My primary takeaway from episodes seven and eight of "The Last Dance" was that Michael Jordan was on a separate tier of athletic ability than most anyone that I've ever watched.
One does not simply pick up a baseball bat for the first time in 15 years, after training and shaping his or her body for a career in another sport, and find success at a professional level. Sure, he may not have been phenomenal in the Minors, but we've heard from multiple sources, including longtime manager Terry Francona, that Jordan likely could have developed his game to the Major League level with more time. A 30-year-old basketball player, with zero professional experience or practice in baseball, delivered a 13-game-hitting streak against young budding prospects and older veterans who had been spending their whole entire lives attempting to get to this point.
And it's not like his competition was made up of slouches, either. Sure, the 1994 Southern League was predominantly made up players who never reached the Majors or were low-level players, but there were more than a few diamonds in the rough.
In fact, we've gone ahead and compiled a list of 15 guys who you should probably recognize -- and a few that you definitely will recognize -- that played in that same Southern League in that same 1994 season. If you still doubt that Jordan's baseball career was as impressive as it was, taking a look at some of his competition should make you appreciate his short stint in our national pastime a little bit more.
Players are sorted according to their career MLB WAR, via Baseball Reference.
15. Pokey Reese, Chattanooga Lookouts (6.3 Career WAR)
1994 Southern League Stats: 130 hits, 23 2B, 4 3B, 12 HR, 49 RBI, 21 SB, .269 batting average
Reese provided a lot of pop for the 1994 Lookouts, finishing second in hits, second in home runs, and third in steals. The Southern League was his final stop in AA ball, as he competed in AAA for three years before making the move up to the Majors. Once he was there, he stayed for eight seasons, becoming the every day second baseman for the Reds and earning back-to-back Gold Glove awards in 1999 and 2000.
Reese ended his career with the Red Sox after a two-year stay in Pittsburgh, nabbing a World Series ring in his final season.
14. Atlee Hammaker, Birmingham Barons (8.3 Career WAR)
1994 Southern League Stats: 1-0, 2.00 ERA, 18.0 IP
Hammaker was a member of the 1994 Barons after a long career that fluctuated between the Majors and the Minors. He actually played in the Southern League back in 1980, as well, as a member of the Jacksonville Suns before making the leap up to the Royals.
After just a year, Hammaker was part of a package that Kansas City sent to San Francisco in a trade involving Vida Blue, and Hammaker ended up being the most valuable chip for the Giants. He was an All-Star in 1983, just his third season, and led the league with a 2.25 ERA. Unfortunately, he couldn't maintain that level of play and was a middle-of-the-pack pitcher for San Francisco, San Diego, and Chicago (AL).
13. Doug Glanville, Orlando Cubs (10.9 Career WAR)
1994 Southern League Stats: 127 hits, 22 2B, 2 3B, 5 HR, 52 RBI, 26 SB, .263 batting average
The last-place 1994 Orlando Cubs featured at least one promising player in a mishmash of other names. Glanville was in the big leagues by 1996, but was swapped for Mickey Morandini just a year later in a deal the Cubs made with the Phillies.
Morandini was solid for a couple of years in Chicago, but Glanville was the stronger asset, here. Glanville had back-to-back years of 100 runs scored, finishing with 204 hits, 34 steals and a .325 batting average in the latter of those seasons. Coincidentally, Morandini ended up back in Philly before too long, and Glanville had another short stint in Chicago in 2003.
12. LaTroy Hawkins, Nashville Xpress (17.8 Career WAR)
1994 Southern League Stats: 9-2, 2.33 ERA, 73.1 IP, 53 K
Remember when Hawkins was a part of your favorite team's bullpen? Even if you don't, there's a solid chance he was. Hawkins spent the first nine seasons of his career with the Twins, struggling as a starter before turning into a reliever.
The next 12 seasons were spent with 10 different squads, including the Cubs, both New York teams, and the Houston Astros for two seasons in which he recorded a 1.71 ERA over 84.1 innings pitched.
