Jordan is years - and majors - away from NBA

October 05, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

A year to the day since he retired from the NBA, Michael Jordan will wear the uniform of the Scottsdale Scorpions on opening day of baseball's Arizona Fall League tomorrow. It's an unfortunate development for card-carrying cynics and conspiracy theorists.

If Jordan is angling to return to the NBA, as so many figured he would, he sure is going about it peculiarly. Throwing yourself headlong into a baseball career is not exactly the traditional warm-up for playing basketball.

But Jordan isn't coming back to the NBA. That is obvious now. His presence in the Arizona league, and in the Florida Instructional League before that, says all that needs to be said about his sporting intentions. He's a ballplayer now.

We're supposed to know that already, of course. Jordan has spent the past year insisting he wasn't coming back to the NBA. "I will never play basketball again, except recreationally," he said July.

But we've spent the last year doubting him, our skepticism honed by the unretirements of Magic Johnson, Bjorn Borg, Jim Palmer and three dozen boxers and by our inability to believe that he really could walk away at the peak of his powers.

But this retirement is sticking.

As crazy as it may seem to you and me, Jordan just isn't going to wake up one day and trade in the humility of life as a Birmingham Baron for the glory of life as basketball's best player ever. He actually is going to try to play his way up to the major leagues.

What an ending, huh?

We all sat around trying to figure him out when he retired last year. All sorts of explanations were floated. He was despondent over his father's murder. He was avoiding an NBA investigation into his gambling. He was tired of the media scrutiny. He wanted to spend more time with his family.

How much those factors played into his decision, if at all, may never be known. But as he gets more and more serious about his baseball career, it becomes clear that the primary force driving him was the lack of challenges left for him in basketball.

He was bored. He had done everything there was to do in the NBA. He was down to repeating himself.

Baseball appealed to him on two levels. One, the challenge of making it to the major leagues was enormous. Two, most people didn't believe he could become a viable prospect. (Sports Illustrated told him to "bag it.")

For a guy who thrives on proving doubters wrong, and who had no doubters left in basketball, the lure was irresistible.

Jordan's season with the Barons was widely regarded as a flop because he hit .204 and butchered some balls in the outfield. But that's not fair. Considering that he's a 31-year-old who hadn't played baseball since high school, hitting over .200 in Double-A was a major accomplishment. Few athletes could do it. He also stole 30 bases (fifth in the Southern League) and drove in 51 runs. He improved tremendously.

"He was a ballplayer by the end of the year," said Birmingham manager Terry Francona.

He didn't whine about the small-time atmosphere. He didn't succumb to the humility attached to well-publicized failure. He didn't big-time his teammates. He didn't ask for any special favors.

He didn't do any of the things he was supposed to do, in other words.

He just blended in.

He will never have natural bat speed, but if he continues to work this hard at developing his skills, he could make it to the bigs. The guess here is that he probably will. Maybe he won't last long, or play much, but he'll get his cup of coffee. Maybe two cups.

If he pulls it off, then, perhaps, we might see him return to basketball: after he has been gone for three or four years and finally has something to prove again.

Coming back now, after just a year off, would offer no challenge. He showed at that charity game in Chicago last month that he could pick up his game right where he had left it.

But let's say he took four years to scratch his baseball itch. He'd be 34 or 35. Too old to dominate the NBA, supposedly. Too old to be what he was. The league would be in the hands of another generation of stars.

Jordan would love taking on that challenge. You heard it here first.

Meanwhile, he is going to be a ballplayer for a while. You don't do the Florida-Arizona doubleheader if you're not serious. Let's give him credit. He's in this venture for real. It's going to go down as one of the remarkable sports stories of our time. He walked away and stayed away. He really did.

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