Don't Be So Quick to Scoff at Michael Jordan's Baseball Career

THE editors of Sports Illustrated aren't going to like this suggestion, but here it is anyhow: Michael Jordan for 1994 SI Sportsman of the Year.

Since the magazine takes its end-of-year award very seriously, the staff may be inclined to dismiss what must seem a joke ``nomination.''

After all, in his new career as a baseball player, Jordan is not exactly looking like a future Hall of Famer. A call to the minor-league Birmingham (Ala.) Barons earlier this week revealed that the planet's greatest living basketball player (now retired) is, to date, only a fair-to-middlin' Double-A baseball player - AA being two steps removed from the majors.

He is batting .261, has committed three errors, has no home runs, and has struck out nearly every third time at bat. On the brighter side, he has driven in 16 runs and stolen nine bases. It's still not clear whether Mike has a future in his adopted pastime.

Sports Illustrated made Jordan its 1991 Sportsman of the Year for his basketball exploits, which at that point included taking the Chicago Bulls to the first of three consecutive National Basketball Association crowns and winning the fifth of seven consecutive league scoring titles.

When he arrived at the Chicago White Sox Florida training camp this spring, however, SI greeted his career switch with a huge raspberry: a cover story that carried the headline ``Bag It, Michael! Jordan and the White Sox Are Embarrassing Baseball.''

Au contraire, Jordan's fish-bowl baseball experiment has been good for the game. The notion that it detracts or distracts or that it compromises baseball's integrity doesn't wash.

This, after all, isn't the 1990s version of the famous Eddie Gaedel episode, in which the 1951 St. Louis Browns sent the 3 ft., 7 in. midget up to bat in an obvious publicity stunt. Nor does it strike one as a commercial grab, as seems the case with the brewery-sponsored Colorado Silver Bullets women's baseball team that is playing men's teams this season.

Pursuing a baseball career was Jordan's idea. Management may have approved it, but the initiative was Jordan's, not that of some hucksterish owner pulling out the stops to sell tickets. (Though increased attendance at Baron games is an obvious byproduct.)

Even SI acknowledges that Jordan's attempt to switch sports is sincere. He went to the White Sox, not vice versa. According to all reports, he has given the attempt his full effort, arriving at 6:30 a.m. to work on his hitting during spring training.

A solid work ethic alone, however, does not make a Sportsman of the Year. Jordan deserves the honor because of the service he has done baseball and sports with his valiant effort.

At a time when many people seem put off by the high salaries and prima-donna attitudes in baseball, Jordan's presence has served to heighten every fan's appreciation of professional ballplayers and what they have achieved. His struggles to learn and refine the necessary skills create a benchmark by which to measure how far athletes must advance to reach ``The Show,'' baseball parlance for the major leagues.

Jordan is regarded by many as the world's greatest athlete, so his diamond trials and tribulations offer sports fans an ongoing ``what if'' story. He is Walter Mitty with a superstar portfolio, his every baseball shortcoming a visual reminder of all the lessons that must be learned to play the game well.

Jordan also has set a fine example in playing a new sport for the pure joy and challenge of it - and not worrying about a bruised ego. He had to leave perhaps his greatest natural talent - his jumping ability - at baseball's door. Seldom does an outfielder make a leaping catch at the wall. Then, too, Jordan's height - 6 ft., 6 in. - may be a liability. It enlarges his strike zone, giving the pitcher more latitude to ``work'' the plate.

HERE baseball may owe Jordan its biggest debt of gratitude is in showing young people, especially African-Americans, that baseball has something to offer - either as a career or simply in terms of playing pleasures.

Major League Baseball's brass has begun to address the need to bring more minorities and women into its operations. At the same time, it has initiated inner-city youth leagues to reconnect children of color, who have fallen away from baseball, to the national pastime.

Could baseball ask for a more compelling point man?

Jordan may not stick with his new career, but by reaching this juncture he's shown his commitment is deeper than many imagined. Best of all, he hasn't asked for a lot of special treatment.

Knowing that it wouldn't do for him to travel first-class while his mates accepted second-rate transport, Michael has leased a luxury bus for his team, complete with reclining seats, televisions, and VCR. Even if Michael doesn't stick with the Barons, a club secretary says, ``the bus stays.''

Clearly, Jordan has learned the sacrifice play.

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