Tim Tebow’s presence in New York Mets camp has launched a thousand articles, blog posts and tweets. But he’s not even close to being the most famous non-baseball player to play baseball. That honor belongs to Michael Jordan, who is perhaps the most famous athlete in history not named Babe Ruth or Muhammad Ali. And even then it’s close.
As everyone knows, Jordan spent the 1994 season with the Double-A Birmingham Barons, the Double-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. As everyone also knows, he wasn’t super successful. He hit .202 and, after one season, he went back to basketball, filmed “Space Jam” and then went on to his second three-peat as an NBA champion. But there was more to his journey through baseball than just a less-than-stellar season.
Rob Neyer spent time interviewing those who were on the scene for Jordan’s time in baseball and compiled an oral history of it over at Complex. It’s well worth your time. Both for the stories — and there are some great ones you may not have heard or perhaps forgot — and for some instructive parallels with the Tim Tebow experiment.
Jordan’s foray into baseball is widely viewed as unsuccessful, but he did hold his own for a while at Double-A. There are some — including his minor league hitting coach, Mike Barnett — who believed he could’ve made the bigs as a fourth outfielder given more time. Great? Nah, and that big league stuff may be hyperbole, but people could squint at him and mistake for a baseball player.
So far the scouting reports on Tebow suggest he’d be eaten alive by Double-A pitchers. Tebow’s supporters note his athleticism and work ethic, which are undeniable, but it’d be hard to find anyone who would say he is an athlete on par with a mid-1990s Michael Jordan. And I don’t think there has ever been an athlete with a more widely reputed work ethic and competitive drive than Michael Jordan. He was almost pathological in this regard. It’s hard to see where Tebow’s upside comes from in light of that, and that’s before you remember that pitchers throw a LOT harder now than they did in 1994.
One thing will be the same, though: opposing ballplayers are going to be out to get him. Or at least get the best of him. This comment came from Bob Herold, the long-time college coach and current instructor with the Pirates, who was the hitting coach for the Scottsdale Scorpions of the Arizona Fall League, where Jordan played his last competitive baseball in the fall of 1994:
I was coaching in the Royals organization. I didn’t have a problem with him at all, but I can tell you there were definitely a lot of guys in baseball who were hoping for him to fail. Just because they didn’t like the idea of somebody who hadn’t played in 14 or 15 years jumping right in and doing better than them.
Tebow will begin playing in major league spring training games this week. Everyone is going to try a bit harder against him, one thinks. It’s gonna be a rough go of it, methinks.