From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

Trying to Fulfill a Dream

It was 7:45 on a Saturday morning at the Chicago White Sox’s spring-training facility in Sarasota, Florida. The sun was still on the rise.

Birds chirped in the distance. The grass glistened with morning dew. It was so early that only one player was working out. Spring training had just begun; only pitchers and catchers had reported. But the player in the batting cage was neither a pitcher nor a catcher. He was a minor-league outfielder, working on his swing.

He was Michael Jordan, trying to fulfill a dream.

Jordan had turned to baseball the previous year after retiring from the NBA for his first time. He needed a break from basketball. He also wanted to honor the memory of his late father, James, who had urged him to try baseball.

Yet his attempt was not warmly received.

In fact, Jordan was harshly criticized, most notably in a Sports Illustrated cover story that suggested he was embarrassing the game. Jordan, the story said, “has no more business patrolling right field in Comiskey Park than Minnie Minoso has bringing the ball upcourt for the Chicago Bulls.”

Well, Jordan never made it to Comiskey—he batted .202 with thirty stolen bases and fifty-one RBIs in his only season with the Double-A Birmingham Barons. As he prepared for his second season, the major-leaguers were on strike. By then, he seemed anything but an embarrassment to the game.

Jordan didn’t take a cavalier approach to the sport, coming and going as he pleased, demanding to play for the White Sox immediately. He paid his minor-league dues, spending hours on the bus, playing through the hot summer, learning how to fail.

That last concept was new to Jordan. At one point, his spirit was so broken, he considered quitting. In basketball, Jordan exerted his will on opponents, teammates, perhaps even the basket and ball. But baseball, he said, “was beating me mentally.

“It got to one point in the season where I didn’t feel like I was of use to anyone and that I was making a very big mistake,” he said. “I sat down and talked to the coaches. They gave me positive feedback. It kept me moving forward.

“That’s when I started to jell as a baseball player. I was willing to accept failure as something that happens to baseball players. I didn’t understand—you fail seven out of ten times and you’re a superstar. I had trouble accepting that. In my game, it wasn’t that way.”

His solution, however, was the same as it was in basketball— work, work and work some more. Never were his hunger, dedication and commitment more evident than in his second spring with the White Sox.

That one Saturday morning, Jordan arrived nearly two hours before the pitchers and catchers were scheduled to work out, and four days before the rest of the White Sox minor leaguers were due to report.

Walt Hriniak, the White Sox hitting coach at the time, stood behind a screen fifteen feet away, pitching balls to Jordan underhanded.

“Like that one?” Hriniak would ask Jordan.

“I was on top of it,” Jordan would reply.

This went on for the better part of an hour. When the session was over, Jordan emerged from the cage, his face dripping with sweat.

“Actually, I’m a little late,” he said. “Normally, I’m up early. But the family’s in town. I figure I’m the only guy here before the pitchers and catchers. I can get here at 8 A.M.”

No one knew it at the time, but a month later, Jordan would return to the NBA. The baseball strike had left him with little opportunity to improve, and he had no intention of becoming a replacement player. So he went back to basketball, back to complete his remarkable career with the Bulls.

Try as he might, Jordan never could generate major-league bat speed. He looked gangly in a baseball uniform, out of place. But he gave the sport everything he had, even reconditioning his body before his second season.

“In basketball,” he said, “I never had to train this hard.”

At one point, he made a Nike commercial with Spike Lee poking fun at his frustration with the game. Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr. and Bill Buckner all offered the same reaction to his futile efforts: “But he’s trying.”

He tried, all right. Tried to honor his father’s memory. Tried to master a sport that leaves even the greatest athletes humbled. Tried nobly to fulfill a dream.

Ken Rosenthal

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