When Upper Deck released the Michael Jordan baseball card in its 1991 set, it was a stroke of genius. In one card Upper Deck illustrated the juxtaposition of patience and brute force; the struggle of minor-league hope against established superstardom. And, in doing so, created one of the oddest natural moments in sports card history.
(Key note: NATURAL. This wasn’t Kurt Rambis freaking out over his glowing basketball. This was a real picture – a photo opportunity, sure, but a real picture of a real player playing a real sport for a real team.)
If you were a basketball fan, you wanted this card. It was the only way to get a Michael Jordan card that year. If you were a baseball fan, you wanted this card, much as you’d have wanted Eddie Gaedel’s card: as an oddity, a rare blip on the trading card landscape, a mashup before mashups were even a thing.
It was valuable. It was rare.
Twenty years later, we can see it for what it really was: arrogant.
Because, with the benefit of hindsight, this card freezes a privileged superstar at the peak of his ability, unable to understand failure, confident that he can do anything better than anyone, and completely willing to be paraded around as a novelty for the chance to prove everyone wrong.
Michael Jordan played baseball for a year. He was given a minor league spot by Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of both the White Sox and the Bulls. He was paid by the Chicago Bulls the entire time.
He batted .202 for the Birmingham Barons. He hit three home runs and drove in 51 runs.
He wasn’t perfect. And this card proves it, much to his chagrin.
The accepted story is that Jordan did this for his father. It was all done out of tragedy of his dad’s murder. He retired and went into baseball because his father’s dream was for Jordan to be a MLB star.
Maybe. But he also did it because that’s who he always was: unable to admit that he had flaws. The arrogance in that smirk, the ease with which he wandered onto the baseball field, the knowledge that he hadn’t worked a day to earn his spot on the team, and that, once he felt the heat from his critics, he was able to waltz back onto the Bulls with a simple phrase.
And we all embraced him. We had missed him on the floor. So we patted him on the head and let the experiment slide.
The card’s worth about five bucks, now. Funny what hindsight does.