Jordan a major attraction in minors

May 11, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

BIRMINGHAM, ALA — BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- It is playoff time in the NBA, where Michael Jordan once ruled both earth and sky, but that seems a world away as he lopes across the outfield at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.

Is this a second chance or a second childhood? The Birmingham Barons don't really care. Air Jordan has inflated home attendance and pumped up interest in the Double-A Southern League as he pursues his unlikely quest to reach the major leagues.

Everybody likes Mike, though it is unclear whether they have come for a sideshow or a serious assault on the seemingly impossible. He is certainly a curiosity -- a 31-year-old rookie who could buy the team with his pocket change -- but there no longer seems to be any doubt that he is in earnest.

Not when he is the first to arrive at the ballpark, five hours beforegame time for a one-on-one coaching session. Not when he is willing to spend 12 hours on a bus with his youthful teammates. This has become as much a test of character as of his long-dormant baseball skills.

"There are different ways to look at it," Jordan said. "This is the game I started out to play, and this is the game I'm going to end my career with. I started out in a humbling situation, and this is a humbling situation. I'm not afraid to show that humble side. I'm not afraid to fail. Maybe people can learn something from that."

Maybe Jordan can learn the nuances of a complex game before he is too old to play it in the major leagues. Opinions vary, but he has made remarkable progress during the four weeks he has spent with the Barons. It is only Double-A, but he recently ran off a 13-game hitting streak and is tied for second in the league with 10 stolen bases.

There is a downside, too. Jordan has made more than his share of mental and physical errors, and he has yet to hit a ball out of the ballpark -- which would appear to be a prerequisite for a 6-foot-6 outfield prospect. He remains a long shot to develop into a quality major-league player, but there is no indication that he'll be going home any time soon.

"There has been so much written about Michael trying to do this," Barons manager Terry Francona said. "He's handled it as well as anyonecould. He knows that he's playing catch-up. He's got things figured out pretty good. Maybe he makes it and maybe not. I'm not going to be the one to write him off."

Away from the hoopla

If not for his stunning decision last fall to retire from basketball, Jordan would be playing in the NBA Eastern Conference semifinals right now. Instead, he is in Orlando, Fla., where the Barons are playing a three-game series.

Another town. Another news conference. Another full house. If he retired from the NBA to escape the media crush and the overwhelming responsibilities of superstardom, he did not make a clean getaway.

The autograph hounds still find him. The press still awaits in every city. The nature of the questions has changed, but the subject always comes back to basketball. The Chicago Bulls are trying to win their fourth straight title, but that will be difficult to do without the greatest player on the planet. Doesn't Jordan sometimes wish he were back there? Back on the road to the NBA Finals instead of the blue highways of the Southern League?

"No, I'm real comfortable here right now," Jordan said. "There's no time to miss it. I still enjoy the game. I still watch. But I don't miss it at all. I don't regret my decision at all."

There are reminders. Bulls T-shirts have become common in the stands. There are the questions that come like clockwork even on an afternoon when someone else clearly had a greater impact on the game.

"This is really out of context," Jordan said. "Mike Robertson should be getting more of [the attention]. He had a great day, and all you want to talk about is basketball."

Robertson, who had three hits to lead the Barons to a 6-1 victory on Wednesday, gets interviewed by the two beat reporters for the Birmingham papers, while a dozen or so members of the national and international media position themselves around Jordan's locker. It is the same the next night, when shortstop Glenn DiSarcina delivers the goods in another Barons victory.

"It's a little embarrassing," Jordan said. "It was different in basketball, because I earned that [attention]. Here, I'm just doing what I want to do."

Nobody seems to mind. They may be a bunch of kids, but they know that Jordan brought the media with him . . . and will take them with him when he goes.

"It's fine with me," DiSarcina said. "They [the media] aren't here for the game. If I had gone 4-for-4 with four grand slams, they would still be standing over there. That's OK, because nobody in this room except him is used to that."

Tangible benefits

There have been no complaints. The young players are getting a lesson in media relations, and the team couldn't buy this kind of exposure.

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