Scouting Michael Jordan: Can His Airness Make It In Baseball?
This story was initially published in Baseball America's March 1994 issue.
CHICAGO -- As Michael Jordan took batting practice with an eye toward making the White Sox' 25-man roster, the burning question around Comiskey Park and the rest of Chicago became: Would Jordan's pursuit of a childhood dream -- and his father's wish -- become the White Sox' spring-training nightmare?
The next question was: Does Jordan, at age 30 and without any baseball experience in more than a decade, have a chance to play even minor league baseball?
The White Sox will find out the answers when the man who might be the National Basketball Association's Best Player ever arrives in Sarasota, Fla., for spring training.
At first, general manager Ron Schueler placed the odds against Jordan making the team at a million to one, and laughed at tongue-in-cheek suggestions that Jordan was the team's answer to its right-field void. In January, after Darrin Jackson was signed to replace Ellis Burks in right, Jordan's odds became a longshot.
"As of right now, he knows and everyone in here knows that at a major league level, he would not succeed," White Sox outfielder Michael Huff said in mid-January. "But to see how far he's come in a month and a half, everybody believes he could."
At first, Jordan ruled out playing in the minor leagues. He changed his tune in January, after criticism of his previous stance was a slap in the face to potential teammates who had paid their dues.
Jordan was a pitcher when he played high school baseball in Wilmington. N.C. He claims to have received scholarship offers to play both basketball and baseball; college baseball coaches dispute that fact. He stuck to hoops at the University of North Carolina.
How does he rate as a prospect in terms of tools? Here's the Michael Jordan Scouting Report:
Jordan led his Laney High junior-varsity team by hitting .433, and later played varsity ball before becoming ineligible for his senior season after playing in the McDonald's basketball all-star game.
"Hitting is timing and rhythm, and what athlete has better timing and rhythm than Michael Jordan?" asks White Sox broadcaster Ken Harrelson, an all-state basketball player in high school before pursuing his own baseball career.
"If Michael's goal is trying to play in the big leagues this year, then he's fighting a real uphill battle. For this year, it'd be very remote. But I would never count Michael Jordan out of any scenario. We're dealing with the greatest athlete we've ever seen."
Says Huff: "He's a tremendous athlete. He's got a very smooth swing, great feet and hands. But it's totally different."
"I think he could hit a fastball, but I don't think he could hit a curveball," says Cubs coach Billy Williams, a Hall of Famer. "When you're in the big leagues, there are a lot of pitchers you've seen in the minors. That's how you know them. I was in Class D when I learned how to hit Sandy Koufax.
"I've seen good athletes who don't know how to hit a baseball. He's going to get knocked down by pitchers, and he's going to have to stand in there."
Jordan's lack of power was evident during the All-Star Game celebrity home run contest last year. Jordan -- and for that matter, fellow Dream Teamer Patrick Ewing -- couldn't hit batting practice pitchers over the fence. Actor Tom Selleck was the best celebrity slugger.
"I do not recall him hitting a home run," says Rick Watkins, Jordan's junior-varsity coach, "but at that level, you have to remember that on a lot of fields there is no outfield fence."
Jordan didn't commit an error as a junior-varsity player, and has fared decently in the outfield during celebrity baseball games. Still, there are doubters on this front, too.
They question whether Jordan could quickly absorb scouting reports on American League hitters and configurations of outfield walls.
"He would hurt any big league team he was on," Cubs outfield coach Jimmy Piersall says. "Naturally ability only goes so far."
"He doesn't have the instincts yet to be a defensive replacement or a pinch-hitter," Huff says.
Because Jordan was a pitcher in high school, it's a fair assumption that his arm will be an asset. It was his idea to play right field, where a strong arm is critical.
So far, his arm has impressed Schueler, a former major league pitcher.
"I wish my arm was as loose as his," Schueler says.
Watkins saw potential in Jordan as a pitcher. Jordan went 5-2, 1.60, striking out 29 in 35 innings. Watkins rated Jordan's arm above average for a right fielder.
Perhaps this is one area Jordan can transport from basketball to baseball.
In his secret workout sessions at Comiskey Park and the Illinois Institute Of Technology, Jordan reportedly beat Joey Cora, one of the fastest White Sox, by seven steps in the 60-yard dash. Jordan also was looking back at the second baseman after completing the 100-yard dash.
Despite his speed, Jordan stole just two bases in his junior-varsity season. Then again, he hit third in the lineup.
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Jordan obviously is a great competitor, but there are questions about his ability to handle failure, which for most Major League hitters comes more than 70 percent of the time.
"Great players go through 0-for-15 slumps, 2-for-32 slumps," says Danny Ainge, whose weak bat prompted him to forsake baseball for a full-time NBA career. "I don't think Michael's used to that."
But if he didn't heed advice from such authorities, Jordan listened to media critics. And their doubts have fueled his desire.
"What you guys say is impossible is not impossible," Jordan says. "Naturally, I don't know what it takes because I've never been there. I'm trying to simulate situations from basketball. I feel my hand-eye coordinator is pretty good. I'm going from a bigger ball to a smaller ball, and I'm trying to prepare my body for that transition.
"A lot of people may think this is off the wall. Maybe it is. But I'm following a dream I've had from the time I was a kid."
It was a dream shared by his late father James, who was murdered last summer. in October, Jordan stunned the sports world by announcing his retirement from basketball.
"My father always thought I'd play professional baseball," Jordan says. "My dream was to play professional baseball. Something got in the way. It's called professional basketball."
"Being that I'm still quite young, I can still try to succeed in that dream, if possible. I never go into a situation with a negative throught. I have a chance if I don't listen to you guys."
On that front, leave the last word to Watkins:
"Having coached him as a 15-year-old, it was evident he came from a very supportive family. One thing is he's competitive. He's very competitive, regardless of what he's involved in. He works real hard in practice to sharping his skills, and he'll do that in baseball."