SARASOTA, Fla. -- What price would you give for the thoughts of the right fielder as he stood out there on Field 4, a k a Nellie Fox Field?
He says he was thinking only technical baseball thoughts, but is that really possible? The right fielder was playing in his first minor league baseball exhibition game, representing the Prince William White Sox against the Frederick Orioles. No more than 200 yards to his left, he could hear the sounds at Ed Smith Stadium, where the defending American League West champion Chicago White Sox were playing the Boston Red Sox before a sold-out gathering, while he, the great Michael Jordan, was playing baseball on a field whose behind-the-plate bleachers might -- might -- have seated 200.
Oh, the indignity! Right?
“Well, it is a little different atmosphere,” conceded Jordan. “But it was peaceful out there. I deserved some peace after all I’ve gone through the past three weeks.”
And for the record, here is what Michael Jordan says he was thinking:
“I was just thinking about what to do if the ball was hit to me. That’s what I was focusing on. I was watching how the other guys were playing the hitters. I was trying to concentrate because there’s more activity behind me on this field. Someone is behind you running laps. Guys are walking by and saying, ‘Get a hit yet?’ “
That’s what he says, anyway. If he was actually thinking about missing the 1994 NBA playoffs or brooding about the Boston College victory over his beloved Tar Heels or the fact that he hasn’t been able to get out on the golf course lately, he’ll certainly never admit it. But c’mon, Michael. We know your mind has to drift every once in a while, especially when you consider that you are, after all, Michael Jeffrey Jordan, and you now are playing with and against kids 8 to 13 years younger. What lies ahead for you are more exhibition games on dusty fields, followed by the infamous bus rides leading to unimaginable scrutiny as you attempt to master a game whose twin essences are subtlety and muscle memory.
If this baseball experiment bothers some baseball purists (Sports Illustrated, get a grip!), and if there are millions of well-intentioned people who fear that Michael Jordan is somehow compromising his dignity by trying a new game on the professional level, then all I can say is that these people just don’t understand Michael Jordan. Either you believe that he truly loves baseball and is totally sincere, or you don’t.
“I know what I’m doing here,” he said. “I never felt I was embarrassing myself. I knew when I jumped into this a lot of people didn’t approve. I asked many people for their observations and opinions and they weren’t all positive. I know there were a lot of critics, and I can’t say they were all wrong.
“But I got into this because I love baseball and I wanted to understand it from the inside, and I’m doing that. If anything, my appreciation of baseball is much deeper.”
He’s out of the big-league loop for the present time. The White Sox took the long-awaited step of placing Jordan in the “designated for reassignment” category. For the next week he will play in exhibition games for whatever minor league outfit the organization sees fit. In a week or so, he will find out his next stop. He hopes it will be Double A Birmingham. He has said he won’t tolerate anything less. And now?
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he declared.
Was the player on display yesterday a Double A ballplayer? Jordan went 1 for 4 with a walk. He dropped a fly ball by nonchalanting a little flare into short right. He saw a bullet go over his head for a double. He caught a routine fly. He broke up a double play with a semi-rolling-block maneuver he referred to as his “avoid-the-slide” ploy.
“If he’s willing to ride the buses, I think he can become a player,” said Frederick lefthander Scott Emerson, who gave up a Jordan RBI single through the first base hole in the first inning. “I don’t think he was very confident up there.”
Emerson said he had kidded with his friends for the last two months. “If Michael Jordan comes up against me, I’ll drill him in the ribs,” he had promised. When the big moment came, well, are you crazy?
“I couldn’t do that,” he explained. What Emerson, a change-speeds lefty out of the Tommy John school, did, however, was show Michael Jordan his best fastball.
“The first time up I figured I had to challenge him, even though I’m not a fastball pitcher,” Emerson explained. “I jammed him, but he’s strong, and he hit it. The next time I threw him my pitches -- changeups -- and I got him.”
The next Oriole pitcher, 18-year-old Jason Hackett, was in high school on Maryland’s Eastern Shore a year ago. Now he was facing Michael Jordan.
“I tried not to think of him being Michael Jordan,” Hackett said. “I was trying to throw strikes and make a good impression.”
Hackett was representative of the type of pitcher Jordan will be facing from now on. He’s been looking at big leaguers, or, at least, polished Triple A pitchers with an idea. Hackett is a kid with a great arm (228 K’s in 108 high school innings as a junior and senior) who has no idea where the ball is going. He had Jordan doing a little hip-hop in the batter’s box.
And while he wasn’t trying to drill Michael either, someone out there might be figuring that is a way to make a name. “Everybody’s waiting to see who’ll be the first guy to do it,” chuckles Jordan.
If it happens, Michael’s attitude is “so what?” He figures it’s all part of baseball, and that’s all he’s asking -- to be part of baseball. Right now that means standing on Nellie Fox Field while Frank Thomas plays in Ed Smith Stadium. It means doing some fancy stepping against the Jason Hacketts of the world. It means paying serious dues in a grinding sport. It means having to ask some 20-year-old teammate for advice.
Some people say that’s degrading if you’re Michael Jordan. He says, hey, it’s my life, and I’m happy. Michael figures you really ought to have something a little more important to worry about.