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Err Jordan

Try as he might, Michael Jordan has found baseball beyond his grasp

This article originally appeared in the March 14, 1994 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.

He called the first base umpire "the ref." In the field, he played a single into a double and an out into a single. Though he moves well on the base paths, his best time to first base, 4.35 seconds, is slower than average. At bat he brings to mind a taller, righthanded Rich Gedman—the Walt Hriniak disciple who can no longer hit the ball out of the infield.

At least he has provided baseball people with a conversation starter this spring. Barely concealing their sneers, the scouts and players and writers ask one another, "Have you seen him?" They are not talking about Oddibe McDowell. They are talking, of course, about the rightfield hopeful for the Chicago White Sox, 31-year-old Michael Jordan.

Granted, he looks good in a baseball uniform. Granted, he is the greatest basketball player who has ever lived. Granted, a few weeks of batting practice, an intrasquad game and two exhibitions against the Texas Rangers are not a lot to go on. But this much is clear: Michael Jordan has no more business patrolling rightfield in Comiskey Park than Minnie Minoso has bringing the ball upcourt for the Chicago Bulls.

The single most impressive thing Jordan has done on a baseball field occurred shortly before his first official spring training game, last Friday in Sarasota, Fla. He and some of the other White Sox were taking BP on an out-of-the-way diamond—Minnie Minoso Field, to be exact—when it came time to collect the baseballs and put them in a basket on the mound. Much to the delight of a small crowd, Jordan started shooting fallaway jumpers with the balls. For the sake of posterity and those basketball fans who miss him, it should be noted that Jordan was 5 for 7 from the field.

To hear the crowd cheer every step that number 45 takes on a baseball field or to watch the fans walk around in their Air Jordan apparel purchased from the special Nike van at Ed Smith Stadium is to instantly understand why the White Sox are letting Jordan do this. So shame on them for their cynical manipulation of the public. And shame on them for feeding Michael's matchbook-cover delusion—BECOME A MAJOR LEAGUER IN JUST SIX WEEKS!

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The nice thing, or maybe the sad thing, about Jordan's attempt to make the club is that he at least is sincere. He is working very hard, arriving at the park at 6:30 a.m. for sessions with hitting coach Hriniak and not leaving until sunset. His hands are too raw for this to be a mere lark. Jordan has not been a prima donna. In fact, he has been one of the guys.

Perhaps because of Michael's charm—and certainly not his swing—the Chicago players are fully cooperating in this charade. "He needs time, but I've already seen definite improvement," said American League MVP Frank Thomas late last week. "He can fly, and lots of teams carry speed guys. I want a player on my team who's not afraid of the big game, who loves the pressure, and that's Michael. He's blessed."

While the White Sox try to rationalize Jordan's audition, baseball's other uniformed personnel are almost irrational about it. "He had better tie his Air Jordans real tight if I pitch to him," said Seattle Mariner fireballer Randy Johnson. "I'd like to see how much air time he'd get on one of my inside pitches."

"Be like Mike?" scoffed one Houston Astro. "Hell, Mike right now only wishes he could be like Frank."

Said Pittsburgh Pirate centerfielder Andy Van Slyke, "I can just see the American League catchers now. 'Sorry about that third strike, Michael. Can I have your autograph?' "

As George Brett, a baseball executive with the Kansas City Royals, says, "I know a lot of players don't want to see him make it, because it will be a slap in the face to them."

Michael Jordan: Baseball career with Chicago White Sox

The huffing and puffing over Jordan's supposed sacrilege is so intense you almost want to root for the guy, just to prove all these baseball snobs wrong. But they are right about one thing: He will never, ever hit. "It's called bat speed," says one American League scout, "and he ain't got it."

He ain't got experience, either. Next to his name and vital statistics on the official list of 1994 White Sox, where his '93 batting stats should be, it reads DID NOT PLAY. It should read HASN'T PLAYED IN 15 YEARS! Says one American League Central manager, "What'd he hit in high school, .280? Pathetic. I've got players in my clubhouse who are only now starting to hit after living and breathing baseball for 15 years, and this guy thinks he can become a hitter in a couple of months. It's a disgrace to the game. All I know is that I wouldn't want to be [White Sox manager] Gene Lamont, having to tell a Mike Huff or a Warren Newson that they didn't make the team because Michael bleeping Jordan did."

Indeed, either Huff or Newson would have to go in order to make room for Jordan. The 30-year-old Huff isn't a great hitter, but he has made only two errors in 217 major league games, and no player has been more helpful in teaching Jordan to play the outfield than Huff. Newson, 29, isn't much bigger than Muggsy Bogues, but last year, between Triple A Nashville and Chicago, he hit .333.

