Michael Jordan stages own strike

August 15, 1994|By William C. Rhoden | William C. Rhoden,New York Times News Service

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Driving here from the airport yesterday afternoon, I thought about all of the television trucks, with their miles of black cables, descending on Tim McCarver Stadium and preparing for a national broadcast of a minor-league baseball game: the Memphis Chicks vs. the Birmingham Barons.

The major-league players strike was little more than 48 hours old, but television, eager to fill valleys of air time, had found its Mr. Clutch.

Michael Jordan spent a career bailing out the Chicago Bulls, and yesterday he was going to bail out network baseball. Once again, Jordan was going to be somebody's "go to" guy.

But last night, for one of the few times in his career, Jordan passed up the shot. In a game in Huntsville, Ala., on Friday, Jordan injured his shoulder in the fourth inning when he dived for a ball in left field.

The Barons, the Double-A team Jordan plays for, said they expected him to miss at least five days.

It was another landmark: Jordan's first injury as a baseball player. With an army of reporters on hand to get a fresh look at his baseball abilities -- Jordan's first full television event in more than a year -- Jordan and his manager, Terry Francona, decided that he would sit out last night.

He accompanied the team to Memphis but was scheduled to go back to Birmingham today for a magnetic resonance imaging examination.

When the Barons announced Saturday night that Jordan wouldn't play, I could almost hear a sigh of relief from the legion of purists among baseball writers who would have had to traipse to Memphis essentially to pay homage to a player who has met, and in many ways, surpassed expectations.

Beginning with his celebrity appearance at the 1993 All-Star Game at Camden Yards to his decision last March to play minor-league baseball, the critics said Jordan's presence in baseball was a travesty. They assailed his skills and questioned his motives, and some predicted he would not last a season in the minors.

But here it was, Aug. 14, and not only was Jordan here, but we were, too. A contingent of writers and broadcasters and producers drawn to Memphis, not by Jordan's glove, which has improved, and not by his bat, which has produced, in 396 at-bats, a pair of home runs, a .192 batting average and 44 RBIs.

We were drawn here by his presence. "I've never seen anything like this in minor-league baseball," said David Hersh, the Chicks' president.

Jordan's presence on national television would have been a major mark in the evolution of modern baseball. The last time Jordan was seen playing an entire game on national television was in June 1993, when he helped the Chicago Bulls win their third straight NBA championship.

Last night would have been a debut of sorts for one of the !B greatest sports stars -- and largest celebrities -- of our time. A man who mastered one sport, professional basketball, started near the bottom of our national pastime and progressed to a point of competence that many thought was beyond his grasp.

But instead, Michael Jordan sat out with an injury.

The first thing that crossed my mind when Birmingham announced that Jordan wouldn't play was that he wanted to avoid the crush of media descending on Memphis. Mostly he did, consenting only to an interview with ESPN, which came to telecast the game.

My second thought was that Jordan, by missing the game, was, in his own way, expressing solidarity with fellow professional athletes by refusing to allow himself to be used as an entertainment magnet at a time when major-league baseball players and owners are locked in an nasty labor dispute.

ESPN scheduled Jordan's game after the major-league strike wiped out the game it was planning to televise -- the Toronto Blue Jays against the Yankees.

Jordan has steadfastly refused to elaborate on the strike, saying, "That's the majors, this is the minors."

But Jordan has to know in his heart of hearts that while he's a baseball minor-leaguer, he is a minor-leaguer in name only. He must also know that while the ongoing strike is occurring in baseball, the dispute is a labor battle that cuts across sports lines.

Sometime soon, professional basketball will have to face owners in a dispute over salary caps, freedom and the draft. Jordan is the most significant athlete in our lifetime since Muhammad Ali. The only thing that separates the two in my mind is Ali's social consciousness.

Michael Jordan wasn't the go-to guy last night. Was it his shoulder or his conscience?

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