Jordan isn't ready, but it may not matter

March 05, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

SARASOTA, Fla. -- So far, it's a blast. The Chicago White Sox love having Michael Jordan as their teammate. Their opponents love competing against one of the greatest athletes in history.

But what happens four weeks from now? What happens if Jordan shows minimal improvement, but White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf orders manager Gene Lamont to put him on the Opening Day roster?

The scenario might not be as far-fetched as it sounds. A crowd of 1,736 paid to watch Jordan in an intrasquad game on Thursday. A crowd of 7,091 followed his every move in the White Sox's first exhibition game yesterday.

When Jordan entered the game in the sixth inning, nearly two dozen photographers pointed their lenses at right field. What happens if Reinsdorf falls in love with the publicity, the commotion, the prospect of mammoth ticket sales?

Lamont could handle it -- he played short-handed at various times last season with Bo Jackson, Carlton Fisk and Steve Sax. )) And few would rush to the defense of Mike Huff, the outfielder beaten out by Jackson last season and threatened by Jordan this spring.

Reinsdorf went this far.

Who's going to stop him, the commissioner?

Jordan played a single into a double in right field yesterday, but at least he didn't injure himself like Mike Devereaux. He also tapped out weakly against minor-league pitcher Darren Oliver, but American League MVP Frank Thomas refused to dismiss his chances of making the team.

"To get a really serious opinion of how he's going to do, come back in three weeks," Thomas said. "If he's at the level he was at today, then you can say he doesn't have a chance. But you guys will be surprised, I really believe that. He's in a class of his own."

Why, the Big Hurt fared worse than Jordan against Oliver, taking a called third strike from the left-hander, a pitcher with two games of experience above Double-A. It was the first game, all right? Afterward, Thomas even offered a rationale for keeping Jordan, citing his astonishing speed.

"He can fly," Thomas said. "Believe me, every team carries a speed person. Every team carries someone who can play the outfield. I wouldn't be surprised if he made this club."

Yet, Jordan's speed didn't help him hold Jose Canseco to a single when the Texas slugger sliced a ball down the right-field line in the seventh inning. Jordan circled the ball -- the only one hit to him -- then bounced his throw to the cutoff man, enabling Canseco to reach second.

Instincts matter in this game. So does practice. Oliver overmatched Jordan, throwing his first pitch inside for ball one, then blowing two fastballs by him for swinging strikes. When Jordan finally connected, he hit a slow chopper to the first-base side of the mound.

That's when the fun began.

Oliver fielded the ball and tagged Jordan, and plate umpire Drew Coble signaled him out. But Jordan kept running, and Oliver threw to first. Unaware of Coble's silent call, first-base umpire Chuck Meriwether ruled that Jordan beat the throw.

The crowd went wild, then booed after Coble made his call stand. Jordan lingered near first, apparently confused. An NBA ref would have gotten an earful. But Jordan spoke only to first base coach Doug Mansolino. "They called me out?" he said.

And so it was that Coble and Meriwether found themselves facing questions from a small group of reporters afterward -- a Grapefruit League novelty. "First time in 13 years," Coble said, laughing. "I never had the press follow me in."

Oliver joked about Jordan's not getting the call -- "This is my sport," he said. "If it was basketball, they might have given it to him." He also expressed relief that he didn't give up a hit to Jordan or -- heaven forbid -- hit him with a pitch.

"The fans might have come out if I had hit him," Oliver said.

The lighthearted talk struck the right chord, but the mood would have been different if Jordan had been forced to face Tom Henke in the ninth inning. Allen Battle saved him that embarrassment, grounding out to end the game with Jordan on deck.

"I'd be lying if I said it wouldn't have been a thrill," said Henke, 36. ". . . [but] if I had gotten him out, they might have said, 'Get him out of here; that old guy got him out.' Maybe I did him a favor by not getting to him."

Sure, Tom.

"That would have been pretty cruel," Thomas said. "It would have been a real reality check. No one wants to see that right now. But give him two or three weeks, and I'd like to see him against anyone."

Still, Jordan is playing baseball for the first time in 16 years, and his only previous experience was in high school. He's starting to grasp the enormity of his task. He repeated yesterday that he would go to the minors, as long as it's not Single A.

"I'm not making this a five-year plan," Jordan said. "I don't think that's in my best interests. I'm looking for the White Sox to tell me how far away I am so I can evaluate some things."

He's far away.

Got that, Mr. Reinsdorf?

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