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“I don’t get down after a bad game,” Michael Jordan told the press following yet another embarrassing out-of-retirement outing. “I wasn’t afraid to fail when I started this.”

Pretty much any game Jordan has played recently could have inspired that quotation, given how few of them have turned out favorably for him and/or his team. Counting preseason, the Wizards have an appalling 4-13 record, with the greatest player ever on the roster, and have, rather amazingly, won fewer games than the Redskins in the past four weeks.

But those plucky words came from Jordan during a previous career folly, long before he donned the black and blue and poopie brown of the Washington Wizards. MJ said ’em when he was a minor-league baseball player.

Jordan did his first imitation of George Plimpton—another guy who got to live out unlikely jock dreams as everybody watched—back in 1994. After winning a third NBA championship, he left the basketball court, saying that he had nothing left to prove. Within months, he wanted to prove that he could play baseball.

He’d given up the game in high school, but, being Michael Jordan, got a pro contract right off the bat, and he was quickly assigned to the Chicago White Sox’s farm system. He traded life in a gated community near a golf course outside Chicago for life in a gated community near a golf course in Birmingham, Ala., where the Barons of the AA Southern League play.

Watching Jordan and the Wizards lose to the Milwaukee Bucks the other night—the first time I saw him play—I lingered over the parallels between his baseball excursion and his current endeavor.

In both cases, for instance, there were rumors that there was more to the unretirement than met the eye. The Black Helicopter crowd still thinks that Jordan’s Alabama expedition was part of a backroom deal he had made with NBA Commissioner David Stern to pay penance for unspecified gambling transgressions. Jordan was—and still is, by many accounts—a practicing wagerer: Recent reports out of Connecticut, including a Nov. 2 Hartford Courant piece, had him down several hundred thousand dollars at the gaming tables after a Wizards-Celtics preseason game held at an Indian casino.

But if he was indeed told to cool his heels, Jordan hardly stayed away from gambling interests during his time in the bushes. Shortly after Jordan showed up in ‘Bama, the Barons acquired a state-of-the-art team bus.(Minor leaguers don’t fly.) Jordan allowed fans and media to think that he’d financed the vehicle as a nice “How-do-you-do?” to his new teammates. After the season, however, it was revealed that Jordan hadn’t paid a penny for the Baron’s sleek ride. Instead, the bus belonged to the Thrasher Brothers, a firm that transports folks from Birmingham and other points south to the region’s riverboat casinos. The JordanCruiser still rides in the Thrasher Brothers’ fleet, ferrying folks to Mississippi slot machines. Jordan’s No. 45—his baseball jersey number—is painted on the bus in Barons colors.

There’s also plenty of evidence that Jordan’s latest basketball comeback isn’t just to “scratch an itch” to play again, as he has declared. He’s got another penance to pay—this time, for his sins as a basketball executive.

The only wizardry Jordan has performed in Washington thus far is making Wes Unseld seem like a fabulous personnel man by comparison. Who believed that when Jordan became team president, in January 1999, he was going to take a pathetic Wizards team put together by Unseld and make it demonstrably worse in no time flat?

Jordan, remember, didn’t even admit that he was going to play—defying the 99-to-1 odds that he’d set against a comeback—until September, just before training camp. If he’s an honest oddsmaker, then the Wizards team president intended to put a starting lineup of Tyronn Lue, Christian Laettner, Richard Hamilton, Kwame Brown, and Jahidi White on the MCI Center floor. Apart from Hamilton, they’re all Jordan signings—and, by last week, Hamilton was out of the starting lineup. By any measure, they’re a more putrid bunch than the 2000-2001 Wizards—who put up the worst record in franchise history.

So you don’t have to believe in conspiracies to argue that Jordan’s real motivation for his return to the hardwood was to make folks forget his team presidency, in the same way that Jimmy Carter started hammering at two-by-fours for poor folks after his White House stint. At several points during the Bucks game—such as when he pushed away coach Doug Collins and whined to the referee about a foul call, or when he dribbled the ball off his leg and out of bounds, or when he sat on the end of the bench far away from his underperforming teammates during timeouts—it was clear that Jordan’s itch was turning into a rash. But nobody mentions Jordan’s last job anymore.

Birmingham surely prepped Jordan to hang out with folks who had no future as pro athletes. With the Barons, he went to war alongside no-names such as Chris Snopek, Steve Gajkowski, and Rogelio Nunez—Popeye Jones in spikes, all of them. A .239 hitter named Charles Poe was cut to make room on the roster for Jordan on the last day of spring training, but Jordan never made anybody forget Poe with his bat or his glove. He hit .202 for the year and led the league in only one category: errors. (He had 11.)

But just as the lowly Wizards are suddenly the NBA’s hottest attraction, folks flocked to see Jordan on the diamond—all those swings and misses be damned. Seven of the top 10 attendance figures in Barons history came during Jordan’s year with the team, and nearly a million people went to Barons games in 1994. To meet the demand, the team even recalled 45,000 tickets it had given away to local charities. And just as Serena Williams and Chris Tucker dropped by the MCI Center to catch the Bucks game last week, minor-league celebs used to travel to Hoover Stadium—the Barons’ home ballpark—to watch Jordan.

“I remember when Kenny Rogers came by,” says Wayne Martin, the baseball beat writer for the Birmingham News in 1994, who’s still with the paper. “And Cathy Lee Crosby.”

Barons manager Terry Francona, a career baseball man, surely realized early into the season that Jordan would soon be going back whence he came, but he had to stick him in right field, day after day, to avoid a public-relations nightmare. Collins is in the same boat. Even on his most off night, Jordan gets as many minutes as he wants.

With the Wizards, as with the Barons, Jordan remains so much bigger than the game itself. I saw Jordan play baseball once, in July 1994, when Birmingham faced the Jacksonville Suns. I remember that he played horribly—dropping a routine fly ball, getting thrown out stealing, and striking out twice on curve balls that buckled his legs. I don’t remember, however, if the Barons or the Suns won the game.

As I left the sold-out MCI Center after the Bucks game, I wondered how long I’d remember that the Wizards lost. —Dave McKenna