11. Dave Righetti, Knoxville Smokies (21.3 Career WAR)
1994 Southern League Stats: 1-1, 2.21 ERA, 20.1 IP, 18 K
It makes sense that Righetti has landed a front office role when you look back on the long career and laundry list of experiences he's gone through. He played in all three levels of Minor League Ball, started his career with the most widely-recognized baseball team in the world, won Rookie of the Year, hovered in between MLB and MiLB as he attempted to find his footing, transformed from a mediocre starter into a lockdown closer, went cross-country to the Giants, and rehabbed with a bunch of up-and-coming talent later in his career. One of those stops was with Knoxville in 1994, when he was 35.
Righetti spent 17 years as a pitching coach before finally landing an executive job, all with San Francisco.
10. Esteban Loiaza, Carolina Mudcats (22.7 Career WAR)
1994 Southern League Stats: 10-5, 3.79 ERA, 154.1 IP, 115 K
A two-time All-Star, Loiaza definitely hit his stride with the White Sox in 2003. Prior to that part of his career, he split time between the Pirates, Rangers and Blue Jays, never recording a sub-4.00 ERA in a season.
In 2003, however, he went 21-9 with a 2.90 ERA and a league-best 207 strikeouts, finishing second in the Cy Young vote and earning the first of his two All-Star nods. Another journeyman, Loiaza played for six teams in his final five seasons.
9. Jon Lieber, Carolina Mudcats (24.2 Career WAR)
1994 Southern League Stats: 2-0, 1.29 ERA, 21.0 IP, 21 K
It's not hard to see how dominant Lieber was as a 24-year-old prospect in the Mudcats organization. He was called up that season to pitch for the Pirates, where he was solid as a rookie (6-7, 3.73 ERA). Though he struggled in his sophomore campaign, he emerged as a top starter in the rotation and was traded to the Cubs for Brant Brown. I bet the Pirates wish they could've taken back that trade.
Lieber emerged as a star for the Cubs in a few seasons, going 20-6 and finishing fourth in the Cy Young vote before finding short-term success with both the Yankees and the Phillies later in his career.
8. Steve Sax, Birmingham Barons (25.7 Career WAR)
1994 Southern League Stats: .318 batting average in 22 at bats
Steve Sax has a ton of Major League distinctions -- five All-Star selections, two World Series rings, the 1982 Rookie of the Year award -- but perhaps none is as interesting as a small factoid from his 1994 Birmingham stint toward the end of his playing days.
Sax was the first player that Michael Jordan ever drove in, on a bases loaded single early in Jordan's Minor League career.
Sax is also one of the many advocates of Jordan's potential MLB career coming to fruition, saying in an appearance on CBS Sports Radio that Jordan was "already a guy that could be an accomplished base-stealer in the big leagues" while stating that it was "hard to say" whether or not he could turn his raw talent into a baseball career at the highest level.
7. Terry Pendleton, Greenville Braves (28.5 Career WAR)
1994 Southern League Stats: 3 hits in six at bats, 1 2B
Pendleton was solid for the St. Louis Cardinals -- nothing more, nothing less -- but found some sort of spark to ignite his career once he came to Atlanta at age 30. He led the league in hits in both 1991 and 1992, his first two seasons as a Brave, bringing home the MVP award in 1991 and finishing as the runner-up the next year.
That stretch of dominance was short-lived, as injuries set in during the 1994 season which led to a rehab assignment in the Southern League. He never quite rebounded to the same level, but Atlanta will always look back on his career fondly given his offensive production and his Gold Glove leather at the hot corner. His Atlanta Braves Hall of Fame induction was marked by the fact that he fueled "the most unexpected and successful run in Atlanta sports history" and occurred in 2019.
6. Jason Schmidt, Greenville Braves (29.5 Career WAR)
1994 Southern League Stats: 8-7, 3.65 ERA, 140.2 IP, 131 K
Any fans of MVP Baseball 2004 and 2005 -- the greatest video games of all time, by the way -- will find Jason Schmidt an extremely recognizable name. He rose to prominence after a strangely mediocre career throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s after turning 30, going 17-5 with a league-best 2.34 ERA and 208 strikeouts in 2003 with the Giants.
The next year, he went 18-7 for his second straight All-Star nomination, with a worse ERA (3.20) but a dominant strikeout performance (251). In both seasons, he led the Majors with three shutouts. 2006 marked his final All-Star season, and featured a 16-strikeout performance in June, tied with Christy Mathewson for the franchise record.
