Two years ago Michael Jordan was talking on the telephone to his best friend from way back. "You're never going to guess what I have in my hands," Jordan told Dave Bridgers, his buddy since both were seven-year-olds in Wilmington, N.C. "A baseball bat. I'm thinking about playing two sports." He was serious. And the bat rested in those blessed hands, and it felt good.
Two months ago Michael Jordan was talking to his best friend from way back. Jordan said he had begun to take batting practice against a pitching machine at Comiskey Park. He was serious. And the bat rested in those blessed hands, and it felt...odd. That was Jordan's word. "It's a little odd," Jordan told Bridgers. "It ain't a free throw, man."
A lifetime ago Mike (Rabbit) Jordan and Dave (Sk‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬µsh) Bridgers dreamed of playing major league baseball. "We were really into the Oakland A's," says Bridgers, who still lives in Wilmington. "World champions in '72, '73 and '74. We were always big Reggie Jackson fans. Basketball was just something Mike messed with."
Indications are that Michael Jordan, who retired from the Chicago Bulls in October after having duplicated the A's three-peat of championships, is considering a career in major league baseball. Reports from Chicago say that he has been taking BP three or four days a week this winter, for two or three hours a day, usually at the home of the Chicago White Sox. "Those reports," reports David Falk, Jordan's agent, "are very accurate."
Indications are that Michael Jordan may attend spring training with the White Sox, who will greet him in Sarasota, Fla. "Michael Jordan is serious about playing baseball," columnist Bob Verdi wrote in the Chicago Tribune last week. "If he thinks he can make it with the White Sox, he'll show up in spring training, and you can book it."
Is MJ serious? Can he make it? Is baseball his sport? Will his next video be Come Shag Flies with Me? For the love of god, was basketball just...something Mike messed with?
Was it? Ask the owner. The owner of the White Sox is Jerry Reinsdorf. The owner of the Bulls is Jerry Reinsdorf. If the man who won three consecutive championships for the Bulls wants to attend spring training with the White Sox, Reinsdorf will let him. "Why wouldn't we let him?" Reinsdorf asks rhetorically.
Why would they? After all, the man is 30 years old. He hasn't played baseball since his junior year of high school. He lost a celebrity home run hitting contest to Tom Selleck during All-Star Game festivities in Baltimore last summer. And he thinks "Mrs. Schott" is a description of what Will Perdue does whenever Perdue gets the ball in the paint.
"I'm not going to say there isn't anything Michael Jordan can't do," says Reinsdorf, going for a triple-double negative, one that translates as "Michael Jordan can do anything." By way of proof, Reinsdorf tells the story of the first time he saw Jordan bowl. It was, insists Reinsdorf, the first time Jordan had ever bowled. MJ rolled two strikes. Without looking at the pins. Throwing the ball between his legs.
"If he were 18," concludes the owner, "you'd say he had all the tools."
Would you? Ask the coach. The coach will tell you that Jordan has more tools than Bob Vila, and the coach should know. Dick Neher was manager of a Babe Ruth League team Jordan played on, from the time the boy was 13 until he was 15. "He was barely big enough to pick up a mitt," recalls Neher. "But I have picture of him, and he's kneeling, with a hand or his knee, and his fingers come clear down to his shin. Biggest hands I've ever seen."
Jordan played all positions for the team sponsored by Parker's grocery chain, with the same script P on its uniforms that the Philadelphia Phillies wore. Neher remembers when his 15-year-old catcher was benched for disciplinary reasons and his 14-year-old catcher had a broker leg, and he asked for a volunteer to play behind the plate in the big game against Mutual of Omaha. "Mike stands up, not bigger than a minute," say Neher, "and he say, 'Coach, I'll catch.' "
With his pipe-clean arms, the 13-year-old Jordan couldn't throw the ball 127 feet to second base. He had to two-hop it across the pitcher's mound. Before the game's first pitch Jordan yelled, "Coming down!" and skipped a practice throw to second base. The opposition was convulsed with laughter. "We're going to run on you all night," said one kid.
Replied Jordan, in a line that is now legend in Wilmington, "You run, and I'll gun."
The first two men on base did run, and Jordan did gun, throwing them out on a total of four hops. Nobody on Mutual of Omaha attempted to steal for the rest of the evening.
So, can he or can't he play in the bigs?
"Baseball has always been Mike's favorite sport," says Neher. "Defensively, I think he could play in the majors right now. The challenge for him will be hitting, and in my mind, that's why he's in the cage working."
So, will he or won't he?
