“I think he was rightly insulted,” former Sports Illustrated writer Steve Wulf recently told ESPN.
Wulf’s story was written as Jordan was beginning to play in spring training games with the Birmingham (Ala.) Barons, a Class AA affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. He wrote that “baseball snobs … are right about one thing: He will never, ever hit.”
“This much is clear: Michael Jordan has no more business patrolling right field in Comiskey Park than Minnie Minoso has bringing the ball upcourt for the Chicago Bulls,” Wulf wrote elsewhere in the story.
Perhaps the most inflammatory aspect of the story, though, was the way it was promoted on the cover of that March 14, 1994, issue.
“Bag it, Michael!” SI’s headline blared next to a photo of the then-three-time NBA champion swinging and missing badly at a pitch. A sub-headline on the cover declared, “Jordan and the White Sox are embarrassing baseball.”
In an ESPN podcast released Wednesday, Wulf said that while the tone of his story was “a little snarky, and very skeptical,” the cover — over which he had no control — was out of line.
“I still cringe every time I see it,” he claimed, adding, “I wish they had run the headline by me.”
In Episode 7 of “The Last Dance,” Jordan is asked by an off-camera producer, “Did you feel betrayed by that SI cover?”
“Definitely,” he replies, just after the documentary notes that he severed communications with the magazine after that issue hit newsstands.
“I never was interviewed for that,” Jordan said. “They came out to critique me, without understanding what my passion was at the time.
“If you had a question, ask. And then if you want to write it, then you write it,” he continued. “That’s fine, no problem, that’s your opinion. But I can care less what people do. This is what I want to do. I’m not doing what they think I should be doing.”
Wulf said he approached his 1994 story from the viewpoint of someone who “was among the chorus of skeptics” about Jordan’s new athletic pursuit.
“I thought it was delusional that he could think he could play baseball at a major league level,” said Wulf, who is shown in “The Last Dance” making a similar remark. “And I was also struck by how resentful players were.”
In comments published Wednesday by NBC Sports, Wulf also noted that Jordan’s arrival to the Barons “felt like a commercial marketing enterprise as much as anything else."
“To hear the crowd cheer every step that number 45 takes on a baseball field or to watch the fans walk around in their Air Jordan apparel purchased from the special Nike van at Ed Smith Stadium [in Sarasota, Fla.] is to instantly understand why the White Sox are letting Jordan do this,” Wulf wrote in the 1994 SI story. “So shame on them for their cynical manipulation of the public. And shame on them for feeding Michael’s matchbook-cover delusion — BECOME A MAJOR LEAGUER IN JUST SIX WEEKS!”
As he kept tabs on Jordan’s baseball career that season, Wulf said he became interested in doing a follow-up. A trip to Birmingham in August left him “astounded” at the then-31-year-old’s improvement.
“Those weak swings he was taking in spring training were now line drives. … It looked like he had a true major league swing,” the writer, who suggested that Jordan might have resembled the Washington Nationals’ Michael A. Taylor as an MLB player, told ESPN.
Wulf was moved to write something of a “mea culpa,” a story intended to atone for his earlier dismissal of Jordan’s baseball skills, but he said Sports Illustrated declined to publish it.
By 2001, Wulf had moved to ESPN the Magazine, for which he wrote a column that asserted, “I’m convinced that with just a little more time, [Jordan] could’ve made the majors on merit.”
Agreeing with that assessment, as shown in “The Last Dance,” is Cleveland Indians Manager Terry Francona, Jordan’s manager with the Barons who went on to lead the Boston Red Sox to two World Series titles.
Putting a much more positive spin on Jordan’s .202 batting average, a figure that has been used by many as evidence that he had no business trying to play professional baseball, Francona says in the docuseries that he “can’t believe” Jordan was able to accomplish that feat.
“He drove in 50 runs. We had a lot of good prospects that didn’t drive in 50 runs,” says Francona. “In my opinion, with 1,500 at-bats, he’d have found a way to get to the major leagues.”
As fate would have it, Major League Baseball went through a work stoppage that began in August 1994 and continued until April of the following year. That may have contributed to Jordan’s decision to return to the NBA in 1995, leaving behind a what-if or two about his possible accomplishments had he continued to hone his abilities on the diamond.
“He would’ve probably needed another year at Triple-A,” Wulf told NBC Sports. “But he did great in the Arizona Fall League after Birmingham. And given his natural talents and work ethic and sense of competition, I think he could’ve been in the majors in 1996.”
As for Jordan’s continued ire at Sports Illustrated, Wulf said, “I think he’s perfectly within his rights to maintain that stance. The headline was over the top. And I know SI thought, ‘Well, we put him on the cover so many times. What’s the big deal about this?’
“Well, you know what, we disrespected him.”