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The Air Down There : Michael Jordan Keeps Swinging Away as Improvement Shows in Fall League

November 21, 1994|ROSS NEWHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Michael Jordan tries to suppress a smile as he swings a bat in the on-deck circle at Scottsdale Stadium while an elderly woman in a nearby box seat reads aloud from his autobiography.

In the intimate environment of the Arizona Fall League, fans can reach out and touch Jordan as he continues an attempt to write an improbable new chapter to his life story.

At 31, a senior citizen to his double-A and triple-A teammates on the Scottsdale Scorpions, Jordan is challenging baseball from the bottom up after retiring from basketball still in his prime as perhaps the best player ever.

"I saw this hill and chose to climb it," Jordan said in the Scorpions' clubhouse. "People laughed and said I was crazy, that I didn't have a chance, that it was strictly a publicity stunt. But who needs publicity with everything I've been through?

"I'm just taking this minute by minute. It's been a humbling experience but I'll keep going as long as I'm making progress.

"I mean, it would be a major accomplishment if I reached the major leagues at my age after not playing for 13 or 14 years, but there's no pressure. I don't have any expectations. I'm probably the last player on this team in terms of skill level, but I'm moving up and getting better along with the competition, and I'm having a good time, a lot more fun than if I was still playing basketball.

"There were so many expectations in basketball, it was a shame."

There also were no more hills to climb, so here he is, about a year into his professional baseball career, having survived the media circus that was spring training and his debut at the tough double-A level. He considered bowing out but was talked into staying by Birmingham Manager Terry Francona, who is also Jordan's manager in this league, which started Oct. 6 and runs to Dec. 1.

Next year, Jordan is ticketed for Nashville, the triple-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, on an obviously accelerated timetable.

It's a unique situation. A great athlete at 31 who knows, as Francona said, that it isn't going to happen overnight for him in baseball but isn't thinking of spending the rest of his career in the minors.

"I don't like to speak for Michael, but I don't think this is a four- or five-year proposition," Francona said. "Michael wants to know (how far he can go) and the White Sox want to know.

"Right now he's enjoying himself and holding his own against kids who have been playing (baseball) all of their life. For him to be able to compete in this league, against some of the top prospects in the game, I wouldn't have thought it would happen six months ago. I mean, it's pretty amazing that he's come this fast and a tribute to his dedication, determination and athletic ability."

Said shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, a Scorpion teammate who was the No. 1 draft choice of the Boston Red Sox in June, "I'm impressed. He's not just a guy trying to play. He is a player. And he's been packing 'em in, which has given all of us the opportunity to be seen by a lot of people. It's been exciting."

The Arizona Fall League has been an artistic success from the start. Of the 326 players who played in the first two seasons, 107 already have reached the majors. However, until Jordan's arrival, most of the games drew only a couple dozen scouts. The league sold 21 season tickets last year. This year's sale was cut off at 2,200. Jordan's debut at Tempe drew 6,116 spectators, 311 more than the Tempe team drew for its entire home season last year.

All of this after Birmingham's 1994 attendance set a franchise record and was the sixth best in double-A history as their rookie right fielder batted .202 in 127 games. He drove in 51 runs, stole 30 bases, hit three home runs and batted .380 in August, after asking Francona if he was doing the right thing.

"If he had suggested I was in over my head, I would have been out of there," Jordan said.

Said Francona, "His big concern was that he was taking the place of someone more deserving. He was at a point all athletes reach at different times. He needed some reassurance and reinforcement. I told him he had come a lot further and faster than anyone would have believed, and he has. I mean, he jumped from high school to double-A with 13 years in between."

Jordan is batting .255 in 30 Arizona games, playing both left and right field. He has no home runs, seven RBIs, two stolen bases and has struck out 27 times in 106 at-bats.

He is a lean 6 feet 6 and many scouts see Jordan's swing as too long and too slow. The absence of power in his short pro career is a significant drawback for a corner outfielder. Still, scouts are impressed by his quick adaptability and patience at the plate.

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