Throwing SI under the bus on ‘Jordan Rides the Bus’

Among the storylines that comes to light during Ron Shelton’s “Jordan Rides the Bus” documentary that will air as part of ESPN’s “30 For 30″ (Tuesday, 5 p.m.) is Sports Illustrated reporter Steve Wulf’s admission that he wasn’t happy with the way his employer marketed his story on Michael Jordan’s attempt to play professional baseball in 1994.

After he quit playing for the Chicago Bulls in the fall of 1993 following the death of his father, Jordan went to spring training with the Chicago White Sox — having not played baseball since high school. As Shelton explains, Jordan’s father had always wanted him to play baseball, and Jordan was at a point where the NBA wasn’t much fun any more. With baseball, he could honor his father, and get away from the intense spotlight.

Not really.

The skeptical media was all over Jordan for a) taking away our enjoyment of watching him play basketball and b) thinking he could just walk onto a baseball field and become a pro. Aside from that, rumors circulated that it was Jordan’s gambling problems that led to the NBA to suggest he take a few years off, then come back if he felt like it — a story that Shelton addresses in full as well, without letting it dominate the purpose of the documentary.

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Wulf says in the piece that the story he wrote on Jordan’s ’94 spring training wasn’t very complementary, but it was hardly worth a March 14 cover story that read: “Bag It, Michael! Jordan and The White Sox are Embarassing Baseball.” The story, entitled inside as “Err Jordan,” is linked here.

Wrote Wulf:

“Granted, he looks good in a baseball uniform. Granted, he is the greatest basketball player who has ever lived. Granted, a few weeks of batting practice, an intrasquad game and two exhibitions against the Texas Rangers are not a lot to go on. But this much is clear: Michael Jordan has no more business patrolling rightfield in Comiskey Park than Minnie Minoso has bringing the ball upcourt for the Chicago Bulls.”

Now, says Wulf in the doc:

“It wasn’t the story I wrote (as it related to the cover headline)… When I look back on the story, I was a little smarmy and a little wise ass and I kind of regret reading it now. Personally all hell broke loose for me. I knew a s—tstorm was coming but I had no idea how much of a blizzard it would be.”

While that became the opening blast of the media coverage of Jordan’s experiment, the real s–tstorm was the reporting about the gambling.

Shelton gets into all that about 18 minutes. Chicago Tribune writer Sam Smith, also author of the book “The Jordan Rules,” is quoted as saying that reports of the NBA forcing Jordan out is nothing short of “ludicrous.”

Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated also quoted on how media ran off with wild speculation: “When people in the press – I’m not taking myself away from it – start to at least raise that issue, I’m certain that if it was not the breaking point, then it almost was for Jordan.”

Wulf reenters the piece when he says he wanted to go to Birmingham, Ala., to see Jordan play for the Double-A Barons — in part because of the guilt he felt from how that first story was presented by SI.

“I went down to Birmingham and that’s where my eyes were opened,” Wulf says. “I was blown away. He was totally different player at in spring traiing and he had dturned himself into a baseball player and I was astrounded. I say, ‘My God, I was wrong, we were wrong, Sports Illustrated was wrong – Michael Jordan is actually being a baseball player.’”

But the story that Wulf wrote saying all that didn’t run. SI killed it, not wanting to back down on the stance it took months earlier.

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When watching this, also pay attention to the quotes from Jordan’s minor-league hitting coach Mike Barnett, who now works for the Houston Astros’ farm system and is interviewed wearing a Lancaster JetHawks cap. Barnett explains how he changed Jordan’s approach to hitting, squaring up his stance, stopping him from lunging at pitches, and getting him take extra batting practice nearly every morning, noon and night to prove he could hit breaking pitches.

“His worth ethlic was unlike anything I’d ever seen,” said Barnett, the Barons’ hitting coach under Terry Francona from 1993-’95.

Jordan’s statistics actually improved month to month, and he played in the Arizona Fall League in ’94 and did even better than expected. Maybe with a couple hundred games under his belt in the minors …

Could Jordan have ever made it to the big leagues with the White Sox:

Jerry Reinsdorf, who ran the Bulls and the White Sox, claims that if it wasn’t the MLB strike of 1994, “he’d have kept playing and made it to the majors.” Instead, Jordan felt he was put in the middle of the labor dispute, wasn’t having fun playing any more, could have been forced to be a scab player (he wouldn’t do that), and was refreshed enough to join the Bulls again after two seasons away.

For those of us who as media members went through this surreal story as it unfolded, and couldn’t help but wonder what would make someone at the top of his profession suddenly pull away for a strange reason and try something completely difficult on so many levels, this gives much more missing context, and, in retrospect, gives us something to think about.

Check it out.

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