years in purple and gold and is deemed expendable. The Lakers, with the opportunity to trade up, sign free agent Scottie Pippen, and Bryant is in the wind for all of three hours before Jackson grabs him.
Pippen’s the last of the three-peat championship legends to bail on the Bulls, leading to dozens of “What if Michael hadn’t played baseball?” bar-room conversations. One local sports talk host says that if Jordan had come back, the Bulls would have won another three championships. He’s laughed off the radio.
After a curtain call at the 1999 All-Star Game in Boston, where his cheers were louder than those of anyone on baseball’s All-Century Team, Jordan decides to hang up the spikes on a popular but unremarkable baseball career. Three days later, in a blast email, Jordan announces he’s back, leading to nationwide hallelujahs, followed by “Why?” Jordan is a free agent, and there’s a cringeworthy lack of interest in an aged star five years removed from his last game. In the end, the New York Knicks — of course — sign him, and he leads them back to the playoffs … where they’re quickly dismissed by the leviathan that is the Jackson-Hardaway-Bryant-O’Neal Magic.
FW: FW: FW: I’m Back
Jordan retires after two unremarkable seasons with New York, his three career rings the equal of Larry Bird but well behind the totals of Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway. The Magic will reign as one of the league’s great dynasties, and the Sonics and Jazz manage to snag rings of their own before the next generation arrives.
And speaking of that next generation: the Bulls are so bad, so mocked, so unattractive for free agents that by the spring of 2003 they bottom out and end up with the first pick in the draft. They use that pick to select LeBron James, St. Vincent-St. Mary’s, Ohio … and the kid, wearing No. 1, leads the Bulls back to glory.
Over in baseball, Clemens, inspired by Jordan’s work ethic, proudly trains clean for the final few years of his career and sails into the Hall of Fame on his first ballot in 2012, not long after LeBron James has started winning titles for the Bulls. And when James throws down a monumental block to help Chicago knock off Golden State in 2017, there’s no doubt about who basketball’s GOAT is. But there are still old-timers who insist that Jordan could have been a contender … if only he hadn’t played so much baseball.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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