It's Friday night at Scottsdale Stadium.
Michael Jordan walks up the dugout steps at 6:41 p.m. As he reaches the top step, Jordan looks around the stands as if to count the house. When Jordan ruled the National Basketball Association and led the Chicago Bulls to three consecutive titles, he rarely spotted an empty seat in any arena in which he performed. Now he sees that the stands at Scottsdale Stadium contain only about 2,000 fans. And they do not immediately recognize him. For Jordan is wearing number 35 on the back of his Scottsdale Scorpions uniform, not the recognizable number 23 he wore for the Chicago Bulls. A baseball cap covers his trademark shaved head.
But soon Jordan is spotted, and the crowd rises to give tribute. He is the reason they are in the stands. Jordan waves to acknowledge their greeting. He trots to an area in short left field where other members of the Scottsdale team are congregated. Jordan joins them as they begin jogging along the outfield grass from first base to second and back again, loosening their legs.
Since Jordan has arrived on the field, half of the crowd has moved over to the first-base side. They clamber to get close enough to the fence to ask Jordan for an autograph.
"Michael," a young boy shouts. "Michael. Michael. Michael." Other young children take up the cry.
Jordan glances up at his young supporters. He gives them a look you would expect from a friendly schoolteacher, the index finger of his left hand over his mouth, urging them to be quiet, to cease their raucous display.
But they are oblivious to his request. They are children and he is like a Pied Piper to them. They clog the aisles. They climb on the shoulders of their fathers.
"Michael, it's my birthday," squeals a little girl.
Jordan turns his attention to his teammates who are standing with him behind first base, just on the edge of the outfield grass. He has lost interest in the crowd.
I am reminded of the remark Joe DiMaggio, the great New York Yankee player, once made to Marilyn Monroe upon her return from entertaining American GIs in the Korean War. "Joe," Marilyn said, "you've never heard such cheering."
"Yes, I have," said DiMaggio.
It remains one of this century's great understatements.
At 6:50 p.m., 15 minutes before the game is scheduled to start, Michael comes over to the stands to sign autographs. The crowd goes wild with excitement. They all dream he will give an autograph to everyone. They do not understand he is besieged for autographs all the time. Even the players from opposing teams ask him for autographs. Sportswriters covering the games are warned that if they ask Jordan for an autograph, their credentials will be revoked.
With Michael standing there against the fence signing autographs, even more fans are rushing to the spot from other parts of the ballpark.
"Push up there, Andy," a father shouts to his son. There are several small boys with cameras perched on the shoulders of their dads. For them, this will be the high point of the game and of the night. From now on, when they talk about sports, they will recall the night they got close to Michael Jordan.
After signing autographs for three minutes, Jordan breaks away. He trots toward the dugout. He gives a smile and a big wave to the fans as he passes them.
"That's no fair," says a petulant little girl holding a brand-new baseball purchased at the souvenir stand especially for Jordan's signature. She is probably 5 years old.
She is not finished. Having assured herself that she has her voice under control and her parents' attention, she screams at the top of her voice: "That's no fair. That's no fair." But Jordan does not hear all this. By now he is in the dugout and the field announcer is reading the opening lineups to the crowd over the public address system.
A big cheer goes up when it is announced that Jordan will be playing right field and batting seventh.
Jordan steps to the plate for the first time in the bottom of the second inning. All eyes are on him as he stands in the on-deck circle awaiting his turn at the plate and swinging his bat to loosen up. There are two men on base and none out as he steps into the batter's box. The applause for Jordan is enthusiastic. When he stands there with the bat on his shoulders, you realize how much taller he is than the other players. Jordan is six feet six inches. Most of the other players are six feet or under.
The first pitch is high and the umpire calls it a ball. So is the second. On the third pitch, Jordan swings and hits a foul into the stands behind first base. The next pitch is inside and low and almost hits him in the shins. With the count at three balls and one strike, the pitcher throws the next pitch high and inside and Jordan takes first base to load the bases. The crowd cheers again. What would they do if he actually got a base hit?
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.
Unlike some professional athletes who have allowed great riches to warp their personalities, Jordan has somehow managed to take on added dignity. He is willing to demean himself while learning his new trade, and he somehow seems almost cleansed by the constant humiliation of displaying his meager skills as a hitter and fielder in front of the professional baseball scouts who sit behind home plate watching his every move, sometimes shaking their heads in derision.
I never thought that people with natural skills like those Jordan is endowed with ever spent time worrying about whether people liked or admired them.
But Jordan does. He once confided to Bob Greene, the Chicago Tribune columnist, that he would never run for public office because even if he got the necessary 51 percent of the vote and won, he wouldn't be able to stand that 49 percent of the voters didn't like him.
Greene mentioned the standup comedian who proves a knockout to everyone in the audience except one man who occupies a front table and sits there wearing a frown.
"I know," Jordan said. "I go through a big part of my life seeing that guy who isn't laughing."
Basketball was a game Jordan dominated. In his time in the NBA, there were only a few figures who carried the league into its present position.