5. Derek Lowe, Jacksonville Suns (34.3 Career WAR)
1994 Southern League: 7-10, 4.94 ERA, 75 K
21-year-old Lowe played for the Suns and didn't provide much excitement in terms of his Major League career... as a starter, that is. His conversion to a relief pitcher followed after a few more ineffective seasons in the minors, and by 1998, the Red Sox had converted him into a full-time bullpen presence. By 2000, he was an All-Star closer for the Sox, leading the AL with 42 saves.
But he didn't forget his roots as a starter, as just two years after that dominant performance as a closer, he earned another All-Star bid as a starter. He finished the 2002 season with a 21-8 record and a 2.58 ERA, finishing third in the Cy Young race, before pulling off eight more years of at least 12 wins. He led the NL with 16 wins while pitching for the Dodgers in 2006 and had a couple strong seasons with the Braves late in his career.
4. Jason Kendall, Carolina Mudcats (41.7 Career WAR)
1994 Southern League Stats: 11 hits, 2 2B, .234 batting average
When you see a player pull off four consecutive seasons of 18 stolen bases or more, the last position you'd assume them to play would probably be catcher (after pitcher, of course). But Jason Kendall was not your typical backstop, and he may go down as one of the most underrated players at the position.
Kendall doesn't appear on the same tiers as the big name catchers of the 2000s like Ivan Rodriguez, Jorge Posada and Mike Piazza, but with nearly 2,200 career hits, a .288 career average and a plus defensive WAR, he deserves some more recognition.
After his first five years in the majors, Kendall's stats are pretty eye-popping, especially given the fact that he was a catcher. Three All-Star selections, 720 hits, 45 HR, 93 SB, more walks than strikeouts, and a .314 batting average represent what was an explosive start to the Pittsburgh icon's career.
3. Brad Radke, Nashville Xpress (45.4 Career WAR)
1994 Southern League Stats: 12-9, 2.66 ERA, 186.1 IP, 123 K
He may never have been the flashiest or the most exciting pitcher that the league had to offer, but Radke offered consistency, poise, and reliability for Minnesota over the entirety of the mid-1990s to mid-2000s era.
Averaging 13 wins per season -- and 13 losses, ironically -- over his 12-year career, Radke was a fixture in the Twins rotation and trails only Walter Johnson, Jim Kaat and Bert Blyleven in the franchise leaders for wins.
2. Jason Giambi, Huntsville Stars (50.5 Career WAR)
1994 Southern League Stats: 43 hits, 9 2B, 6 HR, 30 RBI, .223 batting average
Before Giambi was terrorizing the American League with constant 35-45 home run power and MVP-caliber offensive production, he spent time as a 23-year-old prospect in the Southern League. His power was evident from the start, though his batting average and pure hitting ability took some time to flourish.
However, by the time he became a regular in the Majors, he was hitting for power as well as for average, peaking in the early 2000s during a four-year stretch split evenly between Oakland and New York.
From 2000-2003, Giambi earned four All-Star nods while averaging 41 home runs, 122 RBI, 109 runs and a .310/.450/.607 slash line. But even still, he's not the best player that MJ faced off against in the 1994 Southern League.
1. Alex Rodriguez, Jacksonville Suns (117.5 Career WAR)
1994 Southern League Stats: 17 hits, 4 2B, 1 3B, 1 HR, .288
That honor belongs to A-Rod. Then 18 years old, Rodriguez spent some time in the Southern League before getting called up to the Mariners later in the year. His success wasn't immediate, nor was it there in 1995.
But then 1996 came, and A-Rod led the league with 141 runs, 54 doubles and a .358 batting average, tacking on 215 hits, 36 home runs and 123 RBI. It became apparent that Rodriguez was an other-worldly talent, clearly living up to his first-overall expectations and combining devastating power and speed to become a three-time MVP winner, a 14-time All-Star, and a should-be Hall of Fame lock.
Obviously, his steroid use is well-documented and makes his 2022 Hall of Fame eligibility one of the most interesting cases to follow that the league has ever seen.