By Amy Silverman
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Not long after this, Jordan scores from second on a line drive hit between third and short. He has a long, graceful stride that eats up yardage. Perhaps he could have been a good hurdler if track and field had become his obsession as a young man.
At the close of the inning, Jordan trots out of the limelight and back to his position in right field. Normally, he plays left field, considered the easiest fielding position. Balls hit to left field come straight at an outfielder, while those hit to right sometimes come with a spin that causes them to hook. Additionally, the right fielder is often called upon to make a long throw to third base, usually in crucial situations.
Last year, without Jordan, the Arizona Fall League, consisting of six teams sponsored by Major League Baseball, drew a total of 38,568 fans. With Jordan boosting attendance wherever he plays, the Arizona Fall League has already matched last year's figures. Since the league will run until December 4, it could conceivably double last year's attendance before play is concluded for the season. Jordan is the property of the Chicago White Sox, and Jerry Reinsdorf, who owns the club, also owns the Bulls. Scouts will tell you, not for attribution, that only the White Sox are interested in seeing him make the major leagues. This is business. A White Sox team with Michael Jordan on its roster will draw more fans and create a larger margin of profit.
Jordan has not overpowered this league, which is made up of players considered top prospects for the major leagues. "Will Jordan make it?" I ask, putting to Scorpions manager Terry Francona the same question he has fielded perhaps a thousand times before. He has managed Jordan all season long and is an enthusiastic booster. "He will if he wants to work and work and work," Francona says. "So far, he is working at it as hard as anyone I have ever seen. He is a great athlete with unusual skills. It depends on how long he wants to keep working at it."
Let's put Jordan's situation in perspective. He is 31 years old. He is starting his career as a baseball player at a time in life when most players are giving it up or just hanging on. He is ten years older than the average player in the Arizona Fall League.
Look at a normal career. Francona played ten years in the majors before his knee forced his retirement at 31--Michael's current age. Francona was a member of the University of Arizona's national collegiate championship baseball team in 1980. He played for five different major league teams over a decade, once even coming close to winning the batting title. He was batting .364 when he suffered a serious knee injury that hobbled him for the rest of his career. "I just couldn't play anymore. I was through," Francona says.
Francona comes from a baseball family. His father, Tito, was a big leaguer for 15 seasons, playing for nine different clubs, but he was also through in his early 30s.
Or take a classic baseball figure like Whitey Lockman of Scottsdale, a former manager of the Chicago Cubs who played first base for the New York Giants when he was 18 years old. "I played until I was 34," Lockman says, "but by that time, I had nothing left."
Lockman has been a top scout for years. In fact, he scouted Francona for the Montreal Expos when Francona was still a student at the UofA.
One day, Lockman walked into the Scorpions' dressing room and introduced himself to Jordan. The two men shook hands.
"Michael," Lockman said, "I wish you a lot of good luck because we have three things in common. I'm from North Carolina just like you, and we both played basketball and baseball."
Jordan's eyes lighted up at the mention of basketball.
"Where did you play?" Jordan asked.
"Oh, I only played in high school and then had to give it up because I went to play in the major leagues," Lockman said with a smile. "But after you play in the big leagues for 16 years like I did, why don't you come around and look me up and then we can talk about baseball."
Lockman, now 68, is one of the best-liked and most respected figures in the game. He did not make the remark with any sarcastic intent.
"Michael's a nice young man," Lockman says. "I hope he makes it. I just don't want to see him embarrassed if he goes up there to the big leagues and he is forced to bat against pitchers like Roger Clemens of the Boston Red Sox."
Possibly the greatest basketball player who ever lived, Jordan is completing his first season as a professional baseball player. The Herculean task of learning unfamiliar skills like batting a pitched ball has not been easy. Ted Williams always insisted that hitting a baseball thrown at high speed was the single most difficult athletic feat.
Jordan gave up baseball in high school. He plays now, he says, partly to fulfill a dream his late father had for him. But Jordan has never publicly complained over the discouragements he has encountered along the way. Instead, he gives signs that he intends to counter disappointments by working even harder. One night a few weeks ago, he went hitless in four trips at bat in a game at Glendale. After riding back on the team bus, Jordan went into the batting cage and practiced for two hours.