As dusk descends on the desert, a dark-green Lexus SC400 sits in front of the dugout on the first base side of an empty Scottsdale Stadium. The chariot has been delivered to this appointed spot at the appointed hour by one of the driver's dutiful attendants. Only yards away, down a small flight of dugout stairs and beyond a green door, the most celebrated minor league singles hitter in history is saying goodbye to his teammates of two months, though the club, the Scottsdale Scorpions of the Arizona Fall League, has a final game remaining the next day.
"I didn't even know he was leaving," says Larry Angel, one of two bodyguards assigned to protect His Royal Airness, Michael Jordan, from the perils of the AFL, including but not limited to elementary schoolkids packing Instamatic cameras, pimply-faced teenagers armed with felt-tip pens and silver-haired retirees with funny hats. "He just said his farewells, and—zoom!—he was gone."
The usual thicket of memorabilia collectors, loyal fans and starstruck children are standing sentry outside the clubhouse door that leads to the stadium parking lot, the portal used by the more mortal of Scorpions, but these people will not see so much as Jordan's shadow.
Inside the ballpark, Jordan climbs into the Lexus—provided to him at no cost by the good folks at Scottsdale Lexus, who asked only that he autograph a letter verifying that he had driven one of their luxurious automobiles—hits the accelerator and steers the sports coupe along the gravel track that rings the field. He glides behind home plate, past the third base dugout, in front of the wall in leftfield and slips through an open gate in center. He climbs an exit ramp as the Arizona sky above him begins its slow dissolve into purple and pink.
Going, going, gone. It is one of the rarest sights in baseball: Michael Jordan leaving the yard.
His drive on Wednesday of last week came one year to the week after Jordan, less than two months past his shocking retirement from basketball, walked into Comiskey Park and told Chicago White Sox general manager Ron Schueler, "I'd like to take some swings in the batting cage." Schueler had been expecting him. The team's owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, who also owns Jordan's former hoops team, the Chicago Bulls, had told him Jordan might be dropping by. "Make the place available to him," Reinsdorf instructed, "but don't make him any promises."
"At that point I didn't take it real seriously," Schueler says. "But after two weeks of batting practice, I could tell he was taking it seriously. It's been quite a year."
It ended with Jordan batting a soft .252 in the AFL. Except in the Lexus, he failed to clear the wall, getting five extra-base hits and eight RBIs while striking out 34 times in 123 at bats. That followed his .202 showing for the Double A Birmingham Barons last summer, when he hit three dingers, drove in 51 runs and whiffed at a similar rate (114 times in 436 at bats).
His AFL season underscored the Jordan conundrum: As a baseball player he is still nothing to look at, which matters not a whit to the record numbers of people who come to look at him. Scottsdale's games accounted for about 87% of the league's total attendance. The AFL, consisting of six teams based in the Phoenix area, even took the show on the road, moving the Nov. 28 Scorpion-Tempe Rafters game to Tucson. That game drew an AFL-record 7,836 fans.
Jordan is a bad enough player that Schueler says he still is "a million-to-one shot" to be a regular in the majors. Jordan himself admitted to Bob Greene of the Chicago Tribune that he ranks "dead last" among the 28 Scorpions. "In no way am I even near the middle of the pack," Jordan said. "I'm the worst player. But I'm not through yet."