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Michael Jordan's Greatest Achievement

Believe it or not, his most imposing coup had nothing to do with his six championship rings and six Finals MVP awards, five regular season MVP awards, 33-point career playoff average, and ten scoring titles.
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To say that Michael Jordan's 50 birthday on Sunday shook up the sports world is not an overstatement.

During the weeks leading up to his birthday bash, former and current NBA athletes, sports commentators, bloggers and tweeters were dispatching incessant reflections on the basketball icon's heralded career.

The maudlin ruminations swarming in sports nation inspired me to take time out to contemplate on Michael Jordan's most noteworthy feat.

Believe it or not, his most imposing coup had nothing to do with his six championship rings and six Finals MVP awards, five regular season MVP awards, 33-point career playoff average, and ten scoring titles.

It wasn't even his jaw-dropping 63 points against the Boston Celtics.

However majestic those numbers may be, a less impressive statistic endures as Jordan's most astonishing feat: his .252 Batting Average. Yes, Jordan's inimitable experiment in Minor League Baseball set the stage for his most underappreciated exploit.

It is because Jordan has amassed such an impressive compendium of noteworthy achievements that we can so easily overlook how mind-boggling it was for the basketball star to achieve a modicum of success on the baseball field.

Put in proper perspective, Jordan's minor league stint is one of the most remarkable accomplishments in sport's history.

When Jordan retired from the NBA in 1994, he traded in baggy shorts and brutal Chicago winters for ankle length pants and southern hospitality, signing up for duty as the Birmingham Barons' new outfielder. Some commentators saw his Minor League turn as nothing more than a cathartic adventure to mitigate the pain from his father's tragic murder that occurred a year earlier.

Others perceived Jordan's shift to baseball as a whimsical escape from the vestiges of ennui accrued from years of dominating the NBA's best and brightest. In other words, they speculated that the compulsive competitor was bored with basketball and needed a new challenge.

But this time perhaps pundits had accurately calculated that "His Airness" was in over his head because the Minor Leagues features skilled professional athletes who are just one level removed from playing against the best baseball players in the world. In contrast, Jordan never even played college baseball, nor even played competitive baseball as an adult before his minor league test.

Whether it was hubris or baseball bravura, Jordan embarked upon a difficult sport he last played as a kid.

Initially Jordan's doubters appeared quite prescient. His early fielding errors and inability to hit curve balls and off-speed pitches confirmed suspicions that the basketball icon was out of his element. Sports Illustrated ran a cover story with the caption "Bag It, Michael!" alongside a shot of Jordan swinging through a pitch in one of his many strikeouts. ESPN's talking heads, columnists and radio hosts mocked his persistence, while basketball fans pleaded for the superstar's imminent return to the hard court.

But as the season progressed, Jordan continued to rack up grueling early-morning and late-evening sessions in the batting cage with Barons hitting coach Mike Barnett and manager Terry Francona to polish his swing. You might recognize Francona as the name of the skipper who led the Boston Red Sox to two World Series victories following those humbler years working with Jordan as manager of the Barons.

By the middle of the season Jordan's hard work yielded vast improvement. He tweaked his batting stance, leveled his swing, and showed promise against elite competition, ending the season with the Barons batting .202, with 3 homeruns, 51 RBI and 30 stolen bases. While those numbers won't titillate Major League scouts, they are extraordinary nonetheless when you consider Jordan's dreadful start and limited time in the sport.

A month later, Jordan played against stiffer competition in the Arizona Fall League, an off-season league controlled by Major League Baseball that draws top Minor League players. To put the league's competitive level in perspective, the New York Yankees' legendary shortstop Derek Jeter played in the Arizona Fall League the same year as Jordan just as perennial All-Stars Albert Pujols, Jimmy Rollins and countless current stars played in the same fall league before getting called to the Majors.

Competing against tauter talent, Jordan ended the fall season hitting a respectable .252, a 50-point increase from his batting average in Birmingham. Jordan also flaunted better defensive skills and sharper baseball instincts, while hammering 90-mile-an-hour fastballs, slick off-speed pitches, and wicked sliders out of the infield with the same regularity he once nailed 15-foot jumpers on the court.

What this means is that in less than a year Jordan evolved from a Minor League minstrel to a serious pro prospect.

Such an accomplishment is comparable to a professional dancer landing a spot in New York's prestigious modern dance company "Complexions" after a thirteen-year layoff from performing, or a cellist playing for the Houston Symphony after a decade-plus break from orchestra participation. The latter undertakings are as improbable and incomprehensible as Jordan holding his on against elite Minor League talent after years away from the sport he only played in high school.

Fortunately for NBA fans, the 1994-1995 Major League Baseball strike diverted Jordan's attention away from baseball toward a return to basketball where he would earn three more championships and cement his legacy as the greatest player of all-time.

But if we extrapolate from Jordan's rapid progress, he was well on his way toward taking his talents to West Chicago to play for the White Sox instead of the Chicago Bulls. We can now only imagine what Jordan could have accomplished in baseball with just two more years of grueling preparation and drastic improvement.

As we mull over today's NBA landscape, a new king reigns over the hard court named LeBron James who pacing himself to replicate Jordan's physical dominance of the game they both love like its their own child.

But if the NBA's reigning monarch wants to eclipse Jordan's heralded legacy, King James willhave to take a page from "His Airness" and hold court in another sport.