Our recurring list of the twenty-five greatest Cardinals of the last twenty-five years will run daily leading up to Opening Day 2021. In case you missed it, here are the prior entries.
25. Todd Stottlemyre
24. David Freese
23. Andy Benes
22. Lance Lynn
21. Paul DeJong
20. Tommy Pham
19. Darryl Kile
18. Ryan Ludwick
17. Kolten Wong
16. Carlos Martínez
15. Woody Williams
14. J.D. Drew
One of the most truly exhausting tropes for a certain type of baseball fundamentalist, one who believes that baseball is self-evidently the greatest sport in the world and that any person who would opt for a career other than professional baseball player, even if the alternative is going pro in another sport, is out of their mind. A few weeks ago, when Fernando Tatis Jr. inked a lucrative extension with the San Diego Padres, ESPN’s Jeff Passan tweeted a fairly trite message of “Play baseball” to aspiring athletes, as though signing a $340 million contract is the normal outcome for a baseball player. But it is just as obvious to a neutral observer that Russell Wilson or Kyler Murray made the right decision by becoming immediate multi-millionaires as NFL quarterbacks rather than toiling in the minor leagues for years while making less money than most of the fans in the stands for the possibility of eventually making NFL quarterback money as it is that Tatis made the right decision by playing the sport that made him preposterously wealthy. LeBron James was a talented high school football player who was recruited to play wide receiver at Notre Dame. Maybe he could have made the NFL. He obviously made the right decision by going to the NBA.
The choice for a two-sport athlete is rarely a difficult one. The closest recent example of this for a high-level athlete was Jeff Samardzija, an All-American wide receiver at Notre Dame (given that they graduated high school in the same year, maybe he got LeBron’s scholarship) who would certainly have been drafted, likely pretty highly, into the NFL had he not instead opted to sign with the Chicago Cubs, who signed Samardzija to a five-year contract. Samardzija went on to a pretty good MLB career where, to date, he has earned $122.725 million. It’s technically possible that Samardzija, had he become a superstar, would have outearned his MLB career in the NFL, and it’s also possible he would have enjoyed playing in the NFL more, but only two wide receivers in NFL history, Larry Fitzgerald and Julio Jones, have earned more money in their careers than Samardzija. Playing baseball seems to have worked out for him.
The Cardinals drafted Brian Jordan with the 30th overall pick in the 1988 MLB Draft, and he immediately joined the Cardinals’ farm system. But for Jordan, professional baseball was more of a hobby than a career. In 1989, Jordan signed with the Atlanta Falcons, and while he only played in four games, he was still merely an A-ball player for the Cardinals, so it wasn’t as though one sport dramatically outweighed the other for him. But in 1990, that began to change. Brian Jordan became the team’s starting strong safety, and in 1991, Jordan was a Pro Bowl alternate. Playing in the same secondary as fellow two-sport athlete Deion Sanders, Jordan even intercepted Mark Rypien, a few weeks removed from winning the Super Bowl, in a playoff game. The game turned out to be Jordan’s final in the NFL.
Brian Jordan was a reasonable man, and he knew that in a vacuum, baseball was the safer sport, both for career stability and personal health. But he was an NFL starter, and an NFL starter makes far more than a standard minor league baseball player. The Cardinals were not obliged to pay Brian Jordan a particularly high salary, but they knew that in order to keep the outfielder, who had spent 1991 with the AAA Louisville Redbirds, away from committing fully to the NFL, they’d have to give him a substantial raise. And so they did. Jordan quit the Falcons and he made his MLB debut the next season.
The most famous MLB/NFL players are Bo Jackson and the aforementioned Deion Sanders, and their football accomplishments dwarf those of Brian Jordan. But Jordan was the best baseball player of the group. Bo Jackson had the highlights of an All-Star Game home run, running up an outfield wall, and effortlessly breaking a bat over his knee, and Deion Sanders was a speedster who was the fourth-most valuable position player by Wins Above Replacement on the pennant-winning 1992 Atlanta Braves, but Brian Jordan was a well-rounded and fully-formed baseball player who was so terrific at the sport that his NFL career, which I cannot emphasize strongly enough included being a Pro Bowler, is relegated to footnote status. He was that good.
By the time the 1996 season began, Brian Jordan had established himself as the starting right fielder for the Cardinals, with a breakthrough 1995 season. And in 1996, Jordan was even better, and the astonishingly well-rounded right fielder was a huge part of the reason the Cardinals were able to win the NL Central. Despite somewhat less impressive offensive numbers than outfieldmates Ron Gant and Ray Lankford, with both the lowest on-base percentage and slugging percentage of the group (though his 100+ RBI season, much of which was spurred on by driving in Lankford, surely helped him pick up some MVP votes), he was the most valuable of the trio by Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Replacement thanks in large part to his superior glove. It was the era of three outfield Gold Gloves rather than one per outfield slot, so no right fielders won in the National League that year, but Jordan surely would have deserved one. He probably deserved one anyway. By Defensive Runs Above Average, Jordan was the most valuable defensive player in the National League. Not the most valuable defensive right fielder. The most valuable defensive player. Jordan even supplied some postseason heroics, hitting a go-ahead two-run home run in the ninth inning off of Trevor Hoffman (which became more impressive sounding than it seemed in 1996) to help seal the Cardinals’ sweep of the San Diego Padres in the NLDS.
1997 was a rough season for Jordan. Hobbled by injuries and ineffective when he was able to crack the lineup, there was reasonable concern that Brian Jordan, who was set to become a free agent after the 1998 season, might not truly cash in on his decision to commit to baseball. Instead, he had easily the best season of his career. As he spent most of the season batting immediately before or immediately after Mark McGwire, it is understandable why Jordan was so thoroughly overlooked, but in terms of pure overall baseball value, Jordan was nearly McGwire’s equal. Although never great at drawing walks, Jordan’s strikeout rate plummeted to the lower realms of double digits, he hit a career-high 25 home runs, and he remained a defensive stalwart.
During Jason Heyward’s one year in St. Louis, younger fans reacted to his superbly well-rounded game with amazement that one player could excel so thoroughly in all facets of the sport. Brian Jordan was essentially Jason Heyward in St. Louis, but for four times the amount of time. Increased appreciation for elite corner outfield defense over the last decade or so arguably made him a man before his time. But even in the 1990s, he was a true aesthetic joy. He played baseball with an elegance that made him look like he was born to do it, all while we weren’t entirely sure if he wasn’t instead born to play a different sport.
Following the 1998 season, Brian Jordan returned to Atlanta–not back to the Falcons, but instead signing as a free agent with the Braves. He would later spend time with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Texas Rangers before eventually finishing his career back in Atlanta. And by the time Jordan retired in 2006, he had earned $51,947,334 in Major League Baseball. The greatest safety drafted in the same NFL Draft as Jordan turned out to be Steve Atwater, a native St. Louisan who is now enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In his career, Atwater earned $17.59 million, barely a third of Jordan’s MLB earnings alone. The greatest defensive back from that draft, Jordan’s former teammate Deion Sanders, is one of the greatest cornerbacks in NFL history, and in his football career, he earned $33.6 million. From a pure self-interest standpoint, it’s hard to argue that Brian Jordan wasn’t right to choose baseball.