So there was some poetic justice at work in the second inning of last Thursday's intrasquad game, the most heavily covered intrasquad game in baseball history. Jordan lined prospect James Baldwin's fastball into left centerfield, and Newson made a diving, backhanded catch to rob him of a double. In his other two at bats Jordan struck out. He also made a two-out error that allowed the go-ahead run to score: Playing right, he ran in on Joe Hall's windblown fly ball, only to have it glance off his Michael Jordan model glove, made by Wilson. But never mind the error. The White Sox were ecstatic over Jordan's line drive. Gushed Lamont, "That's probably as good a ball as he's hit, and maybe the best we hit today."

Michael Jordan: Baseball career with Chicago White Sox

On Friday the Rangers came to Ed Smith Stadium for the exhibition season opener, and so did 7,091 paying customers and about 100 credentialed media. Jordan wasn't in the starting lineup; Darrin Jackson is the real rightfielder for the White Sox. In the bottom of the fifth, the fans went wild when Jordan ran out to the outfield to warm up. At the start of the sixth, the P.A. announcer, with history hanging on his every word, intoned, "Now playing in rightfield and batting seventh, number 45...Michael Jordan."

As Jordan long-tossed with centerfielder Lance Johnson, the White Sox staged some sort of promotional stunt along the third base line: Two fans had to race each other after running around a bat 10 times. It was hard to tell which gimmick was more ridiculous, the one down by third or the one in right. Jordan did field a ball in the top of the sixth, picking up Jose Canseco's bloop double down the rightfield line and tossing it to second. What might have been a close play was not so close.

In the bottom of the sixth, Jordan came up with one out, nobody on and Chicago trailing 7-0. A young lefthander, Darren Oliver, was on the mound. Oliver's biggest claim to fame, before Friday, was that he is the son of former major leaguer Bob Oliver. But now he was Michael Jordan's first official opposing pitcher, and his first official opposing pitch to Michael Jordan was a fastball low, ball one. His second pitch was a fastball that Jordan swung at and tipped. Another fastball, another swing...nothing but air. Jordan swung at the fourth fastball, and, befitting a great basketball player, he hit a dribbler down the first base line. One small dribbler for a man, one giant dribbler for mankind.

Whatever, Oliver picked it up and swiped Jordan's back as he went by. Just to make sure, Oliver also threw to first base. Even though home plate umpire Drew Coble had already called Jordan out, first base umpire Chuck Meriwether decided that Jordan had beaten the ball to the bag and called him safe—to the roaring delight of the crowd. But Coble's call stood. Michael later said, "As much as I wanted to be safe, I knew I was out. The ref at first confused me." Poor Michael. He can't talk the talk, either.

Jordan was on deck when the game ended, so his first official line in a box score reads JORDAN RF 1000.

Michael Jordan: Baseball career with Chicago White Sox

On his way back to his locker-room cubicle, Jordan patted 2½-year-old Cameron Newson on the head. "Your daddy cost me a double yesterday," he said. Then Jordan faced the media horde gathered at his locker. Say this for him: He has been very patient and cooperative with the media this spring. The only time he bristled after the game was when someone suggested that failure in baseball would somehow tarnish his reputation as a basketball player. "If I strike out 15 million times, is that going to hurt my 32-point-whatever scoring average?" he said. "If I fail at baseball, does that make me less of a basketball player? If I'm a horse——baseball player, that don't tarnish what I did on the court."

Jordan acknowledged that he has a long way to go. "I need to learn patience," he said. "Maybe I need to learn how to fish. Everybody here fishes or hunts, and that takes patience." He also admitted that physiologically he is not suited to baseball. "Look at these arms," he said, holding out the sinewy limbs that have thrilled billions. "Then look at their arms. They're not the same." Indeed, the average baseball player's arms and legs are much thicker than Jordan's. Pitchers hate to face Newson, 5'7" and 205 pounds. They'll love the strike zone of the 6'6" and powerless Jordan.

Perhaps Michael will wake up one morning with Steve Garvey's arms and an urge to tie flies. A much more likely scenario, however, is that he will simply wake up and realize he can't play major league baseball. And the sooner he wakes up to the White Sox's exploitation of his quest, the better.

On Saturday in Port Charlotte, Jordan was in the starting lineup against the Rangers. In the outfield he played a Canseco fly ball into a single and an Ivan Rodriguez single into a double. At the plate he struck out once, grounded out twice and hit a weak fly ball to center. The fly ball happened to come with the bases loaded and one out in the seventh, and centerfielder Oddibe McDowell, trying to come back to the majors after three years' absence, dropped it. McDowell was given an error, and Jordan was given a sacrifice fly and an RBI.

"I was pretty confident that I could make some kind of contact, and I did," said Jordan afterward. "You always think of the Mighty Casey stepping up with the bases loaded, and he strikes out. I just wanted to make contact."

The Mighty Casey? Somewhere men are laughing....