There was Magic Johnson. There was Larry Bird. There was Charles Barkley.
But above all, there was Michael Jordan.
The size of the basketball court, the intimacy of the setting and the rules of the game made it possible for Jordan to be at the center of the action for almost the entire game. Even when he went to the bench, fans kept glancing toward him to see when he was coming back. When he was out on the floor, Jordan directed the action. He took all the important shots. When the game was on the line, he handled the situation. When his teammates thought he took too many shots, they would complain about playing "Michaelball." When Jordan didn't think his teammates played well, he would complain to the press about his "supporting cast." He was so much above the crowd that when George Bush invited the victorious Bulls to the White House, Jordan declined, saying he had another appointment. He went to play golf instead.
Now that he is an outfielder for Scottsdale, his part has been reduced to that of a bit player. The crowds come to see Jordan play. They want to cheer him, but there is so little opportunity. The baseball rules are against him. In order to watch him in the outfield, you have to bring along a strong pair of binoculars.
As an outfielder, he can look forward to handling only four or five batted balls in the course of a nine-inning game. He will come to bat four times. If he gets on base, there may be a chance for him to steal or to advance to home plate when another player's base hit advances him. That's it.
Contrast this with the constant excitement of an NBA game with the score shifting back and forth and Michael Jordan--Air Jordan--leading the fast break, stealing a pass or making a three-point shot that brings the crowd to its feet. Remember his mad solo dash the length of the America West Arena floor with a stolen pass in the final minute of the sixth game that the Bulls finally won? In those days, he was everywhere at once. Now, he is not even a face in the crowd.
During his years in the NBA, Jordan made number 23 so famous that even now children feel they are basking in his glory when they sport the souvenir shirts at the Scottsdale games.
As he comes to bat again in Scottsdale Stadium, those who remember those glory days shout to him from their seats.
"Come on, Michael, we love you. Get a hit, Michael."
Jordan's team, the Scorpions, beat the Chandler Diamondbacks, 6-3. Jordan goes hitless at bat, but reaches base twice on walks and scores two runs. He caught one fly ball and picked up a base hit along the foul line and returned it to the infield.
After the game, Jordan spoke briefly. There are now Jordan rules about interviewing. If you want to ask him anything about any matter other than the events of the game, you must contact his agent in Washington and state your case.
Jordan, sticking to his rule, says that he has been working very hard on his base running. He thinks it will enhance his contribution to the team. "All during the season at Birmingham, Terry Francona let me run, and that put me in a position to help the team."
It's Saturday at Chandler's Compadre Stadium.
The Scottsdale Scorpions ride to the game from Scottsdale Stadium in their uniforms. The crowd has arrived early. They are waiting for Jordan as he departs from the bus.
The Scorpions' team bus is sleek, with darkened windows. It is much like the one Jordan reportedly supplied with funds from his own pocket for the Birmingham team after observing the dilapidated condition of the team's own bus. The cost to Jordan has been estimated at between $40,000 to $60,000.
Today, Jordan will go back to left field to play. The crowd here in Chandler seems smaller than that of Friday night. The attendance figure given is 2,423. That seems high to me. Today, of course, there is competition from college football on television and the Arizona State homecoming game.
In the first inning, Jordan fields a drive that bounces off the left-field fence and throws to the cutoff man holding the runner at second base. One of the things that baseball people marvel at is that Jordan always seems to do the right thing with the ball in the outfield. He always throws it to the right place.
Here at Compadre Stadium, the stands end at third base.
There are no seats that would permit fans to sit in left field and observe him up close as most would like to do.
I thought Jordan appeared tentative in right field the night before at Scottsdale. But now he seems more at home in left. Late in the first inning, he easily makes a one-handed catch on a high fly. There is no hesitation. He shows lots of confidence.
In the second inning, Jordan steps from the dugout and begins to swing his bat to warm up while a teammate is at bat. Jordan seems terribly intent. He is so intent, in fact, that I wonder if he is even aware of what his teammate is doing at the plate or what kind of stuff the opposing pitcher has.
"Now batting, Michael Jordan of the Chicago White Sox organization," the field announcer says. The crowd cheers enthusiastically.
On the third pitch, Jordan taps the ball foul down the third-base line. But then, halfway to third, the ball rolls inside the line and is fair. Jordan had stood there watching the ball. Now he takes off, racing to first. But the third baseman throws Jordan out in a close play at first.
The people in the crowd are apparently satisfied that they have seen Jordan now. I notice there is a huge line at the refreshment stand and at the places selling souvenirs. These lines will remain constant throughout the afternoon.
As the game moves on at a swift pace, Jordan makes several good catches in the outfield. He has not made an error in the outfield since the first night of the fall season, when he made two.
After the game, Jordan sat in the third-base dugout and answered questions from sportswriters around the country. They were in town to cover the Dallas Cowboys-Arizona Cardinals game on Sunday.
He was asked if other players expressed any resentment because he was getting so much playing time.
