Finding Baseball’s Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan’s “The Last Dance” documentary has sparked intrigue and debate worldwide about who-if anyone-could live up to the astronomical standards he set in his fanatical pursuit of unparalleled dominance. Even within his own sport, the debate is contentious, so attempting to translate that to baseball makes for an choppy transition. But it is quarantine and we have time on our hands, so why not?

To give this debate some sort of structure, we must frame it within context. Therefore, a standard set of criteria will be used to evaluate a player’s similarity to “That Black Cat”, as Reggie Miller referred to Jordan throughout his career.

First, a player must have historical greatness. The player must have had a strong case as the league’s best for an extended portion of their career. Multiple championships are another critical resume builder here, though as one player has less of an impact on the game in baseball, more weight will be given to each championship a baseball player earns.

Secondly, they must embody Jordan’s peerless tenacity. Though it is too much to ask for a player to be as intense as Jordan, given that it was the most prominent attribute of a top five athlete in history, that will-to-win mindset that separates the legends of the game from the near-misses should be a prevalent part of a player’s makeup.

Thirdly, the player must have a significant cultural impact. Jordan’s fame went beyond the basketball court as commercials such as “I wanna be like Mike” or the movie “Space Jam” elevated him into another stratosphere of American pop culture. Furthermore, his Jordan brand apparel company gave him global recognition among non-sports fans and among people who never once saw him play.

With that, let’s look at some of baseball’s most heralded players and see how they stack up against MJ.

Michael Jordan, LF, Chicago White Sox/Birmingham Barons 

Michael Jordan has the significant advantage of actually being Michael Jordan. He covers the work ethic and cultural relevance criteria with flying colors. He sold out stadiums and single-handedly put his team on the national radar.

On the other hand, Jordan just barely cracked the Mendoza line with a .202 batting average in AA. So he falls just a tad short in the historical greatness category. Pair that with his career spanning 1.5 seasons, and unfortunately we must set Michael Jordan in the “Not Michael Jordan” pool of applicants.

Derek Jeter, SS, New York Yankees

Jeter’s case is a strong one, and perhaps it should come as no surprise given he is the Jordan brand’s most prominent athlete outside of MJ himself. Jeter’s unflappable confidence in the clutch and vast collection of iconic moments cement his mental toughness on par with Jordan’s legendary will to win. Paired with Jeter’s status as the star of the America’s most iconic sports franchise, his cultural relevance may not quite have rivaled Jordan’s at his peak but it is fair to say that Derek Jeter is the most famous baseball player of the past 30 years.

So Jeter is close, and his name is often mentioned as the easy equivalent of Jordan. The five rings help his case quite a bit, but unfortunately he still falls short in the historical greatness category. Jeter was fantastic, and an argument could be made that he is the greatest shortstop who ever played. But even in his own time, he was outperformed by his contemporaries and he failed to win even one MVP award. There were perhaps three seasons where he had a legitimate case- 1999, 2006, and maybe 2009-but still, he failed to bring home the hardware even once and there were plenty of players who were more deserving. So he falls a bit short in the historical greatness category. It’s tough to draw an exact parallel to who Jeter might be in the basketball arena, so I’ll muddy the waters a bit more and add a third sport to the mix. Jeter is more like David Beckham and less like Lionel Messi, who is more like Michael Jordan. And Ronaldo (Christiano to be clear) is LeBron, if that clears things up at all.

 

Barry Bonds, LF, Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants

If you were looking for a player whose teammates only tolerated them because they were that good, Bonds is your guy. He was nothing short of a you-know-what for most of his career, but his incredible production rendered his ornery disposition tolerable. By any metric Bond was the greatest hitter who ever walked the planet. The fear he inspired in opponents perhaps surpassed even Jordan himself. His dedication to his craft challenged the limits of the what was physically possible.

Bonds has the historical greatness covered, yet falls short even if you ignore the can of worms that is the steroid debate. His presence as a cultural icon didn’t match Jordan or Jeter, but he was certainly relevant enough to qualify by that criteria. The image of Bonds menacingly twitching a short bat wrapped with white tape, while his gold cross earring glimmered in the sun, may not be the same as Jordan leaping over Craig Ehlo with his tongue out or Jeter rising and firing across his body from the 5.5 hole, but should elicit recognition in any moderately invested sports fan.

No, where Bonds falls ultimately short is not in his lack of presence as an A-list celebrity nor his tarnished reputation on account of the BALCO scandal. The fact remains that Bonds didn’t win enough. Baseball’s Michael Jordan cannot be someone who made just one championship appearance and failed to deliver a ring. The Giants’ collapse in 2002 should not be attributed to Bonds-he terrorized the Angles pitching staff to the tune of a laughable 1.994 OPS-but many decry his weak throw home in the 1992 NLCS as a failure to deliver on a championship stage. Additionally, besides his titanic performance in that lone World Series performance, Bonds was a subpar postseason hitter, batting just .245 overall and failing to crack .280 in any other postseason series.

Mike Trout, CF, Los Angeles Angels

Trout is tough to evaluate because his career is still active. As baseball’s best active player, he deserves some discussion but even the most biased baseball fan would acknowledge that Trout is not in Jordan’s stratosphere.

