Baseball: Swinging Jordan in search of a minor miracle: Great names, new games: Two of the world's finest sportsmen face fresh challenges. Rupert Cornwell reports from Birmingham, Alabama, on a basketball legend struggling for his first home run

IT IS 7.30pm and the game has been in progress for 20 minutes. Cars are still backed up on the road leading to the Hoover Met stadium, their headlights a twinkling stream in the gathering Southern night. On a silky summer evening, minor league baseball is a sensual experience, a journey to the very soul of America's national sport.

But that is not why nearly 13,000 people have come to the Hoover Met to watch the Birmingham Barons play host to the Carolina Mudcats. An even more compelling spectacle was on offer: of a man who, of his own volition, has stepped from topmost rung of one ladder to the bottom of another, simply to prove something to himself. Here on a floodlit ball-park, amid the pinewoods of the Deep South, Michael Jordan is learning how to play baseball.

He comes up for the first time in the first inning. The Mudcats have already scored twice and the Barons are looking to get back into the game quickly. Jordan is of no help, lobbing a simple fly-ball to centre field. He tosses off his helmet, and lopes back into the dug-out. Better things perhaps next time - but then perhaps not. Already you are wondering, why does he do it?

Baseball is a game of failure. Hitting a cricket-sized ball, which a pitcher has hurled at 90mph from just 60 feet away, with a wooden cylinder only 2 3/4 in across at its widest point, is one of the hardest feats in sport. Even good hitters only manage it three times out of 10; not since 1941 has a major leaguer averaged .400 - six failures in every 10 at-bats. After flattering early on with a batting average of .333 at one point, Jordan is now hitting a paltry .188. His second appearance in the batters' box, another routine fly-out, respects the law of averages. The crowd emits a thunderous groan of collective disappointment. In frustration, Jordan slams the bat into his hand. Baseball is not a sport for perfectionists.

Nor, in the minor leagues, is it one for the pampered. Here is a man who, a year after guiding the Chicago Bulls to their third consecutive national basketball championship, has turned his back on dollars 10m (pounds 6.6m) a year to become a 31-year-old never-wozzer with perhaps 12 more months to prove he can make it in big-time baseball. He earns dollars 1,200 (pounds 800) a month plus dollars 16 a day expenses on the road. And 'the road' means exactly that. Ten-hour-plus bus journeys around the South, to places like Memphis, Greenville, Chattanooga, Orlando. No chartered aircraft, just dreary eternities on the interstate, punctuated by nights in modest hotels.

None of this has changed with the advent of Michael Jordan. The crowds, however, have. Total Southern League attendances this season have risen by a third. The Barons used to draw 4,500 on average. Tonight 12,881 have turned up, the second largest since the stadium opened in 1988. Birmingham has had three months to adjust to its superstar, but ushers are still on special patrol to ward off the invasions by small boys. They are still seeking out the loping figure in left field with the No 45 on his back, a soul-melting smile and a basketball talent seen once a millenium.

A baseball immortal, however, he is not. You see why once more in the fifth inning. It is Jordan's third at-bat. He fails to connect properly, and the result is another fly-ball, apparently another routine out. But this time the ball is dropped. Nothing if not quick, Jordan gallops to second base. The next two hitters double, and by the time the innings is over, the Barons are level at 3-3. Michael Jordan has scored a run, the crowd is delirious, and Great Balls of Fire, the Rock 'n' Roll anthem of the Fifties South, booms out into the darkened woods.

But one moment of ecstasy cannot explain this quixotic, apparently doomed adventure. The answer lies with James Jordan, Michael's father. He had his son playing T-ball, toddler's baseball, at the age of six. Today, James would be 58 had he not been murdered, inexplicably, in North Carolina a year ago. At basketball, Jordan Jnr had achieved everything. This second career is homage to a father whose death haunts him still. Michael tried out with the Chicago White Sox (whose owner Jerry Reinsdorf also owns the Bulls) in spring training in Florida and did enough to be sent to the Sox farm team in Birmingham.

For all his athletic gifts, Jordan is not built for baseball. The next night as it happened, that old White Sox warhorse Harold Baines, now seeing out his major league career with the Baltimore Orioles, lashed a monster home run, all of 442 feet - almost 150 yards - from impact to landing. Baines' knees are so sore he can hardly run, you can hear his body creak as he steps up to bat. But his swing is compact, fluid, and deadly quick, powered by the forearms and upper body of an ox. God built Harold Baines for baseball. For Michael Jordan, 6ft 6in of willowy grace, the Almighty had another sport in mind.

At first he made so many mistakes the press dubbed him 'Err Jordan'. But despite the sliding batting average, Jordan is improving. 'He has a much better understanding of the game and he's a better hitter,' Terry Francona, the Barons manager, said.

You see why when Jordan comes up again, at the bottom of the seventh inning. Learning baseball also means learning which pitches not to swing at. This time Jordan bides his time, and eventually earns a walk. The next hitter doubles and Jordan scores from first base. He is still hitless on the night, and his average has plunged even further below .200, the line held to separate the mediocre from the awful. But he has scored two runs, and served the team well.

And his team-mates respect him for it. They harbour no resentment to the mega-star, only something akin to awe. Jordan has done his best to fit in, 'but there are still guys in the club who don't know how to approach him,' Gary DiSarcina, an infielder said. Earlier this season, Jordan bought the team a new bus for dollars 250,000. But he won far more esteem by declining to play in the Southern League All-Star game: 'I haven't earned it yet,' he said. 'It would just be a gimmick.'

And so to the great man's final at-bat. He comes up with the Barons and Mudcats tied 5-5 in the bottom of the ninth. In Boy's Own magazine, this is when Michael hits his first home run as a professional ball-player. But baseball is a cruel game. The excitement yields only a feeble pop-up. Jordan shrugs and ambles back to the dug-out. Eventually the Barons do win, by 6-5 in extra innings.

But no failure is eternal, and the following night, against the Carolina Mudcats, Jordan finally landed his home run with not a television camera in sight.

So what happens now? He denies any plans to return to basketball, despite rumours of a deal with the Boston Celtics. The White Sox seem inclined to persevere with him at least for another season - which would be confirmed if, as expected, they send him to the Arizona League this autumn.

As for those who yearn for the old Jordan, the odd miracle still occurs. One day, during another gruelling bus trip, the team stopped to stretch its legs with a pick-up basketball game. Passers-by glanced, stopped incredulously and pulled out cellular phones. 'God, you won't believe this, but Michael Jordan's playing basketball in the parking lot. . .'

(Photograph omitted)

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