Jordan causes game no shame

March 14, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

SARASOTA, Fla. -- To the grumps and zealots who insist that Michael Jordan is embarrassing himself and baseball this spring: Take a pill and try to relax, OK? And by the way, you're wrong.

You want to talk about who is embarrassing baseball? Let's talk about who is really embarrassing baseball. With their soul-robbing wild-card playoffs, unsubstantiated cries of poverty and empty-suit commissionership, the owners are doing far more defile the game than Jordan ever could with a mere hitless spring.

If you want to complain about someone painting a mustache on this Mona Lisa, complain about the knuckleheads in the owners' boxes, who care a lot more about TV ratings than the history and fiber of the game. Compared with them on the matter of making a positive contribution, Jordan is Abner Doubleday.

But even without the comparison, Jordan has done nothing to insult the game. Maybe it's true that he has been indulged much as a child who wants every toy in the store. And it's hard to figure why he would want to subject himself to this. But if every player showed up as early, worked as hard and kept their mouths as shut when things didn't go well, baseball wouldn't have half the problems it does.

So he can't get a hit. Big deal.

"I can't believe people are complaining about that," Frank Robinson said the other day. "There are lots of players down here, good players, who can't get a hit. I remember one spring when I got two hits the whole month. What did people expect [from Jordan]?"

They expected miracles, of course, which is precisely the problem. When you're regarded as the best athlete in the history of the world, people tend to serve you with high expectations, such as thinking you can do anything, even fly. Jordan probably began this baseball odyssey agreeing with them.

But he has learned a lot in the past month, mostly that hitting a major-league pitch is the toughest task in sports. And that it doesn't matter if you're blessed with a vast allotment of athleticism, poise and powers of concentration, as Jordan is.

The plain fact is that hitting a baseball comes down to an indefinable, mysterious assortment of reflexes, muscle twitches and small motor skills, and it doesn't matter if you're fat or thin, tall or short, lazy or industrious -- either you come by the swing naturally, or you don't.

That's why some round 70-year-old former All-Star probably would have fared better than Jordan, whose bat is just too slow. And that's why a human doughnut such as John Kruk is one of the best players in the bigs.

They've got the swing. Jordan doesn't. All the 360-degree dunks in the world aren't going to give it to him.

But that irony doesn't insult baseball. If anything, it honors the game. If the world's greatest athlete can't get a hit, those who can must have some special qualities.

This is not to infer that Jordan has been a total bust, anyway. He is plainly overmatched at the plate, but it was foolish to expect more from a 31-year-old rookie who hasn't hit since high school. Considering that, he hasn't fared that badly. He has made contact in 11 of 16 plate appearances, walked twice, scored two runs and collected as many RBIs as Frank Thomas (two).

It is interesting to consider what might have happened had he tried out with a team other than the White Sox, whose hitting coach, Walt Hriniak, teaches a singular style (marked by a one-handed follow-through) that is not for everyone.

"Give him a couple of years and there's a chance he could make it," Robinson said. "You can't overlook the fact that he's a special athlete who has some positive things going for him."

Whether he is willing to go to the minors for a couple of years and hone his talent becomes the issue now. He'll need to make the initial call sometime in the next 10 days, before the White Sox ship him out.

The guess here is that he'll decide against going to the minors, decide that enough is enough. Being one of the guys is easy in the sun and fun of spring training, but another matter altogether during a long minor-league season of hot bus rides and dim lights. Jordan won't go for that.

If he doesn't, his baseball odyssey will go down as a bust. Fair enough. You can't call an 0-fer spring anything else. But no matter what he decides, he hasn't embarrassed himself or baseball. He has carried himself with dignity and humor. It's nice to see him handle failure with a smile.

No, the whole thing never did make much sense as an enterprise, but it made this spring more interesting and certainly more fun, and there were no losers, and, as they say in the sport Jordan used to play: No harm, no foul.

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