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.