Ready to play name game Brian Jordan: The ex-Milford Mill standout is overshadowed by Cardinals teammate Mark McGwire -- for now. A free agent after this season, he's putting up the kind of numbers usually reserved for big-name superstars.

June 13, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

LOS ANGELES -- It is the same in every city. The focus always seems to be on slugger Mark McGwire, who has grown so much bigger than life that his shadow covers everyone else in the St. Louis Cardinals' lineup.

Outfielder Brian Jordan watches in awe like everybody else and doesn't seem to mind that McGwiremania is costing him valuable air time in this, the year he aspires to become a superstar.

Does anyone even realize that the pride of Milford Mill High entered yesterday's game against the Arizona Diamondbacks ranked fourth in the National League with a .343 batting average -- just 14 points off the league lead?

"He is a great, great player," McGwire said. "He's better than Bo Jackson. He's a two-sport player. He was an All-Pro. He's leading the league in hitting. He's in his free-agent year. There are so many things to talk about with him, and I've seen maybe one thing written about him this year."

Jordan's last name is a household word in one of the two major professional team sports that he has not played -- which could have made for some confusing headlines with the Cardinals and the NBA Finals landing in Chicago this week -- but he has yet to stake a legitimate claim to fame in the major leagues.

Everyone knows why, including Jordan. McGwire is on pace to shatter the single-season home run record. Jordan is off to a terrific start, too, but people don't stand in the upper deck waiting for a skyrocketing batting average, so he'll have to remain in the background while the big guy takes most of the bows.

"I have no problem with that," said Jordan, sitting nearly alone just a few feet from the crowd of media hearing his praises from McGwire. "That's not something that's important to me. The numbers are going to speak for themselves. People are going to know Brian Jordan."

The numbers are impressive. Jordan also ranks among the league leaders in slugging percentage, triples and outfield assists. He is a near-perfect combination of power and speed who gave up a promising NFL career (more on that later) to concentrate on baseball, and -- by all accounts -- still has not tapped all of his God-given baseball talent.

"He's just learning how to play the game," McGwire said. "He's been playing on raw talent. It's scary to think what he can do when he really understands the game."

Something to prove

The book on Jordan, however, has a lot of short chapters. He has played more than 67 games in a season just twice since he broke into Jordan the majors in 1992. He has been on the disabled list in every season since then except 1993 and '95. He has had surgery on his shoulder and wrist and continues to deal with a chronic lower back problem.

His biggest problem: Like oft-injured Anaheim Angels outfielder Jim Edmonds, he has never met a wall he didn't think he could run through and never met a ball he didn't think he could catch.

That hard-nosed attitude worked great when he played for the NFL's Atlanta Falcons from 1989 to '91, but it can be self-defeating in a game that puts a premium on daily production.

"Talent-wise, he's a Gold Glove outfielder and a great player," said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, "but he plays so hard he abuses himself. To get to that echelon of the top guys in baseball, you have to play 140 games a year.

"He beats himself up. When he's out there, he puts on a show, but for him to take his place among the elites, he will have to generate enough games."

Therein lies a paradox that could prevent Jordan from reaching his true potential. That aggressiveness is part of the package that makes him such an exciting player, and it also is one of the intangibles that might keep him from being truly great.

"I've never really been healthy in this game to give myself the chance," Jordan said.

He is 31 and came into the season with just 493 games of major-league experience. By comparison, teammate Ray Lankford, who is about the same age, had appeared in 993. Superstar Ken Griffey, 2 1/2 years younger, has appeared in more than 1,200.

Jordan went to college. Played professional football. Got hurt a lot. He's still playing catch-up.

"There is so much to learn and I am trying to pick up on things," Jordan said. "The one thing I haven't learned is patience. I have almost 200 at-bats and I have only five walks. If I took some walks, I could be hitting .400 right now, but I swing at a lot of bad pitches."

It goes back to that innate aggressiveness. If he backs off, will he be the same player? Jordan said he knows the answer.

"I'm just going to keep being aggressive."

Time is money

This is one year that staying healthy and productive is critical to his emergence as a big-time, big-money player. Jordan is eligible for free agency at the end of the season and could command a major contract if he continues to put up the kind of numbers he has carried into June, but his checkered medical history may prevent him from getting full value, even if he goes on to win the batting championship.

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