Labor Of Love

September 24, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The baseball strike has reduced the Florida Instructional League to a handful of intramural camps, but the minor leagues' most celebrated player has not let the game's labor struggle put a dent in his enthusiasm.

Former NBA superstar Michael Jordan arrived at Ed Smith Stadium yesterday to continue his baseball education, joining 46 youthful Chicago White Sox prospects for some back-to-basics training at the organization's spring training facility.

This normally is an anonymous affair, but Jordan cannot go anywhere without attracting reporters and camera crews -- and his presence in any other year would be a public relations bonanza for the instructional league concept.

This year is different. Even one of the most popular athletes on the planet cannot put baseball back on the map. The labor crisis has even filtered down to this level, where major-league funding and participation has dropped to the point that the White Sox instructional team will play mostly intrasquad scrimmages.

"I hope no one's asking any strike questions," Jordan said to the small group of reporters that greeted him. "I'm not getting paid enough to worry about that. Come to think about it, I'm not getting paid, period."

The instructional league is a lot like spring training in that respect. This is a meal-money gig, and the daily rate is barely enough for a couple of meals at McDonald's. Jordan isn't likely to starve, but the modest trappings of this venue are more proof that he is serious about his unlikely attempt to play in the majors.

Ed Smith Stadium is where it all began last spring. Jordan reported to training camp with the minor-league players and temporarily transformed Sarasota into the center of the baseball universe. He was able to slip into town a little more quietly this time.

"I think it's good to come back just to see where I stand," he said. "I have had time to work on some of the things I was taught here. I have come back to find out what I've learned."

He has learned a lot. He has learned that the game is not as easy as it looks, even for someone with his physical gifts. He has learned a little about humility, though his decision to accept a Double-A assignment with the Birmingham Barons was evidence that he already had his head on straight. And he has learned to play professional baseball, though not yet at a level that would put him in the outfield at Comiskey Park any time soon.

"I went through a lot of stages very quickly," Jordan said. "I had some success. I had some down times. Overall, I think I've come a long way."

Jordan did not excel at the Double-A level. He batted .204 and had some rough days in right field. But he also stole 30 bases (fifth in the Southern League) and drove in 51 runs, which is just short of remarkable for a 31-year-old athlete who had not played the game at any level since high school.

If he has not completely silenced his doubters on the field, his two-week commitment in Sarasota and his request to play in the Arizona Fall League next month -- which was granted yesterday by the commissioner's office -- have erased the notion that he is just a bored rich guy who is using the White Sox organization as his personal playground.

"I think I've made some believers out of some people, coming here and going to winter ball, if that happens," he said before yesterday's decision, which allowed the White Sox to place seven "top" prospects in the league, instead of the usual six. "Naturally, you have your own agenda, but everything is based on what the White Sox feel my potential is. If they feel I have reached the apex of what I could achieve, then I would go home and relax."

No such decision will be made in the next few weeks. The White Sox's minor-league staff will work with Jordan on the finer points of the game. He will get in some playing time in the intrasquad instructional scrimmages. Then, Jordan will go to Arizona and, -- from Oct. 6 to Dec. 1, get some more experience in a competitive setting with the Scottsdale Scorpions, managed by Terry Francona, Jordan's skipper in Birmingham.

What happens after that is anyone's guess, since the uncertain environment created by the labor standoff is certain to have an impact on every level of professional ball. The only thing Jordan does know is that he would not allow White Sox management to use him as a drawing card if the owners decide to open the 1995 season with replacement players.

"I wouldn't do that," he said earlier this week.

Jordan has been very visible during the hiatus between the minor-league season and his arrival in Sarasota. He took part in a charity basketball game in Chicago two weeks ago and made an appearance Wednesday at a reunion of Wheaties cover athletes.

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