"Everything I've heard has been positive," Jordan said. "The other players realize I'm here to work hard and to do whatever it takes to get better. I realize they are all better than me and I'm here to learn from them. What I did in basketball doesn't matter. I'm low man on the totem pole here."
But I have to wonder. To me the scenario is that the order has come from the top that Jordan will play every day.
The White Sox have a big stake in him. Reinsdorf, the owner, wants him in a Chicago uniform next season--if there is a next season.
Sunday morning at Scottsdale.
Two hours before the game with Tempe is to begin, Terry Francona, the Scottsdale manager, stands behind the batting cage watching his players take practice swings.
"I don't think there's one player out here who you could say was a lock to play in the major leagues," says Francona. "But Michael sure is improving. We'll just have to see how far he goes. He's really gotten a lot better since the start of the season in Birmingham.
"This is a good situation for him. Sometimes, if you don't hit .300, you get released. Our whole object is to see how Michael improves and to see if he can really help the club down the road in Chicago. It doesn't matter what he hit in Birmingham or here. We're looking to the future. "His arm will be okay, but it needs to improve. He's still improving. That's part of the whole thing. He has to keep working hard. He knows that. I have never seen anybody work as hard as he does.
"That's why people are so drawn to him. I like to watch him play myself. I find all of this very interesting."
I go upstairs to the press box and start typing notes into my computer before the game begins.
There are the quotes from Michael himself, who does not speak like a normal professional athlete. He has an odd, almost regal view of himself. He is polite, but there is a wide gulf he maintains with anyone he doesn't know. You can't blame him for that. A cottage industry has grown up around Jordan. Books and magazine articles have made substantial sums for writers not under the control of Jordan's agent. I am sure this is money that worthy gentleman wants to prevent from escaping from the bank vault.
Jordan was asked how it felt to go from a sport where he was best at everything he did to one where he had to be taught.
"You just have to be patient," he said. "I never thought I was too big to learn even though I was successful in one area. I'm not embarrassed that I'm the last man on this team. Part of the challenge for me is prove the naysayers to be wrong."
Jordan thinks basketball is a more difficult game to play.
"Athletically and physically, basketball is harder, but I think this game is harder on you mentally. You have to deal with a lot of disappointments in this game."
But even Jordan himself doesn't know where he stands right now as a baseball player.
"I guess that's the purpose of my being here--to see where I stand against the competition. I've taken in a lot of information over the past year, so much so that I had to take two weeks off just to comprehend what I learned."
There were 70 members of the press on hand when Jordan made his debut at Tempe Diablo Stadium at the start of the Arizona Fall League. Writers from around the country drop in on a regular basis to see how Jordan is doing and whether he's worth a story. He hasn't been that good, but he hasn't been so awful that people were willing to write him off.
The question everyone keeps asking is the same: Why is he doing this to himself? Perhaps Dave Garlick has been closer to the situation than anyone else. A freelance sportswriter, he has come to the game to watch Jordan and to file a report for the Mesa Tribune each day.
Garlick knows baseball. He covered the minor league team in Indianapolis for seven years while working for an Indianapolis paper.
"It's really strange," Garlick said, "to come to a ball game and just watch one guy. I go to see him after every game and ask him about what he's done. Luckily, there has always been something I could ask about.
"On some nights, my question might have to be general, like asking how the pitching here compares to what he saw in Birmingham. The other night, I noticed they were busting him inside with fastballs, so I asked him about that. He's very polite. I think he's actually improved since he came to Arizona. Still, all but one of his hits have been ground balls that found a hole.
"The other night I saw him get his first triple, a shot to left center. The significant thing was that there were two strikes on him and the pitcher made a good pitch which Michael managed to foul off. So he got to swing again. Just making the adjustment to foul off that pitch shows improvement.
"In all the years I covered Triple A ball, I saw lots of guys who couldn't run the bases as well as him. And in some ways, he's better than a lot of players in this league."
"There's one thing I can't get over. It happens every game, but I'm still surprised that every time he makes a routine catch in the outfield, he gets a standing ovation."
What will happen to Jordan's baseball career?
Garlick thinks he will probably be sent to the White Sox Triple A farm team at Nashville next season and then on up to Chicago with the big club later in the season.
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It is 1 p.m. The game with Tempe is about to begin for Scottsdale. Jordan comes out of the Scorpions dugout. Once again, he stands there for a moment as if counting the house. It is a small crowd. The Cowboys and Cardinals are playing in nearby Sun Devil Stadium.
Jordan jogs across the first-base line, being very careful not to step on it. There is a baseball superstition that stepping on the chalk line is bad luck.
The umpire cries, "Play ball!" Jordan stands before a sign on the outfield wall advertising a place called Hooters. Up on the television monitor in the press box, I see the opening kickoff of the Cardinals game on the tube.
Michael Jordan is playing before fewer than a thousand people. Buddy Ryan is stalking the sidelines before one of the largest crowds in Cardinal history.