As dusk descends on the desert, a dark-green Lexus SC400 sits in front of the dugout on the first base side of an empty Scottsdale Stadium. The chariot has been delivered to this appointed spot at the appointed hour by one of the driver's dutiful attendants. Only yards away, down a small flight of dugout stairs and beyond a green door, the most celebrated minor league singles hitter in history is saying goodbye to his teammates of two months, though the club, the Scottsdale Scorpions of the Arizona Fall League, has a final game remaining the next day.
"I didn't even know he was leaving," says Larry Angel, one of two bodyguards assigned to protect His Royal Airness, Michael Jordan, from the perils of the AFL, including but not limited to elementary schoolkids packing Instamatic cameras, pimply-faced teenagers armed with felt-tip pens and silver-haired retirees with funny hats. "He just said his farewells, and—zoom!—he was gone."
The usual thicket of memorabilia collectors, loyal fans and starstruck children are standing sentry outside the clubhouse door that leads to the stadium parking lot, the portal used by the more mortal of Scorpions, but these people will not see so much as Jordan's shadow.
Inside the ballpark, Jordan climbs into the Lexus—provided to him at no cost by the good folks at Scottsdale Lexus, who asked only that he autograph a letter verifying that he had driven one of their luxurious automobiles—hits the accelerator and steers the sports coupe along the gravel track that rings the field. He glides behind home plate, past the third base dugout, in front of the wall in leftfield and slips through an open gate in center. He climbs an exit ramp as the Arizona sky above him begins its slow dissolve into purple and pink.
Going, going, gone. It is one of the rarest sights in baseball: Michael Jordan leaving the yard.
His drive on Wednesday of last week came one year to the week after Jordan, less than two months past his shocking retirement from basketball, walked into Comiskey Park and told Chicago White Sox general manager Ron Schueler, "I'd like to take some swings in the batting cage." Schueler had been expecting him. The team's owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, who also owns Jordan's former hoops team, the Chicago Bulls, had told him Jordan might be dropping by. "Make the place available to him," Reinsdorf instructed, "but don't make him any promises."
"At that point I didn't take it real seriously," Schueler says. "But after two weeks of batting practice, I could tell he was taking it seriously. It's been quite a year."
It ended with Jordan batting a soft .252 in the AFL. Except in the Lexus, he failed to clear the wall, getting five extra-base hits and eight RBIs while striking out 34 times in 123 at bats. That followed his .202 showing for the Double A Birmingham Barons last summer, when he hit three dingers, drove in 51 runs and whiffed at a similar rate (114 times in 436 at bats).
His AFL season underscored the Jordan conundrum: As a baseball player he is still nothing to look at, which matters not a whit to the record numbers of people who come to look at him. Scottsdale's games accounted for about 87% of the league's total attendance. The AFL, consisting of six teams based in the Phoenix area, even took the show on the road, moving the Nov. 28 Scorpion-Tempe Rafters game to Tucson. That game drew an AFL-record 7,836 fans.
Jordan is a bad enough player that Schueler says he still is "a million-to-one shot" to be a regular in the majors. Jordan himself admitted to Bob Greene of the Chicago Tribune that he ranks "dead last" among the 28 Scorpions. "In no way am I even near the middle of the pack," Jordan said. "I'm the worst player. But I'm not through yet."
Then again, he is good enough and dedicated enough that his quest to reach the big leagues—at least as the 25th player on the White Sox roster—has a shred of legitimacy to it. There is something there. He was one of only six players in Double A last summer to drive in 50 runs and steal 30 bases. He has not been an embarrassment to the sport, as this magazine suggested in March. (Jordan has refused to speak with SI since then.)
"I've seen him improve just in his time [in Arizona], but he's got a long, long way to go," says Dick Egan, a scout for the Florida Marlins. "He's below average in every area. But if he were 25 instead of 32 [as of next February], there'd be a bidding war to get him. Can you imagine what he'd be worth to a small-market team? I brought my grandkids to one of his games—they're four and five—and they were like everybody else: screaming bloody murder no matter what he did.
"My opinion is, he's a guy you have to follow. Time is going to run out on him, but it would be neat if he made it. I'm not betting against that s.o.b. The chances are slim, but the upside is extraordinary."
