Of all the advertising signs that cover the outfield fence at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Fla., the spring home of the Chicago White Sox, one stands out: UNIQUE AIR. This come-on for an air-conditioner manufacturer also serves as the perfect emblem for Michael Jordan's improbable (some say, impossible) attempt to play major league baseball for Chicago. In fact, this is a story about signs—some of them good, more of them bad.
Good sign: Jordan, the universally acclaimed greatest athlete in the world, is dead serious in his bid to make the White Sox as an outfielder, even though he hasn't played baseball in almost 15 years. He believes he will do it.
Bad sign: Hardly anyone else believes it. "Baseball has as good a chance of having a salary cap as Michael Jordan has of wearing a White Sox cap; neither is going to happen," says Pittsburgh Pirate center-fielder Andy Van Slyke. "Baseball looks like the simplest sport to play, but it's the hardest. Golf is easier to pick up than baseball. An average guy who works at IBM can become a 10 handicap, but an average guy at IBM can't play baseball. In baseball, Michael is an average guy."
Philadelphia Phillie pitcher Larry Andersen says, "I'm pulling for him, but I can't see it. If I hang a slider, and it comes up there as big as a basketball, he'll hit me good. But if I'm throwing well, he'll have a rough time. It'll be Air Larry against Air Jordan."
One member of the White Sox, who understandably prefers to remain anonymous, says, "Everyone is pulling for him. but he has no chance. He'll eliminate himself in three weeks."
Good sign: In his first six days of batting practice in Sarasota, Jordan made solid contact. He improved every day.
Bad sign: He was facing Chicago coaches, who were throwing around 65 mph, and he wasn't driving the ball with authority. This week he will finally step in against major league pitchers and their 90-mph fastballs. "The difference between 65 and 90," says Van Slyke, who has watched TV highlights of Jordan at spring training, "is like the difference between Michael jumping from the foul line and Michael jumping from an airplane."
Jordan's swing is too long (and it has a loop in it), his bat is too slow, and he isn't using his legs enough to generate more power. "When he faces a kid throwing 92 mph and doesn't know where the ball's going," says Van Slyke, "we're going to see some swings never seen before in spring training."
Another NBA player who took a shot at baseball was Danny Ainge, who hit .220 with 128 strikeouts in 665 at bats for the Toronto Blue Jays in 1979, '80 and '81. Former Baltimore Oriole pitcher Tippy Martinez was once asked what he threw to get Ainge out. "Strikes," he said.
Good sign: Bo Jackson defied the naysayers who said he wouldn't make it to the majors and became a proven power hitter.
Bad sign: Jordan had not hit a ball in the air to the warning track until Sunday, when he hit two that far. "The one thing Bo had was tremendous strength—he made ballparks look small—and I don't know if Michael has that." says pitcher turned broadcaster Mike Flanagan of the Orioles. "I worry most about Michael's size. He's gone from average height in the NBA to one of the the tallest [6'6"] players in baseball. Michael has a big strike zone and a long swing. I can see pitchers chopping him up."
Good sign: Jordan has been the first player to show up at the batting cage every morning—"I'm having a great time," he said on Sunday. "How many other jobs can you work and wear shades at the same time?"—and White Sox hitting coach Walt Hriniak raves about Jordan's work ethic.
Bad sign: Players have spent years in the batting cage before learning how to hit. "A lot of things in baseball take time," says Chicago coach Joe Nossek. "I don't know what kind of time frame Michael has, but to reach his maximum skill level, he will need longer than spring training." More likely, he will need a year or two in the minor leagues before he's ready. "For someone of Michael's stature," says Nossek, "a year or two in the minor leagues is hard to picture."
Good sign: Nossek marvels at how quickly Jordan has picked up some of the fundamentals of outfield play. "In time, he could be an above-average outfielder," he says. "I have to tell other outfielders things that he does naturally."
Bad sign: Jordan has mostly caught balls off Nossek's fungo bat. He hasn't caught a fly ball in a game since high school. How hard can a high school kid hit a baseball? Has Jordan ever seen a line drive that's hit so hard it freezes the outfielder, or one that moves around like a knuckleball, or one that has such topspin that it skips away as it hits the ground? "Some nasty stuff comes out there," says Nossek.
Good sign: Jordan is fearless. Anyone who has mixed it up with the thugs on the New York Knicks has no shortage of courage.
Bad sign: Jordan has never felt the fear of a baseball speeding 90 mph toward his head. There's nothing more frightening in team sports. He has already admitted that "keeping my butt in there" at the plate is something he has to work on.
Darren Jackson, the projected rightfielder for the White Sox, says, "It's not so much a fear with players, but there's something in the back of your mind that Randy Johnson might throw one at your face. You know it probably won't happen, and you know you're usually quick enough to get out of the way—but it takes time to develop that confidence."
Good sign: Jordan is probably the fastest player in the White Sox camp.
Bad sign: He doesn't know how to slide. He's so accustomed to diving headfirst for loose basketballs that he has had trouble adjusting to sliding feetfirst.
Good sign: Lumpy Mike LaValliere, who looks like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle with his catcher's gear on, is going to make the Sox. So is 145-pound infielder Craig Grebeck, who looks like a ball boy at a Bull game. If they can make it, why couldn't Jordan?
Bad sign: A lot of athletes with great bodies have not succeeded in baseball. It's a skill sport, a repetition sport, a catch-a-million-fly-balls and take-a-million-swings sport. Remember what the Phillies' John Kruk once told a woman who wondered, as she watched him draw deeply on a cigarette, how he could be an athlete. "Lady, I'm not an athlete," he said, "I'm a baseball player."
Good sign: Jordan's teammates love him. He plays Ping-Pong with them. Second baseman Joey Cora pokes fun at his wealth and fame. Another member of the team says, "The difference between Michael and Bo is that Michael is here for the team, Bo was here for Bo. Michael wants to fit in, Bo wanted everything to fit Bo."
Bad sign: Given the media blitz—250 credentials were issued for Jordan's first workout on Feb. 15—Jordan's presence will become a big distraction to the Sox as the spring wears on. He doesn't want that to happen. So the signs point this way: Late in spring training, he will be man enough to admit that 15 years away from the game was too long, even for him, that he is out of his league. Then he'll go home, not to the minor leagues. Then, hopefully, he'll return to his league, the NBA, where Air is truly unique.