Of all the advertising signs that cover the outfield fence at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Fla., the spring home of the Chicago White Sox, one stands out: UNIQUE AIR. This come-on for an air-conditioner manufacturer also serves as the perfect emblem for Michael Jordan's improbable (some say, impossible) attempt to play major league baseball for Chicago. In fact, this is a story about signs—some of them good, more of them bad.
Good sign: Jordan, the universally acclaimed greatest athlete in the world, is dead serious in his bid to make the White Sox as an outfielder, even though he hasn't played baseball in almost 15 years. He believes he will do it.
Bad sign: Hardly anyone else believes it. "Baseball has as good a chance of having a salary cap as Michael Jordan has of wearing a White Sox cap; neither is going to happen," says Pittsburgh Pirate center-fielder Andy Van Slyke. "Baseball looks like the simplest sport to play, but it's the hardest. Golf is easier to pick up than baseball. An average guy who works at IBM can become a 10 handicap, but an average guy at IBM can't play baseball. In baseball, Michael is an average guy."
Philadelphia Phillie pitcher Larry Andersen says, "I'm pulling for him, but I can't see it. If I hang a slider, and it comes up there as big as a basketball, he'll hit me good. But if I'm throwing well, he'll have a rough time. It'll be Air Larry against Air Jordan."
One member of the White Sox, who understandably prefers to remain anonymous, says, "Everyone is pulling for him. but he has no chance. He'll eliminate himself in three weeks."
Good sign: In his first six days of batting practice in Sarasota, Jordan made solid contact. He improved every day.
Bad sign: He was facing Chicago coaches, who were throwing around 65 mph, and he wasn't driving the ball with authority. This week he will finally step in against major league pitchers and their 90-mph fastballs. "The difference between 65 and 90," says Van Slyke, who has watched TV highlights of Jordan at spring training, "is like the difference between Michael jumping from the foul line and Michael jumping from an airplane."
Jordan's swing is too long (and it has a loop in it), his bat is too slow, and he isn't using his legs enough to generate more power. "When he faces a kid throwing 92 mph and doesn't know where the ball's going," says Van Slyke, "we're going to see some swings never seen before in spring training."
Another NBA player who took a shot at baseball was Danny Ainge, who hit .220 with 128 strikeouts in 665 at bats for the Toronto Blue Jays in 1979, '80 and '81. Former Baltimore Oriole pitcher Tippy Martinez was once asked what he threw to get Ainge out. "Strikes," he said.
Good sign: Bo Jackson defied the naysayers who said he wouldn't make it to the majors and became a proven power hitter.