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Michael Jordan & Joey Cora: A Story of Baseball Inspiration

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The basketball superstar and beloved Mariner are both famous for their tears. But there’s more to their connection than crying in the club.

Joey Cora
Little Joey Cora crouches at the plate.

Everyone is talking about Michael Jordan these days. A docuseries about him and his last season with the Chicago Bulls began airing last night. You likely know that Jordan also briefly played minor league baseball for the Chicago White Sox. His stint in baseball is widely remembered as being a disaster (whether it’s actually true or not). Despite his short baseball career, he managed to influence the game long after he returned to the basketball court.

***

Joey Cora’s tenacious and passionate play quickly won him a place in the hearts of Mariners fans. He was all of us in the Kingdome dugout after the Mariners were eliminated from the 1995 ALCS, sobbing that the magical season was over. He came into 1997, working hard to get the Mariners back to the playoffs, and also for some personal reasons:

Despite the work he put in, Joey Cora’s 1997 season did not begin well. Through his first twelve games, he accrued only five hits. His batting average was a dismal .128, atrocious even when you disregard batting average as a worthwhile statistic. He had walked more times (eight) than he had hit safely and had only struck out three times. His problem wasn’t seeing the ball. It was hitting it where they ain’t.

On a mid-April stop in Detroit Cora’s frustrations were boiling. He was spending extra time with batting coach Lee Elia. He was trying to stay positive and keep the faith that eventually he would hit balls between fielders, instead of at them. Mariners manager Lou Piniella was supportive and believed he’d turn it around, telling the News Tribune, “Joey works too hard not to succeed.”1 As the series in Detroit wrapped up, his bat slowly started coming back to life. Near the end of April, he knocked a quick five-game hitting streak in which he garnered nine hits and raised his batting average to .243 on April 27th. Little Joey’s bat was ready to roll.

On May 2nd, he dabbed on some Michael Jordan cologne.

***

To Cora, Michael Jordan wasn’t just the most famous basketball player on the planet. Cora had been with the White Sox from 1991 until 1994. He had lived in the same city where Jordan played basketball. He had also been close to Michael Jordan, the struggling baseball player.

Jordan came to White Sox camp in February 1994 with a mass of media members in tow. He was hard to ignore. As for Cora, Jordan’s arrival knocked him off the throne as the hardest working player in the organization.

”I remember how I usually was the first one in the clubhouse and usually the first one in the cage,” Cora told NBC Sports Chicago in 2016. “And when he got in there, I wasn’t the first one anymore, I was the second one. I’m always going to remember that because he was Michael Jordan.”2

Cora and his teammate Ozzie Guillen decided to try knocking Jordan off a throne of his own. Cora was generously listed at 5’8”. Guillen was listed at 5’11. He told ESPN in 2016, “I feel like I was Manute Bol next to Joey Cora.”3 Guillen said he and Cora would often play basketball. So when their new teammate joined the clubhouse, they decided to welcome him with a friendly 2-on-1 basketball game and a $100 wager on the outcome.

The team of Cora and Guillen jumped into the lead right away. “All of a sudden, we start scoring. We kicking his butt! And we start passing the ball and we beating him. He was just playing around,” Guillen remembers. But Jordan wasn’t about to let the diminutive baseball players beat him at basketball.

We hand the ball back - check- and he just went crazy. He ain’t checking shit. He would just dunk. One after another. We went to stop him and he would run through us. “I was like, ‘Why are you being so aggressive? For a hundred bucks?’ He said, ‘Nope. It’s not the hundred bucks. It’s cause you’ll be telling everyone you just beat Michael Jordan.’4

Alas, the team of Cora and Guillen did not beat Michael Jordan. But for a few glorious minutes, they held the lead.

That wasn’t the end of Cora and Guillen teaming up against Jordan. During a drill, Jordan mistakenly thought he should nab a shallow fly ball. He ended up needing to sprint and dive to catch the ball. The Cora-Guillen double play combination gave him grief for the rest of the game, imitating his awkward dive and calling him off of all the pop ups, even those far out of his range. Jordan took it in stride, saying, “If you can’t laugh at yourself, you’re in trouble.”5

As spring continued, Jordan struggled at the plate. He said of his own bats, “All those bats have my name on them, and none of them have hits in them.”6 Cora helpfully offered him a solution. In several spring training games, the great Michael Jordan stepped to the plate swinging Cora’s bats, looking for the hits that eluded him.

Cora and Jordan played in exactly one game together as teammates. On April 7, 1994 the White Sox played the Cubs at Wrigley Field in an exhibition game called the Windy City Classic. Although Jordan was not on the major league roster, he was obviously a huge draw in Chicago and was put in the lineup for the White Sox. Jordan started in right field and hit a game-tying double in the seventh inning at Wrigley. He played the entire nine innings. The only other White Sox player to stick around the whole game? None other than Joey Cora.7

Even though Jordan’s athletic prowess didn’t translate to the baseball diamond, his success on the basketball court was enough for Cora to want to absorb its essence, in this case, in the form of a cheap cologne.

