Excuse Brian Jordan if he feels he has been shorted in the fame department. The former St. Louis Cardinals outfielder was the rare professional athlete who excelled in two sports and is still convinced that nobody has heard of him.
“I’m kind of like the Rodney Dangerfield of two-sport athletes,” Jordan said in a phone interview on Tuesday morning.
Michael Jordan’s baseball stint in the recent spotlight serves as a good reminder that Brian (no relation) arguably doesn’t get enough respect in the two-sport discussion.
It should be noted that Brian played strong safety for the Atlanta Falcons from 1989 through 1991, starting in 30 National Football League games and had five interceptions. He was voted as an alternate to the Pro Ball team during the 1991 season.
And that’s just his brief professional football career.
After deciding to focus on baseball full-time in 1992, Jordan made his major-league debut later that year with the Cardinals and broke through in 1993, slashing .309/.351/.543 in 242 at-bats. He went on to 31.7 career Wins Above Replacement.
That’s more than Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders combined in baseball.
It begs the question: why is Brian Jordan always in the shadow of Bo, Deion and even MJ in the two-sport conversation?
“It starts with I went to a smaller college at the University of Richmond,” Jordan said. “I really had to earn my way up. Nobody really knew who Brian Jordan was because I went to a smaller college and then the fact I got injured in the Senior Bowl when I was really making a statement of who Brian Jordan was.”
Out of college, Jordan was a projected third round pick. He then moved up NFL mock draft boards even further before the Senior Bowl, projecting him to go as early as the first round and to be the second safety taken in the 1989 Draft.
Future Hall of Famer Steve Atwater wound up being the first safety off the board, going to the Denver Broncos at No. 20 overall.
“I had a lot going for me until that injury in the Senior Bowl,” Jordan said. “I don’t think anybody expected me to return from a broken leg and dislocated ankle to one, play back in the NFL, according to a lot of the combine doctors that looked at my injury. And two, return to being a really good athlete.”
Torn between two sports
Like MJ, Brian was torn between two sports. But like Deion, he chose to play both for some time.
Former Cardinals scouting director Fred McAlister, who passed away in 2008, told Sports Illustrated in a feature story in 1996 he first spotted Jordan in April 1988 playing for the University of Richmond. It was an exhibition game against the Triple-A Richmond Braves.
Jordan cracked a home run, a double, a single and stole a base.
“He did everything a scout dreams of,” McAlister told SI. “I thought to myself, ‘If I could sign this guy, I’d jump off the Gateway Arch.’”
Two months later, the Cardinals selected Jordan in the first round of the 1988 draft, but he returned to college for his senior year and gained All-Yankee Conference recognition in football.
In April 1989, Jordan was chosen in the seventh round of the NFL draft by the Buffalo Bills. Buffalo was deep at defensive back and tried to slip him through waivers after the final roster cut, with the hope of resigning him.
But the Falcons grabbed him off the waiver wire, and he wound up in the same defensive backfield as Sanders.
“I proved a lot of people wrong by coming back and playing in the NFL,” Jordan said. “I didn’t think I was going to get drafted after visiting with the doctors at the combine.”
Jordan finished third in the NFL in tackles in 1990 and the following season was a Pro Bowl alternate, all while playing baseball each summer in the Cardinals minor league system.
He said playing both sports at the same time wasn’t a challenge, but it was more of prioritizing his time that was the biggest issue.
“I had to figure out, ‘Ok, I’m going to play 35 minor league games and then I’m going to prep and get ready for football,’” Jordan said. “There are different muscles involved. I was not one of those guys like Deion, who was a cornerback and all I had to do was cover a guy and not hit hard.
“I didn’t really hit hard. I didn’t do a lot of tackling, but I knew at strong safety, I was like a linebacker in Jerry Glanville’s system. I had to really prepare myself and get strong, bulk up and prepare myself for the hits.”
After the 1991 season, Jordan’s contract with the Falcons expired and he said he wasn’t yet ready to specialize in baseball.
“I was starting to take off,” Jordan said. “People were starting to know who Brian Jordan was in the NFL. I learned a lot from Deion. One thing about Deion is he studied the game. He knew it was going to happen before it happened. That went great with his athletic ability. I was going to get to that point of learning the game.”
But Jordan said Atlanta “kind of dragged their feet on resigning me and the Cardinals came calling.” He signed a new contract with St. Louis to play baseball exclusively.
“I decided, ‘Well, I played three years in the minor leagues when I was playing in the NFL. Let me give Major League Baseball a shot and see what a full-season feels like,’” Jordan said. “It’s funny because I used to call baseball players wimps compared to the NFL. I was like, ‘You guys got it easy.’