Through his fault or that of Angels management, Trout’s national recognition is paltry. He has made the playoffs just once. His most iconic commercial is for Subway. Among Subway sponsors, he ranks pretty even with former Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard but behind the fictional golfer Happy Gilmore.

Trout is great, but this is a question that isn’t even really getting into at this point in his career. There’s an aura around players of Jordan, Jeter, or Bonds’ caliber. Trout isn’t there yet.

Mickey Mantle, CF, New York Yankees

There’s bound to be a lot of Yankees on this list-few other franchises sport a list of championships extensive enough to have enough players to qualify for this list.

Mantle was America’s goldenboy, beloved by the masses moreso than perhaps any other athlete in history. Mickey Mantle’s blond hair and easy smile leading the Yankees to the pennant year after year embodied the spirit of leave-it-to-beaver 1950’s America. His cultural relevance surpassed Jordan’s, and perhaps even that of fellow Yankees Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth.

Mantle qualifies as Jordan-esque in both his on-field performance and cultural relevance. In the history of the game, perhaps there were those better than the Commerce Comet, but in his prime he was easily as dominant as Jordan was.

Mantle’s case is robust-perhaps the closest of anyone on this list. But he remains woefully short in the category that made Jordan what he was-his mindset. Mantle is famous for quoting “If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.” He partied with abandon throughout his career and the years of neglect upon his body rapidly eroded his skills as he aged into his thirties. Jordan would never have let outside distractions prematurely sap his abilities in that way.

By the time he was 34, Mantle was a shell of himself – a once transcendental athlete gingerly plodding around like a old man. He retired just two years later. When Jordan was 34, he led the league in scoring – for the 10th time.

Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams

Each had what the other did not-DiMaggio the notoriety and championships, Williams the dogged drive to be great at all costs and a level of skill so incredible that his contemporaries brilliance paled in comparison.

Ted Williams being the greatest hitter to walk the planet is a valid hill to die on. His lack of championships exclude him from this discussion, no matter how aptly he fits the rest of the criteria.

As for DiMaggio, in all his greatness, there were simply some better. Williams – his greatest rival – outpaced him in every offensive category. Mantle followed him in centerfield and slugged an additional 200+ home runs. It’s possible that some were better than Jordan, but the debate is always contentious. For DiMaggio, it is conceded.

A few other contenders, and why they don’t measure up…

Stan Musial – a legendary ballplayer in his own right that often gets overlooked when discussing the greatest players to ever play the game. For whatever reason, he just doesn’t have the name recognition of a player like Jordan.

Lou Gehrig – Gehrig’s story is one of the most heartbreaking in sports. The image of Gehrig is of a stupendous ballplayer with a disarming grin and a quiet nature. That doesn’t jive with Jordan’s brand of killer instinct.

Albert Pujols – Pujols’ run as baseball’s most dominant hitter amidst the greatest offensive era of the sport deserves commendation. But Jordan would never allow himself to be seen this way, as the bloated apparition of a once elite player. He would have retired long ago, as he proved on three separate occasions.

Alex Rodriguez – A-Rod was probably as good at baseball as Michael Jordan was at basketball pre-roids, but it is hard to say because we don’t know when he began taking them. His uninspiring postseason performance and penchant for drama disqualify him from the debate.

Hank Aaron – Aaron was unbelievable, but his capture of the home run crown was a steady, measured pursuit that resembled a death by a thousand cuts rather than a meteor streaking across the sky. Just one championship to his name, he never achieved the fabled status of lesser players.

Willie Mays – Mays, too, has just one ring to his name. Though the do-it-all dynamo was brilliant throughout his career, his postseason performance was mediocre at best. The small sample size due to the old playoff rules makes this a slightly harsh criticism, but a valid one nonetheless.

If you could have blended DiMaggio and Williams, you would have had the perfect answer to baseball’s Michael Jordan. However, there’s only one player whose name echos in the halls of American history as Jordan’s does.

Babe Ruth, RF, New York Yankees

Recently on Jeoprady!, the answer was given “This player broke Major League Baseball’s Color Barrier.” One overly-eager contestant instantly clicked their buzzer and answered “Who is Babe Ruth?”

It was a rather cringeworthy moment, especially given that the contestant was a student at the University of Southern California, one of the nation’s most prestigious academic institutions. Thankfully, the next contestant was able to name Jackie Robinson as the correct answer without trouble.

That incident just goes to show how far Babe Ruth’s cultural impact is rooted in American society. That lady had likely never paid any attention to baseball in her life – Babe Ruth was probably the only name she knew.

Sure, Ruth let his body go in a way that Jordan never would have dreamed of. But his impact in elevating the game and shaping American culture was on par with His Airness.

Some may say Ruth would have struggled in today’s game. That’s probably true, but he was the type of athlete that would have been able to adapt had he been born in today’s era.

Still, the concerns raised by the fact that Ruth played quite literally 100 years ago are valid. Jordan had a freakish work ethic and Ruth didn’t give his body a second thought. Maybe he isn’t baseball’s Michael Jordan. Maybe no one is.

After all, he was one of a kind.

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