"Knowing his attitude," concludes the coach, "I think he'll take a shot at it."
Will he? Ask the Michael. The Michael isn't talking, and only the Michael knows for certain. So ask the agent. The agent insists this is all a lark. Or does he?
"It's like an adult fantasy camp for Michael," says Falk. "It's just something he's doing for the fun and challenge of it. It's something he couldn't do because he was playing basketball all these years. Like he said at his retirement press conference, now he can try other things. Most people don't get to this point in their lives until their 50's or 60's. Michael is fortunate enough to be in this position at 30."
So, can he or can't he?
"I think the experts would probably tell you the odds are a million to one," says Falk.
But can he? Will he? Does he even want to?
"Michael," says the agent, "loves to defy the odds."
The White Sox know all about long odds and oddities. Last spring they activated Bo Jackson to the frustration of some teammates, who resented the media circus surrounding his comeback attempt. Last summer general manager Ron Schueler drafted his daughter, Carey. Last fall team management tried to activate 70-year-old Minnie Minoso to play in one game. Jordan has not told Schueler that he wants to try out for the Sox, but the G.M. told WGN in Chicago last week that Mike in spikes is "a long shot."
Is it? Ask the BP pitcher. The BP pitcher at old Comiskey Park will tell you about two long shots. On the afternoon of July 25, 1990, Dave LaRoche, a Sox coach at the time, threw soft tosses to Jordan during batting practice. Insulted, Jordan told him to turn up the heat. Throwing around 70 mph—20 below big league speed—LaRoche was twice taken deep by a vacationing Jordan. One of the balls caromed off the facing of the second deck in leftfield.
Are the possibilities intriguing? Ask da Bears. Da Bears are the pro football team in Chicago. "Michael certainly hasn't said that he wants to come and try out," says Doug Green, a Bear spokesman. "But we'd love to have him." (Wink.)
Jordan is a close friend of Bear defensive lineman Richard Dent's and attends three or four games a year at Soldier Field. He watches from the Gatorade corporate skybox. "He used to watch from the sideline," says Green, "but that became an insurance problem. One play out of bounds, and he could own the Bears."
Figuratively speaking, couldn't he own just about any sport? Ask the Chicago Blackhawks. On second thought, the Blackhawks won't return repeated telephone calls, so ask Bridgers instead. "No," he says. "Mike doesn't like to go anywhere near water. Even if it's frozen."
This does not square with the fact that Jordan went skiing, for the first time in his life, in Aspen, Colo., over the holidays. "Oh, yeah," Falk says, when asked if Jordan will dabble for fun in still other sports. "Absolutely."
Absolutely? Ask the best friend. The best friend knows Jordan can fire a 69 at you on the golf course on the rare occasions that he can play without distractions. He can also fire an 89. "That's from way back at the gold tees," says Bridgers. "I tell him, 'Mike, I'd have to dial 1 just to get to the fairway from there.' "
Dialing 8, of course, is baseball slang for hitting a home run. When Bridgers and Jordan were state Little League champions as 12-year-olds, playing in a regional tournament in Lawrenceville, Ga., someone offered a steak dinner for anyone who could hit a home run. "Cook the dinner," said Jordan, who then hit a home run in the second game of the tournament.
"He was a good player," says Bridgers. "Mike was a pitcher, and he had what we called a curve, but it was really a slider. It would come right at you and break away. You'd bail out, and he'd stick his tongue at you and laugh. He was a power hitter. In practice, he liked to try to switch sides, from right to left. And if you struck out for the third out and he was up next, he was mad."
Fine. That's Little League. But can he play in the Big Leagues?
"He can," says Bridgers. "I'd love to see it. He still plays softball in Chicago. A couple years ago I asked him, 'Mike, how can you do that? You can't even go out in public, and you're playing softball?' He said, 'Dave, I just love the game.' "
Fine. But will he or won't he be in Sarasota? "If he can't be competitive, he won't do it," says Bridgers. "I'm sure that's what he's weighing right now. And if he decides not to try it, he'll just leave it at 'Man, I wonder what it would have been like.' "
Will he or won't he leave it at that? "I'll say he will go for it," concludes the best friend. "I've known him a long time, and if he's taking two hours of batting practice a day, he's serious; he's going to try it. He's in shape, that's not a problem. The question is, will the people nail him to a cross? If he's not a superstar, will people still accept him?"
Will you? Just ask yourself: Why flee from the notion of Michael Jordan in rightfield for the White Sox? Why shrink from the heat of this winter stove? Why bother to resist? After all, You run, and he'll gun.