Baseball: A god turned rookie faces painful passage to paradise: Is Michael Jordan heading for a fall? Richard Weekes met a man on a hard road
Saturday 02 April 1994
He hunches his lean, 6ft 6in frame forward, munching on a burger with both hands, and laughs as he takes some hits from these first-teamers about his wealth and his dream of making it in major league baseball. 'Hey,' Jordan says, 'I don't need your food, but just give me the key to that door marked Paradise.'
His would-be interviewer waits until Jordan has drained the last drop of his soda before making an approach. Many of baseball's so-called stars, faced with a request to talk in similar circumstances, would respond with a monosyllabic brush-off. But that is not how Jordan became the ultimate sports idol of his time, bigger than Pele, bigger than Nicklaus, bigger even than Ali in his ability to transcend race, age, gender, class and geographical boundaries.
The ghetto talk is switched off in an instant, and Jordan becomes the accommodating interviewee - charming, serious, straightforward. He talks about what motivated him to try baseball - 'My final challenge in sports' - about the pressures of life in the corporate cage, and about the tough times ahead in the backwaters of the minor leagues.
They will be tough. In a few weeks time, when the Birmingham Barons - Chicago's AA team, to which he has been assigned - hit the road for their first long-distance away game, Michael Jordan will discover just how much he loves baseball.
In recent years, even when his occasional gambling excursions found him consorting with low-life figures, Jordan's world has been bordered by the limousine, the private jet and the air-conditioned room. Not any more. 'The bus rides are the worst,' said Scott Ruffcorn, 24, a White Sox pitcher who played for Birmingham last year. 'Every once in a while you sleep wrong because you're used to a bed. You're twisting and turning and you get a little kink in the shoulder or the neck or the lower back. Then you just have to play through the pain.'
There is no place for sentiment in the minor leagues. They are the game's rite of passage, a test of a player's desire and mental strength, of his ability to withstand 10-hour bus rides and games played at night, a few hours' sleep in a cheap hotel and another 10 hours in a cramped seat riding the backroads of the South between places like Nashville, Jacksonville and Chattanooga. Here the balls are dirty and the uniforms don't fit and you wear the same pair of baseball pants for weeks on end.
This is Bull Durham territory. That film tells the story of an ageing athlete's final attempt to get to 'The Show'. But unlike Jordan, Kevin Costner's hero had not led his team to three consecutive NBA championships, nor had he been a three-time MVP or won seven NBA scoring titles. He did not earn more than dollars 30m a year by endorsing sneakers, cereals, soft drinks, sports goods and underwear. He still had something to prove.
Except that, the way Jordan tells it, at the age of 31 he has something to prove, both to himself and to his late father James, whose body was found in a South Carolina creek on 3 August last year with a gunshot wound in his chest. Whatever the nature of the debt to his father - there were unconfirmed reports that James's murder might be linked to Michael's gambling problems - he has finally acted on his father's long-held wish that he play baseball.
'When he died,' Jordan says, 'it made me say, 'Hey, let's do it. Life is short, you never know when your last breath is gonna come.' I know he's watching and that he's proud I made this move. That's the motivation I carry day in and day out.'
So he began to swing the bat at Comiskey Park in Chicago over the winter, and for the second year running the White Sox's spring training camp became a circus. Twelve months ago the focus was on Bo and his hip; now it was on Michael and his dream. Hundreds of journalists swarmed around his first public work-out. Every television station ended its nightly spring training round-up with a Michael spot.
Such overkill did not endear him to the purists and older players on other teams, who felt he had not earned the right to play, but had simply used his influence with Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of both the White Sox and the Chicago Bulls basketball team. Sports Illustrated mocked his 3 for 20 record with the bat, dubbing him 'Err Jordan'. Randy Johnson, a fastball pitcher with the Seattle Mariners, said: 'He had better tie his Air Jordans real tight if I pitch to him. I'd like to see how much air time he'd get on one of my inside pitches.'
The habitually smiling, amiable Jordan only showed anything approaching anger when he considered these criticisms. 'I never suggested I was going to be a superstar in baseball,' he said. 'I just wanted to learn what the basics are, what the minimum was in terms of being a player, then work my way up.
'It's unfair that my basketball achievements should be carried over into baseball. There's a different success rate: 3 for 10 from the free-throw line in basketball is terrible; 3 for 10 in the batter's box is superstar stuff.'
Jordan has learned that athleticism can only take you so far in baseball. As Philadelphia's John Kruk, the epitome of the sport's roly-poly breed, memorably put it when asked by a woman how an athlete like him could smoke: 'Lady, I'm no athlete, I'm a baseball player.'
He has also learned that when God made Michael Jordan, He made him specially for basketball. Those long elastic arms and gangling legs are perfect for negotiating traffic to make impossible dunks and sky hooks. But put a baseball bat in his hand and those same arms cannot generate much speed, the thin trunk cannot drive a ball 375 feet over the left-field wall, and the distance between his shoulders and knees presents opposing pitchers with a huge strike zone.
And he has learned that nothing can compensate for those missed college and minor league years, years of mind-numbing repetitions and development of muscle memory, of studying pitchers and their ways. He has learned that you ain't got nothing if you ain't got that swing.
Even the White Sox general manager, Ron Schueler, concedes it is still a million-to-one shot. 'I can't believe why he's putting himself through this,' Schueler says, 'because no way can he succeed. He was the world's best basketball player; he'll never be the world's best baseball player. It's just not going to happen.'
Jordan says he is not afraid to fail. 'To succeed you have to fail somewhere along the road. That's just a given. But it's how you turn those failures into a positive. If I fail, I can say I was given this opportunity, I followed this dream that I had. Now my life goes on without that thing in the back of my mind, 'You should have tried, you shouldn't have tried'.'
Yet the greatest frustration for Jordan is knowing that he can never be just another baseball player, taking his cuts and his chances at the plate.
Keith Peters, spokesman for Nike, suggests that Jordan is acting out a Walter Mitty fantasy. But it was not Walter Mitty that the crowds flocked to see on the minor league backfields in Sarasota last week, and they will flock to see again in Birmingham, Orlando and Greenville this summer. They came, and they will come, to see a god. The god who failed.
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