So many people called the AFL offices trying to buy Scorpion caps that a woman was hired to do nothing but handle such orders. When Jordan played golf unannounced at a private country club in the Phoenix area, a gallery of almost 75 people surrounded the 9th green by the time he reached the turn. The usual flock of Jordan pilgrims at Scottsdale Stadium late last Thursday morning included a young man wearing a Birmingham Baron cap, a shiny red-and-black Air Jordan warmup suit and spanking-new white Air Jordan hightops. When told that Jordan had taken off, the crestfallen disciple jumped into his red-and-black Honda Civic with the AIR eve plates and sped off.
No matter how hard Jordan tries to reinvent himself as a quality baseball player and no matter how weak he looks at the plate—"All you've got to do is flip a decent off-speed pitch up there, and he can't hit it," says Chandler Diamondback pitcher Mike Myers—he remains the most recognizable and fascinating athlete on the planet. Jordan appears to be uncomfortable with that dichotomy, retreating from such skewed adulation with the help of Angel and Tony Cruz, the bodyguards hired by the AFL and empowered to act as they wish to protect him.
At the ballpark Angel, a paunchy former police officer, and Cruz, a stubby amateur boxer, left Jordan's side only when he batted or ran the bases. Even then they stood menacingly in the on-deck circle, scanning the crowd with that Clint Eastwood In the Line of Fire, ready-to-take-a-bullet seriousness. You never know where danger might be lurking in these crowds of 2,000. During one game Cruz chased away some schoolgirls who dared press against a wire fence to snap pictures. On another occasion Cruz shouted at a section of kids who were cheering incessantly for Jordan. "Sit down and shut up, or you're gonna get thrown out of here," he said, snarling.
When three Rafter players walked with baseballs and pens in hand toward Jordan during batting practice last week, Cruz stopped them with an outstretched hand. According to Angel, Jordan told some Diamondback players last Wednesday that he would sign autographs for them the next day. Of course, he skipped town before that last game.
When Jordan played leftfield, Angel and Cruz stood near the leftfield line. After each of his strikeouts they walked back to the dugout with him, one on each side, as grim as pallbearers. Jordan didn't come close to his fans at the ballparks in his last week in Arizona. Funny, isn't it, how in the NBA the three-point line is moved in and hand checking is tossed out, and here is Jordan, guarded tighter than ever.
"I like spending time in the clubhouse with the guys," Jordan said to a group of reporters last week. "That doesn't happen in basketball. Guys clear out. The other night we stayed up until one o'clock in the morning playing cards. I love that. I can't do that outside the clubhouse."
What happens if he reaches the majors, where the crowds are 20 times larger and the microscope of the media is at least that many times more powerful? Having tired of the responsibility of being a basketball legend, he finds that as a baseball player he is swimming in a smaller fishbowl. It is one reason that he says he won't be a replacement player if the major leaguers remain on strike next year. "I won't be there," he says. "I know the impact that I have."
Says Schueler, "There's no way I'd even ask him to come. It would be so easy for us to do. We wouldn't have to worry about selling tickets. But I think he's got too much respect for the players [on strike] to be put in that situation. I don't think he wants to get to the majors like that."
So when spring training starts, Jordan will be given every opportunity to make the White Sox' Triple A club in Nashville. Schueler envisions Jordan getting to the big leagues as a reserve player, especially if his defense (his arm is weak) and his baserunning (he has a slow first step) improve. Jordan's value now, besides his drawing power, is limited to intangibles: his work ethic, his competitive nature and his commanding presence—which qualify him only to play the position of designated legend. "We played three or four years with 24-man rosters," Schueler says. "What's the 25th guy anyway?"
Assuming a team carries 11 pitchers, the 25th player could be defined as the 14th-most-used player on a roster. Last year such American League players averaged about .240 with two home runs and 10 RBIs, while making an appearance in every three or four games. "It's almost as if he can smell it now," says Terry Francona, Jordan's manager at Birmingham and at Scottsdale. "He's starting to have fun playing the game. Before, he was just trying not to embarrass himself. Now he knows he's gotten better, and he's competing."
The first year of Jordan's second career ended in Chandler with three hitless at bats, two of which were strikeouts. Francona pinch-hit for him in the ninth inning. When the game was over, Jordan walked quickly across the field in the bright sunshine, with Angel and Cruz running interference. He answered a few questions from reporters without bothering to stop. Five hundred schoolchildren, who were attending the game on a field trip as part of an antidrug program, squealed for him, yelping as eagerly as puppies in a pet shop window. He gave no acknowledgment. Jordan continued briskly up a flight of stairs and disappeared into the team bus, its engine running, for the ride back to Scottsdale. Inside it was cool and quiet.