“When I played my first 162-game season with the Cardinals, I had a new respect for baseball.”
Adjusting to baseball full-time
Episode 7 of The Last Dance, the docu-series on Michael Jordan and the 1998 Chicago Bulls, shows MJ quitting basketball for minor league baseball after his father’s 1993 murder.
Michael played one season of minor league ball with the Chicago White Sox Double-A affiliate Birmingham Barons, where he hit .202 in 127 games after having not swung a bat competitively since he was in high school.
“I’m often asked, ‘Do you think Michael Jordan could have made it to the major leagues?’” Brian said. “I tell them, ‘Hey, if he didn’t start at 31 and maybe at 25 or 24, there’s no doubt in my mind he would’ve made it to major-leagues just by his competitive nature.’”
MJ’s hitting coach Mike Barnett said in the seventh installment of The Last Dance the thing he remembers about that season was Michael started the season with a 13-game hitting streak, but he knew a steady diet of breaking balls were on the way.
“Every night during that hitting streak, I’m kind of going, ‘When’s it going to happen? And finally it did,’” Barnett said. “He probably did not see a fastball in the strike zone for a month and a half. Now, they are trying to get him out with breaking balls. And it’s breaking ball after breaking ball after breaking ball.
“He’s swinging at every single one of them up there.”
After having struggled mightily with the breaking ball, Michael had to learn to make the adjustments at the plate, and prove he could hit the breaking ball.
“I have to play catch up, but I’m going to do it,” Michael said on the documentary.
Barnett said Michael would hit off the breaking ball machine early in the day before a night game, hit more after regular batting practice and then finish the day by working on the machine again.
“By August, you could see it building,” Barnett said. “He kept getting better and better and better.”
Brian Jordan said he laughed when he saw that part of the documentary because that describes his first three weeks in the big-leagues.
“I came in thinking the game was real easy,” Brian said. “They were throwing me fastballs and I was hitting them out of the park and running around the bases thinking, ‘Wow, I’m going to be the next Hank Aaron if it’s this easy.’”
Then all of a sudden, Jordan remembers playing a game on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Right-hander Doug Drabek was on the mound and threw him nothing but curveballs.
“I struck out four times against Drabek,” Jordan said. “That last time going up to the plate I felt hopeless. I remembered that feeling.”
Jordan said he worked diligently to learn how to hit the curveball. He remembers going down to Florida for a month to work with Cardinals coach Dave Ricketts, who threw him curveballs every morning.
“Next thing you know, I’m back really quick and that was my favorite pitch to hit,” Jordan said. “Just as I made adjustments – I feel like Michael Jordan could have been that type of player.”
Looking back on his dual-sport career
In the middle of his baseball career, Jordan told SI that when his baseball career is over — he will have proven himself in both sports — but his personality will always make him the invisible two-sport athlete.
When asked to expand upon that now, Jordan said he always had that humble, quiet personality.
“I just went about my business,” Jordan said. “I played hard. I did some good things. I wasn’t really heavily marketing myself to the public. I was never that Nike guy or Adidas. For me, it was about being a family guy, working hard and being quiet about it.
“That’s just me. That’s always been me. I get excited when I’m on the field. I want to pump my teammates up and I’m that clubhouse leader. Nobody ever saw that in the clubhouse. If you talk to coaches and managers, they saw that I wanted to win. And I wanted those guys to speak up, but it was in a quiet way.”
Sanders told SI that he believes his buddy will never receive the same recognition as his two-sport predecessors.
“Bo was the first one, so he had the marketability,” Sanders told the publication in 1996. “And I was the second, but I had my own style that made me different. I think Brian’s just Brian. He’s just a good dude.”
Jordan now spends his days on air as an Atlanta Braves pre- and post-game analyst for Fox Sports South. He also just completed writing his fourth children’s book.
And he said he misses playing football the most because that’s always been his favorite sport, but he has no regrets as he looks back on his two-sport career.
“I look back and I say, ‘Sometimes, I wish I would’ve played that next year,” Jordan said. “I didn’t know four years at the time would get you a full pension for the NFL. I stopped at three years. I was just reaching that peak in football. I knew if I played that fourth year, I would’ve made the Pro Bowl and you would’ve seen my name in lights.
“That’s the only thing. I have no regrets. I was happy to be able to play 15 years of major-league baseball. My body feels great right now. I’m still playing basketball and running around with the kids. I made the right decision.”
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