"It's almost weirder looking back on it," says director Ron Shelton over the phone to me on Friday evening — "martini time," as he calls it. "You go: Did this really happen?"
Somehow, it did: Michael Jordan, fresh off his third straight NBA title, retired from basketball and spent a season in Alabama playing minor league baseball. The '90s were strange.
Sandwiched between a pair of three-peats and following the murder of his father, James, Jordan's season-long stint with the Double-A Birmingham Barons is widely regarded as a silly little midlife crisis at best and a seedy gambling-related purgatory at worst. But as Shelton argues in Jordan Rides the Bus, the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary he directed, what transpired between 1993 and 1995 followed neither conventional wisdom nor conspiracy theory.
Perhaps we've been wrong about Jordan's baseball era all along. We tend to view it as a minor embarrassment, a lark, maybe a cautionary tale. It shows Jordan's human side, we think, his fallibility. But it may have been simpler, and in a way scarier. Jordan's season in Birmingham was odd, and it was unsettling. But that's because it was good.
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A former minor leaguer himself and the director of (among others) Bull Durham, Shelton has the right pedigree. He went down to Alabama seeking to "revisit that year" that Michael Jordan spent playing for the Barons.
The locals' unexpected brush with greatness is a highlight of the documentary. The team's general manager recalls doubling the ticket office's phone lines to handle the surge; a real estate agent in a hot-pink blazer (and even hotter-pink eyeshadow) proudly dishes that Michael had to have a house with a "basketball goal"; and in my favorite scene scene a little blond boy with a bowl-cut runs up to the window of Jordan's idling red Corvette at a light, nervously hands over a baseball to sign, and scrambles back into the passenger seat of a pickup truck just as the light changes green. (The Corvette floors it away.)
"What interested me once I got down to Birmingham," Shelton says, "was, wow, the whole world was worried about the NBA and the Bulls, but for Birmingham? It was like Jesus Christ had showed up."
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Even Christ had his doubters. As the New York Daily News' Dick Young wrote about Willie Mays in 1979: "If Jesus Christ were to show up with his old baseball glove, some guys wouldn't vote for him. He dropped the cross three times, didn't he?"
Jordan was dropping a lot more in spring training. Sports Illustrated writer Steve Wulf ventured down to spring training in 1994 to see for himself what the fuss was about, and he filed a sneering report:
He called the first base umpire "the ref." In the field, he played a single into a double and an out into a single. Though he moves well on the base paths, his best time to first base, 4.35 seconds, is slower than average. At bat he brings to mind a taller, righthanded Rich Gedman-the Walt Hriniak disciple who can no longer hit the ball out of the infield.
It was, Wulf admits in Jordan Rides the Bus, slightly "smarmy." But he says that he "literally cringed" when he saw how his dispatch was packaged: on the cover, festooned with the words "Bag It, Michael!: Jordan and the White Sox Are Embarrassing Baseball." (The inside headline was no better, dubbing Michael "Err Jordan.")
The piece caused a firestorm — a furious Jordan would go on to snub Sports Illustrated for the better part of two decades — though it ultimately and unfortunately endured as one of the definitive takes on Jordan's baseball days, which are almost universally assumed to be some sort of dilettantish escapade.
"I had always bought into the general notion that he was a catastrophe," Shelton says. "The odd thing was that everybody down there said, 'Oh no no, you can't believe how much he advanced.' That was not what I expected."
What's funny is this: the objections trotted out against Jordan in anger at the time (he was a pitcher in high school who hit only .280; he's too tall, with too massive a strike zone, and he's too slow at the plate; he's never faced professional pitchers; he can't field) are the very same things that should make the trajectory of his short career in baseball quite unbelievable.
We remember that he flirted with the Mendoza line — "He batted .200 in Double-A ball!" we smirk — but, like, whoa: he batted .200 in Double-A ball! He had 11 errors, but he stole 30 bases. By season's end, he was third on the team with 51 RBIs.