Michael Jordan and Bijan are introducing “Michael Jordan Cologne”. The basketball star–entrepreneur Photo by Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The evening of May 2nd, 1997 the Mariners beat the Brewers 8-1 at the Kingdome. Randy Johnson threw a dominant game, striking out eleven batters in eight innings, Ken Griffey Jr. hit his fourteenth home run of the season, and Joey Cora lined a single to shallow right field in the bottom of the eighth inning. The following night Cora led off the bottom of the first with a double to right field for his only hit of the game in the Mariners loss. He followed with a three-hit performance to wrap up the series and just kept hitting.

On May 9th in Baltimore, Cora was free from the stink of his slump. He went five-for-five against the Orioles and won a $500 bet with Griffey. Although he was a switch-hitter, Cora rarely faced left-handed pitching and had never hit a home run batting right-handed. Griffey, who was leading the major leagues in home runs and already brushing off talk of Roger Maris’s home run record, bet Cora $500 that he would never hit a right-handed home run.

In the sixth inning, Cora stepped in to face left-handed reliever Arthur Rhodes. On an 0-2 count, Cora launched a ball toward deep left field. 373 feet later, the ball landed, and Cora took off around the bases like a shot out of a cannon. “I’m not Junior, I’m not McGwire, I go around fast,” Cora shrugged after the game.8

Going into that night, Cora was batting .273. After, he had raised his average to .307. “I’ve never had five hits in the big leagues,” Cora reflected. “That last at-bat, I thought about it, especially after the start I’ve had this year.”9

As a team, the Mariners struggled throughout May 1997, in part due to inconsistent offensive performances, and largely because of bullpen meltdowns. Cora just continued to hit. He put up a trio of four-hit games and launched three more home runs, leading his Mariners teammates to start calling him ‘The Mick”.10

On May 27th, Cora was named the American League Player of the Week. While talking to reporters about the honor, Cora finally revealed the secret to his hitting streak.

“I’ve been using the Michael Jordan cologne...That’s the only thing I’ve changed.”11

On May 30th, in another loss, Cora would go 0-3 and his hitting streak would end at 24 games. He stood in sole possession of the longest hitting streak by an American League switch hitter, passing the previous record holders held by Eddie Murphy and Roberto Alomar. He held the record for the longest hitting streak in Mariners history, set in 1979 by Dan Meyer and equaled in 1982 by Richie Zisk.

Both of those records would eventually be surpassed. Still, for a time, Little Joey Cora was the greatest spark plug in history thanks to a splash of cologne from His Airness.

***

The next season would be Cora’s last as a baseball player. After Jordan led the Bulls to their last championship in 1998, Cora was traded from the Mariners to Cleveland. Injuries ended his playing career, but Cora returned to the dugout in various minor league managing and coaching positions.

As Jordan’s basketball career finally reached the end in 2003, Cora was eyeing a return to Chicago. In 2004, his old friend Ozzie Guillen hired him to coach with the White Sox.

In 2009, during his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, Jordan pulled a page out of Cora’s book and let the tears flow. A picture of his tears became the Crying Jordan meme.

BASKETBALL HALL OF FAME
Yes, I know this isn’t THE crying Jordan picture, but we don’t have the rights to that one, so this will have to do.
Photo by Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Michael Jordan and Joey Cora had very different playing careers in each of their sports. But, they crossed each other’s paths on the baseball diamond, and each lent inspiration to the other.

Notes:

  1. LaRue, Larry. “MARINERS UPDATE: STRUGGLING CORA SNAPS OUT OF HIS HITTING SLUMP.” The News Tribune, April 18, 1997: C5.
  2. “Joey Cora reflects on Michael Jordan’s spring training with White Sox.” NBC Sports Chicago, February 26, 2016. https://www.nbcsports.com/chicago/chicago-white-sox/joey-cora-reflects-michael-jordans-spring-training-white-sox
  3. “Life lessons from Ozzie Guillen—don’t mess with Michael Jordan.” ESPN, May 11, 2016. https://www.espn.com/blog/onenacion/post/_/id/4017/life-lessons-from-ozzie-guillen-dont-mess-with-michael-jordan
  4. Ibid.
  5. Gonzalez, Simon C.. “Baseball Report.” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, February 27, 1994: 5
  6. “BASEBALL: YANKEE PROSPECT CALLED ON CARPET FOR COMMENTS.” THE SEATTLE TIMES, March 9, 1994: C3.
  7. Reynolds, Dave. “JORDAN’S DEBUT:DOUBLE, TROUBLE>ERROR PROVES COSTLY, BUT 7TH-INNING DOUBLE PROVIDES TYING RUNS IN 4-4 WINDY CITY CLASSIC.” Journal Star (Peoria, IL), April 8, 1994: C1.
  8. LaRue, Larry. “CORA WINS A BET, MARINERS WIN A GAME.” The News Tribune, May 10, 1997: C1.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Street, Jim. “CORA STREAK HAS CERTAIN AIR ABOUT IT - LEAGUE PLAYER OF WEEK TIES AL MARK FOR SWITCH-HITTERS.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 28, 1997: D2.
  11. Wittenmyer, Gordon. “MARINARA.” Kitsap Sun (Bremerton, WA), May 28, 1997.