Michael Jordan's year in baseball

August, 24, 2010
8/24/10
11:50
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
There's something we don't do well in sports media, and that's tell stories of vulnerability.

If athletes are butting heads, dominating, humiliating, pumping iron, dunking, trash-talking or doing anything else high-adrenaline ... we have that covered.

But when those same people are in love, sad, making friends, traumatized, soul-searching, homesick -- any of the softer human experiences -- we're just not well equipped to discuss it. We're about winners and losers, about kicking ass and taking names, figuring out who's alpha dog and all that.

So when the ultimate ass-kicker has some serious soul-searching to do, how does the sports media handle it?

Not well, according to Ron Shelton. He's a former minor league baseball player, and the director of movies like "Bull Durham" and "White Men Can't Jump."

Shelton's new movie, one of the ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries, called "Jordan Rides the Bus," investigates the year Michael Jordan took away from the NBA, playing minor league baseball for the Birmingham Barons. The show airs tonight on ESPN.

Shelton says he went into the project thinking what a lot of people thought at the time -- that this weird decision was probably rooted in Jordan's arrogance, and his various gambling issues. But after a year or more of talking to the people who were in Birmingham in 1994, he has a totally different view. He now sees Jordan as a young man who had lost his sense of self, thanks to his extraordinary fame and the death of his father, and was looking to rediscover what he was about.

In an in-depth talk with Andy Kamenetzky of ESPNLosAngeles, Shelton says that his views of Jordan's year in baseball have evolved mightily. "He didn't go to an ashram," says Shelton. "He went to play another sport."

Shelton also says that though Jordan was terrible in the early part of the season, but that baseball experts say he had improved mightily by August.

Another interesting point is that while Jordan is widely seen as having been arrogant and prickly in NBA circles, in Birmingham Shelton says that everyone says Jordan was "Mr. Open" who was friendly to teammates, restaurant staffers, and everyone else. "I couldn't find anybody in Birmingham," Shelton says, " to badmouth him."

Shelton insists he went into this with no particular agenda to make Jordan look good or bad. But in a statement about the documentary, he says he is now convinced that this chapter of Jordan's life has been mistold:
At a personal level, I’ve always felt that this chapter in Jordan’s life was misunderstood. Instead of being an exercise of his ego, it was quite the opposite. The press and public never allowed him to have that moment, that year away to pursue his own dream. Also, as a former professional baseball player who labored for several years, grinding up the ladder one bloody notch at a time, I have a unique appreciation for how difficult this world is. The bus rides, the lack of days off, the daily routine of it all can be brutal. Pitchers are wild, lights are bad, and injuries are a daily occurrence. There’s nothing like this in sports history: The greatest player of all time in one sport submits himself to the gauntlet that mere mortal athletes have to go through daily. Having failed, his return to the NBA is all the more remarkable, and a testament not only to his talent but his enormous will.

Henry Abbott | email

TrueHoop, NBA

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