Two much? Ex-Miller Jordan torn by lure of baseball, football

June 05, 1991|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Evening Sun Staff

Brian Jordan, once a three-sport handyman at Milford Mill High, is caught in a polite game of tug-of-war these days.

Tugging on one Jordan arm are the Atlanta Falcons, who want him to focus all of his attention on playing strong safety in the NFL.

Pulling -- albeit gingerly -- in the other direction are the St. Louis Cardinals, who are quick to point out the blessings of a baseball-only career.

And there in the middle stands Jordan, looking like a guy having too much fun to make up his mind which way to go.

Count the 24-year-old Baltimorean in that small coterie of athletes engaged in dual careers. He does not have Bo Jackson's marketability, nor Deion Sanders' ostentation. But what he has is enough to keep two sporting worlds in heated pursuit.

These are his football credentials: Last season, starting at strong safety in Atlanta's attack defense, he led all NFL defensive backs in tackles with 193. He ranked third among all defenders. He had 21 tackles in a game against the Los Angeles Rams, 18 against Cincinnati, 17 against Cleveland, Pro Bowl-type numbers.

And these are his baseball credentials: With only 50 at-bats in Double A ball last summer, the Cardinals promoted Jordan to the Triple A Louisville Redbirds this season. When he went on the disabled list this week, he was hitting .272 with two homers, nine doubles and 14 RBIs in 41 games.

When it comes to Jordan's dual career, the question is not whether he actually can do it. The real question is whether he can stay healthy long enough to prove he is as good a baseball prospect as the Cardinals projected when they spent a first-round supplemental draft pick on him in 1988.

The irony is that Jordan has been more injury-prone as a slugging outfielder than as a rock 'em, sock 'em safety.

"You can't account for that," said Ken Herock, the Falcons' vice president of player personnel.

"It's weird," admitted Mark DeJohn, Jordan's manager at Louisville. "If he can stay healthy, we can see what we have."

Each of Jordan's three previous minor-league seasons ended either because of injury or football. In 1988, a bone bruise on his right heel and the start of his senior football season at the University of Richmond limited his rookie baseball season at Hamilton, Ontario, to 19 games. In 1989, he suffered a broken ankle in the Senior Bowl and wound up playing only 11 games at Single A St. Petersburg. In 1990, he totaled 25 games between St. Pete and Double A Arkansas before he ran into an outfield wall and broke the navicular bone in his wrist.

This season, he has spent time on the disabled list with a hip flexor injury and more recently a sprained left ankle (same one he broke in '89).

It is with an obvious concession to that trend that Jordan's mother, Betty, said she knows he will have to give up one sport before too long. "I've talked to him about the durability of his body," she said.

Which one he gives up, though, she can't say. Like everybody else involved, she figures it will come down to economics. Jordan works on one-year minor-league contracts. His three-year NFL contract, the one he signed as a seventh-round pick of the Buffalo Bills in 1989, is up after the 1991 season. The difference between the contracts is no small gap. With Louisville, he makes approximately $30,000. With the Falcons, he averages $233,000 a season.

"St. Louis wants me to give up football, but financially I can't do that," Jordan said. "Every time I see Coach [Jerry] Glanville, he tells me to give up baseball. The last time I saw him he said, 'I hope they throw you curveballs that drop off the table.' "

Football clearly is Jordan's priority for now. He is required by his contract to attend all mandatory team functions, such as rookie mini-camp last month and the veteran mini-camp next month, just before training camp begins.

Curiously, the Falcons have two dual-career players in their secondary. Sanders, who got a $500,000 signing bonus from baseball, plays cornerback for the Falcons and recently was sent to the minors by the Braves.

"It's a decision both guys have to make and live with," Herock said. "[But] when you concentrate on both sports, it's holding you back in one or the other. The baseball people consider Brian a prospect. We consider him better than that. He's a starter with us."

Jordan has gotten only 341 at-bats in three-plus years in the Cardinals' farm system, 147 of them at the Triple A level. Yet, in less than half a season, he has convinced DeJohn of his major-league potential.

"He's shown me enough in the time he's been here that he has the ability to play in the major leagues," DeJohn said. "He's got to smooth out his rough edges. My opinion is that he definitely needs at least one full season, 400 to 500 at-bats, at the Triple A level. I don't think he'll ever be able to realize his baseball potential by leaving in July [to join the Falcons], though."

And then DeJohn added, "I know the Cardinals don't want to lose the kid."

All of which makes Jordan's next set of contract negotiations interesting, to say the least.

"I want to play in the major leagues," Jordan said. "There's no question in my mind I can play in the big leagues. I enjoy playing two sports. Right now it'd be hard to give up one. It's still early in both careers. I'm happy in both. Down the road, in a year or two, I may have to settle on one."

Which one is the question. And until Jordan answers it, he will be the object of a polite, yet earnest tug-of-war.

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