Rickey Henderson, Mark McGwire, Dennis Eckersley ... and Michael Jordan?
It could have happened on the 1994 A’s.
When Air Jordan made his bold and bizarre jump from basketball to baseball that year, it was only natural that the Chicago Bulls legend would join the White Sox, given that Jerry Reinsdorf owned both teams. It was also only natural that Jordan, who hadn’t played on the diamond since high school, would begin his professional baseball career at the Minor League level.
But when Jordan’s agent, David Falk, checked in with a few MLB teams as a matter of due diligence before Jordan signed his Minor League pact with the Sox in early February 1994, then-A’s general manager Sandy Alderson took the equivalent of a full-court shot. Had it gone through, it would have jolted the baseball world in an even bigger way than Jordan’s single season with the Double-A Birmingham Barons.
“I called four or five teams to get the lay of the land,” Falk said. “By far, Sandy had the most interesting and impactful response. He offered Michael a spot on the Major League roster.”
With interest in that period of Jordan’s career renewed by the debut this week of ESPN’s 10-part docuseries “The Last Dance,” Alderson publicly told the story of his offer to Jordan for the first time on ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” podcast on Tuesday.
“That’s one that got away,” Alderson told ESPN’s Buster Olney. “It would have been fun, but it didn’t come to fruition. It wouldn’t have won us a World Series.”
Though Falk confirmed the offer to MLB.com, he said it, unlike a Jordan dunk, never really got off the ground.
“I was excited about [the offer], and Michael was very appreciative,” Falk said. “But he wanted to do the baseball thing from the ground up. He didn’t feel he deserved a spot on the Major League roster and didn’t feel he was ready. He didn’t want to be a Herb Washington type who would just steal bases and be a part-time outfielder.”
A gimmicky addition of Jordan, at that time, would not have hindered the A’s competitive effort. Tony La Russa’s team had fallen from the high of an American League Championship Series berth in 1992 to a 94-loss season in ’93. Though they had a lot of star power, the A’s didn’t have much of a pitching staff or infield, and they weren’t projected to be much better in ’94.
So Alderson didn’t mind the idea of surrendering a roster spot to His Airness. The A’s, under Alderson, planted the seeds of what would become known as the “Moneyball” movement, where baseball contributions are carefully calculated. But Alderson was running a calculation of a very different sort when it came to Jordan.
Simply put, he knew having Jordan would put butts in the seats.
“It wasn’t about, ‘We’ve got a spot for him, he’s got a particular skill,’” Alderson told Olney. “That wasn’t the idea. The idea was, ‘We’ve got Michael Jordan on our team’ and the interest that would have generated.”
Perhaps it should come as no surprise to learn now that that the man who would go on to sign Tim Tebow to a Minor League deal with the Mets in September 2016 thought in such a way. But Tebow didn’t get a first-class ticket to the big leagues. He’s spent the past three-plus seasons toiling away down on the farm.
Jordan did the same in 1994. As an outfielder playing under manager Terry Francona in Birmingham, Jordan slashed .202/.289/.266 in 127 games. He played to packed houses, slept in La Quinta Inns and impressed people with his effort. Jordan went on to participate in the Arizona Fall League and reported to Spring Training camp again in '95. But with the Major League players’ strike ongoing, he vowed not to cross the picket line when exhibition games began.
He was back with the Bulls in a matter of days, never again to pursue the MLB path.
That Alderson was willing to expedite that path makes for a fascinating what-if.
“I was totally serious,” Alderson said. “And I know this ended up creating some discussion, because I ended up getting either a phone call or a message from the White Sox saying, ‘Hey what’s going on here? This guy is going to be a part of the White Sox organization.’”
“Michael’s an amazingly loyal guy,” Falk said. “If not for his relationship with the White Sox, [the A’s offer] might have been something he might have done.”
From G.O.A.T. to just plain “A”? What a thought.