How Close Were Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson to Being MLB Teammates?

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMay 18, 2020

Al Bello/Getty Images

Michael Jordan might be the most recognizable figure in recent sports history, but Bo Jackson is not far behind.

Both men transcended the world of sports and reached a level of cultural relevance that few athletes before or since have attained, making it truly mind-boggling how close their careers were to colliding on the South Side of Chicago in the mid-'90s.

Let's back up.

In response to The Last Dance, ESPN's wildly popular documentary, Jordan's brief foray into professional baseball has once again become a talking point.

Most sports fans look at his .202 batting average and consider his lone season at Double-A Birmingham to be an unmitigated failure.

That's an oversimplification.

Jordan was 31 years old and playing organized ball for the first time in more than a decade when he was thrown into the fire at Double-A. Most prospects begin their pro careers in rookie ball and spend at least a few years in the lower levels of the minors before climbing that high up the organizational ladder.

"He hadn't played since high school, and he was holding his own in Double-A, which is filled with prospects," Birmingham hitting coach Mike Barnett told Steve Wulf of ESPN.

To that point, future MLB All-Stars Jason Schmidt, Brad Radke and Esteban Loaiza were among the pitchers who called the Double-A Southern League home during the 1994 season. It was a steep challenge for someone with zero experience beyond high school ball, no question.

So while the numbers may not jump off the page, they also do not tell the whole story.

"I do think with another 1,000 at-bats, he would've made it," former Birmingham manager and current Cleveland Indians skipper Terry Francona told ESPN.

Even in his brief time on the baseball diamond, Jordan showed some playable skills. He drew 51 walks in 497 plate appearances, showing a solid overall approach. That was good for a 10.3 percent walk rate and gave him a .289 on-base percentage. He also had 30 steals and put his plus athleticism to good use.

Add to that the outside factors, most notably the financial boon that calling him up to the MLB roster would have provided for the White Sox, and it's reasonable to assume that he would have eventually been given a chance to play in the majors, ready or not.

To his credit, Jordan was also a prospect on the rise after he hit a respectable .252 in the Arizona Fall League against some of the top prospects in baseball. He almost certainly would have been sent to Triple-A to begin the 1995 season.

Looking at the bigger picture, the door could not have been more wide open for him to claim a spot on the 1996 roster, assuming he continued to show progress in his game.

The White Sox trotted out an Opening Day lineup with Tim Raines in left field, Lance Johnson in center field and Mike Devereaux in right field to begin the 1995 season.

By the time spring training rolled around the following year, all three were gone.

Devereaux was traded to the Atlanta Braves in an August waiver deal, Johnson signed a two-year pact with the New York Mets in free agency, and Raines was shipped to the New York Yankees for a player to be named in late December.

With future stars Mike Cameron and Magglio Ordonez both poised to play the bulk of the 1996 season at Double-A and no other viable in-house replacements, the front office spent the offseason assembling a new-look outfield.

That's where Bo Jackson enters the story, or more accurately, where he could have entered the story.

Bo Jackson
Bo JacksonCHRIS O'MEARA/Associated Press

By the 1996 season, Jackson was already a year removed from playing his final MLB game for the California Angels on Aug. 10, 1994. That was two days before the players' union went on strike and the season came to an abrupt halt.

He finished what turned out to be his final season with a 117 OPS+ and 13 home runs in 224 plate appearances while playing on a one-year, $1 million deal. At 31 years old, and given his name value, he might have been able to secure a multiyear deal in free agency.

Instead, he decided to call it a career on the other end of the lengthy strike.

"I got to know my family," Jackson told Jet magazine in 1995. "That looks better to me than any $10 million contract."

Had he decided to continue playing, a reunion with the White Sox may very well have been at the top of his list of preferred destinations.

The White Sox signed Jackson in April 1991 just 16 days after he was released by the Kansas City Royals. He was given a three-year contract with a $700,000 base salary each year and incentives that could make the deal worth up to $8.15 million.

While he played just 108 games total over the life of the deal and missed the entire 1992 season following hip replacement surgery, he returned strong with 16 home runs and 45 RBI in 85 games in 1993.

During that time, he developed an affinity for the city of Chicago.

"Bo knows baseball, Bo knows football, but what most people don't know about Jackson is that after signing with the White Sox in 1991, he decided to make Chicago his home—and he hasn't left," wrote Chuck Garfien of NBC Sports Chicago.

If he liked the city enough to stay there after his career ended, it stands to reason that he would have been more than open to the idea of returning.

Instead, aging veterans Tony Phillips (free-agent signing) and Danny Tartabull (trade with Oakland) were ultimately acquired to plug the corner outfield spots for the 1996 season, while speedster Darren Lewis was signed to man center field.

Jackson stayed retired, spending more time with his family and avoiding further damage to his hip.

Jordan might have continued playing baseball had it not been for the player's strike, as Sam Smith of NBA.com explained: "Jordan was headed for AAA, but the 1994 baseball season had been shortened by a strike. There still was no agreement when the 1995 spring training resumed. Jordan refused to become a replacement player. So he left Florida and began to show up at Bulls practices."

He made his official return to the Bulls on March 19, 1995, and went on to win three more NBA titles, leaving his baseball career as a mere footnote in his story.

The White Sox won 85 games in 1996 and struggled through three straight losing seasons after that before finally breaking through and winning a division title in 2000. 

Nevertheless, it's fun to imagine an alternate reality where Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan roamed the outfield together for the 1996 Chicago White Sox.

They missed it by that much.