Baseball reigns, but Jordan chronicle hits .202

April 16, 1995|By Vincent Fitzpatrick | Vincent Fitzpatrick,Special to The Sun

"Rookie: When Michael Jordan Came to the Minor Leagues," by Jim Patton. 220 pages. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing

Company. $23

When Michael Jordan was playing on the Dream Team during the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, a Japanese reporter asked, "Mr. Jordan, how does it feel to be God?" God, unfortunately, couldn't hit the curve ball.

Perhaps the most dominant guard in the history of basketball, Jordan sank the jumper that won the NCAA championship for the University of North Carolina, and he carried the Chicago Bulls to three consecutive NBA championships. At times, he seemed able to score at will. His skills proved so immense that he seemed other-worldly.

At the age of 31, however, Jordan walked away and joined the Birmingham Barons, a Double A baseball team in the Chicago White Sox organization. He batted .202 and led Southern League outfielders in errors. This deity had fallen to earth with a thud. One columnist sneered at "Error Jordan," and one cruel fan in Memphis snorted about "the Helen Keller of the Southern League."

In "Rookie," Jim Patton, a columnist and author of a book about pro basketball in Italy, chronicles the "Michaelmania" attending this rather improbable tour.

Writing an "unauthorized" book, Mr. Patton became "a persona non grata" with the Barons. This problem with access made the author's job more difficult and did not help the book.

There are also, however, some problems of his own making. The diction swings disconcertingly between the literary and the colloquial, and as an ironist the author opts for the ax rather than the scalpel. The humor sometimes lumbers, the structure sometimes creaks, and cliches mar the text. In brief, a more disciplined stylist and a more vigilant copy editor would have helped this tale.

On the other hand, Mr. Patton succeeds admirably in capturing the lure of baseball, its hold upon the American psyche. (The game's language has so permeated our vocabulary that, at a funeral service, I once heard an extra pallbearer referred to as a "utility man.") He also captures the appeal of the minor leagues - "back to purity," he remarks - in contrast with the corporate mentality and megadollars that can make the major-league product seem profane.

Mr. Patton correctly concerns himself with American culture as well as baseball. Traveling Southern country roads, savoring what this country has not yet been able to homogenize, he makes the reader ponder what is past and passing and to come.

At the book's conclusion, Mr. Patton speculates that Jordan will one day make it to the majors. As we know, Jordan has already returned to the Bulls. But his 1994 season in the sun will probably continue to raise questions. Was it an attempt to minimize media glare, a change that would allow him to come to terms more effectively with his father's death, a respite from a sport in which he may have felt, albeit briefly, that there was nothing left to accomplish?

In any event, Jordan is no longer earth-bound in a game played on dirt and grass, no longer tormented by curve balls and base-running errors. He is back where he cavorts most spectacularly-on the hardwood, soaring.

Vincent Fitzpatrick, a former high school and college basketball official, is the author of "H. L. Mencken," co-author of "The Complete Sentence Workout Book," co-editor of Mencken's "Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work" and is currently writing a biography of Gerald W. Johnson. He received his Ph.D. in English from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

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