"I maintain my belief that Michael Jordan's .202/.289/.266 line in Double-A was actually a remarkable athletic achievement," twittered Baseball Prospectus's Kevin Goldstein the other day, adding: "31 years old, hadn't played for the better part of two decades, and he does that? Astounding."
Shelton's doc goes to great lengths to show Jordan's progress, adding that in the more competitive Arizona Fall League he raised his batting average by 50 points in 35 games. But amid a litany of accolades from hitting coaches and managers (Terry Francona was Jordan's skipper those days; the two remain friends), the most eye-opening argument may come from Wulf himself. Still feeling guilty months later, the former SI writer says in the film, he went down to Birmingham to see what was new:
I was totally blown away. He was a totally different player than the player I'd seen in spring training […] I was astounded! I said: 'My god. I was wrong. We were wrong! Sports Illustrated was wrong!'
Well, after that I wrote a little story saying guess what, Michael Jordan is actually becoming a professional baseball player. So, when I turned this in, they refused to run it. And it was clear that it wasn't substandard in execution or writing. They were being stubborn about their stance that Michael Jordan shouldn't be playing baseball.
According to Shelton, Wulf was so irked about SI's stubbornness that he up and left the magazine (he went on to become the founding editor of ESPN The Magazine). "That's really great journalism, to say, 'You know what? I got it wrong,'" Shelton says. "Nobody does that anymore."
Despite Wulf's attempts, though, it wasn't done back then either.
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And then there's the darker side, which also persists. The major conspiracy theory on Jordan is twin-tipped: one, that the murder of his father in 1993 was gambling-related; and two, that Jordan's "retirement" was manufactured by David Stern to turn the focus away from a number of gambling problems that kept bubbling up.
You can believe both, or just one, though Shelton believes neither.
"It's just nothing more than crackpot theory," he says, sounding exasperated. "Every journalist I talked to said, 'Don't you realize, Ron?' — Every Chicago sports journalist, every national journalist — 'We went down there, we spent a year looking for the smoking gun! We would have won the Pulitzer! If we had gotten it, we would have been spurred!'"
Shelton, who says that "Halberstam wrote the great book on Jordan," is closely aligned with the great writer on this count. In Playing For Keeps, Halberstam traces the progression of Jordan's gambling habit from his Coca-Cola-denominated side bets against Roy Williams at UNC practice to his descent into the uglier underworld of golf hustling. But he stops brusquely short of connecting any of this to James Jordan's murder. "[S]ome people in the media dementedly connected it to [Michael's] own gambling problems," he writes, and ends it at that.
"The burden of proof is on the believers and the conspiracists, not me," Shelton says. When I remind him that his 30 for 30 producer, Bill Simmons, is somewhat vocally among them, he responds that he plans to appear on the BS Report soon to set the man straight. (Update: welp, here it is!)
My own doubt is more cynical; it is articulated in the film by writer Sam Smith. "It's not possible to keep a secret in the NBA," Smith says. "So this notion that somehow the NBA suspended the greatest player in the history of the game, forced him out of the game, and now almost 20 years later nobody still knows about this? Is just ludicrous."
If anything, it's more the end of Jordan's baseball stint, not the beginning, that is hard to believe. The MLB's strike could not have been more perfectly timed even if David Stern actually were in cahoots.
"I tried to talk to BJ Armstrong but he wouldn't talk to us for some reason," Shelton says. "But Halberstam says in his book that all season while Jordan was in Birmingham, he called Armstrong and was like, 'How's this guy doing? What's this guy doing? Who's the new kid on the block?' He was staying close."
And then, just like that: He was back.
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It's hard to imagine how any of this would possibly play out today. Take LeBronukkah, maybe, and tack on an exponent.
I thought of LeBronukkah several times as I watched Jordan Rides The Bus, marveling at the ease with which Jordan conducted his show-stopping press conference, smilingly chiding the assembled press corps as Scottie Pippen looked on through a pair of John Lennon-esque sunglasses. Here's what went wrong for LeBron, I thought. He just didn't know how to massage the media. This was no relevation, but actually seeing a master like Jordan at work made it more glaringly obvious where King James had failed.