In the spring of 1992, the Cardinals faced a dilemma: Offer a multimillion dollar contract to a minor leaguer who had never played in the big leagues or risk losing him to another club. That player was Brian Jordan and that team was the Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League.
The Cardinals drafted Jordan with their first round pick, 30th overall, in the 1988 amateur draft, after he graduated from the University of Richmond. He was drafted in the 7th round of the subsequent NFL draft by the Bills, was cut in training camp, but ultimately signed by the Falcons and made his way into four games in the 1989 NFL season.
In 1990 and 1991, Jordan spent his summers riding the bus for the Cardinals affiliates in the Florida State and Texas Leagues, then spent his autumns flying on private jets. He started 15 games for the Falcons in '90 and '91, leading the team in tackles in '91 and being voted a Pro Bowl alternate.
As the 1992 season approached, Jordan was willing to consider giving up one sport and the Cardinals wanted him to focus only on baseball. The obstacle was money - and it was a big obstacle.
As a minor league player, the Cardinals were by no means required to pay Jordan more than the minimum salary. But his two-sport career gave him the option to walk away from either table. The gulf between his salaries was huge: Jordan reportedly made $140,000 in the NFL during the 1990 season. As a minor leaguer, he was paid $1,850 per month.
Prior to spring training, Jordan reportedly asked for a salary of $29,000, which was what minor leaguers who were invited twice to spring training and sent down make, but the Cardinals balked. That pissed Jordan off.
"I know there are some teams out there who will want Brian Jordan," he told the Post-Dispatch. "It's just a matter of the Cardinals giving up Brian Jordan. They see a Brian Jordan coming up. Are they going to keep him happy or not? Obviously, they're not. So the way I feel about them is not too good. I'm hoping I can go elsewhere. Football makes me happy, I'm not going to be happy making $1,850 a month in the minors."
Despite declining to meet his initial demands, the Cardinals were in fact very interested in keeping a Brian Jordan happy. But they had something bigger in mind: A contract which would ensure Jordan gave up football. Cardinals GM Dal Maxvill even admitted to secretly hoping for Jordan to sustain a small injury during the football season - nothing major, but enough to put in his mind that the safer path was in baseball.
Jordan batted .292 with the Cardinals during Spring Training, but was again assigned to the minors to begin the 1992 season so he could get regular at-bats. On April 5, Cards GM Dal Maxvill told the Post-Dispatch that the club made Jordan an offer at the end of spring training: $109,000 - the major league minimum. Jordan declined and reported to AAA Louisville.
Just two days later, Andres Gallaraga was hit-by-a-pitch and headed to the DL, sending Jordan up to St. Louis. In his major league debut - the 2nd game of a doubleheader - Jordan started in right field. He went 2 for 5 with a double, stolen base and 4 RBI.
And so began Brian Jordan's rookie season, perhaps the only rookie season in MLB history where the player's agents were behind-the-scenes trying to negotiate a multi-year, multimillion dollar offer. Reports would surface throughout the summer about what kind of deal might be in place. It seems as if the Cardinals were seeking to pay Jordan some kind of straight cash payout to forget football, while maintaining their ongoing rights to him at something like the MLB minimum salary. One such deal was reportedly close, but nixed at the last minute because the MLBPA would consider even the cash payout part of his player salary.
With only 530 minor league plate appearances in his entire career, Jordan struggled in his first exposure to major league pitching. When he went on the DL with a hamstring injury May 23, he was hitting just .233 / .266 / .451.
Given his tiny minor league track record and inauspicious rookie numbers, there was open debate about just how valuable this football player might be. PD Columnist Bernie Miklasz was very much in the Pro-Jordan camp.
"[Jordan is] a rare prospect who if he continues to progress can give the Cardinals a Barry Bonds to call their own," Miklasz wrote. "He has the same Bonds package of power, speed and glove minus the ego, silly theatrics and disruptive temperament."
As Jordan rested his injured hamstring, contract negotiations continued. On June 5, it was reported that Jordan had begun lifting weights to prepare his body for the football season. But just ten days later, the Cardinals and Jordan agreed on a $2.2 million contract (though some reporting conflicts slightly on the number). In addition to a sizable "signing bonus," Jordan would make the major league minimum salary in his first season, then see it quickly rise into the $200k and $300k range, surpassing the salary of Ray Lankford and quickly matching that paid to Felix Jose and Todd Zeile.
Jordan said the signing bonus was enough to make him give up football, and acknowledged he had been seeking a similar deal from the Falcons. "The Falcons weren't very aggressive in trying to sign me," Jordan told the PD. "I guess they didn't think I was going to sign with St. Louis. I got tired of messing around."
That initial contract was only for three years. During those three years, injuries, uneven production and a strike kept Jordan from ever making more than 242 plate appearances, and he was worth just 1.0 WAR in both '93 and '94. The Cardinals offered Jordan a one-year contract for the 1995 season, which turned out to be his breakout. In 525 PAs, Jordan hit .296 / .339 / .488, and his shaky outfield defense quickly turned elite, good for 4.4 WAR.
But despite his baseball career beginning to flourish, Jordan regretted giving up football and with it, the celebrity of fellow two-sport athletes of his era, Bo Jackson and his former Falcons teammate Deion Sanders.
In September of '95, Jordan declined the Cardinals initial contract extension offer: 3 years and $7.3 million, and began seeking an NFL contract. That July, he had even visited the St. Louis Rams training camp, sparking the idea that he could be a two-sport St. Louis athlete. The Raiders ultimately made the best offer: $1.25 million for the '95 season, prorated for the games Jordan had already missed.
New Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty came back with a $10 million offer for three years, again playing baseball exclusively. On Sept. 22, as the Cardinals prepared to play Houston in the Astrodome, Jordan signed that contract.
While Jordan was perhaps never quite considered a "superstar," advanced stats look much more favorably on him than the baseball card stats of the day. In his best season, 1998, he hit only 25 home runs. But his 136 wRC+, coupled with what had become truly elite, Jason Heyward level defense, made him worth 7.0 WAR - the 40th best season in Cardinals history.
Jordan is 31st in Cardinals history in career WAR, with 20.0 in just 2506 PAs. Every player above him in WAR also had more plate appearances.
After that 1998 season, a 32-year-old Jordan would sign a contract with Atlanta, and continue to be a valuable player for the Braves and Dodgers, before finishing his career with the Rangers and then Braves again, retiring in 2006 at the age of 39.
At least 67 players have appeared in both MLB and the NFL. Most of those only made a token appearance in one of the leagues. With 1,456 MLB games played, Jordan played more than twice as many games as any other pro football player. Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders appeared in just 694 and 641 MLB games, respectively. Jordan's 36 career NFL appearances ranks him 18th among baseball players to appear in the NFL, just two games behind Jackson.
Jordan certainly never attained the celebrity of Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders. But looking at the quality and quantity of his performance in both leagues, it would be easy to argue that Brian Jordan was the best two-sport athlete of all-time.