It is absolutely true, I swear it, that as Michael Jordan stepped to the plate in the sixth inning of the Windy City Classic last Thursday, the sun reached my seat down the first-base line at Wrigley Field. It was sunny but cold in the shade of the grandstand, with the wind humming in over the right field bleachers. We were all shivering against the chill, and the friend next to me was keeping score while wearing those fingerless gloves I thought were unique to Bob Cratchit. The bright sunlight--and the warm spirits that seemed to accompany it--moved slowly down the grandstand and up the aisles, row by row, until it closed in first on the friend three seats to my right, then on the friend two seats over, then on the friend beside me, who flexed his fingers with satisfaction between notations on his scorecard, and then, finally, on me, just as Jordan stepped in.
The game had started at three, so there was already a golden slant to the daylight, and the unusual breeze, in from right, caused the exhaust from a concession stand downstairs to pile up in the grandstand. These phenomena conspired when Jordan came to the plate to lend a haze of instant nostalgia to the scene. He was zero for two on the day, with an awful outfield muff already logged against him, but the atmosphere seemed thick with foreboding. The Cubs were leading Jordan's White Sox 4-0, on four unearned runs scored in the third inning, but there was a runner on third, Darrin Jackson, and only one out. Jordan took a ball, then a strike, then worked a full count by fouling off some good pitches from Dave Otto, a big, left-handed reliever in town for the afternoon to pitch for the Cubs, just as Jordan was in town for the day to play for the Sox, after being assigned to the minors late in spring training.
Then, just as I was beginning to notice the warmth of the sun, Jordan slapped the full-count pitch down the left field line, off the glove of third baseman Craig Worthington, and hustled down to first as Jackson hurried home and Worthington tracked the ball down in foul territory. Jordan had his first hit as a big leaguer--even if it was earned in an exhibition game--and his first run batted in. The moment--to me, but I don't imagine to me alone--was every bit as rich as the scene in The Natural where Glenn Close stands up with the light pouring in behind her through the grandstand to inspire Robert Redford's Roy Hobbs.
Movies aside, however, mythological events don't occur in sports; rather, we look for them to occur and are sometimes surprised--wow, who could have imagined that?--by our prescience. Jordan, of course, is our most valued athlete, and since he retired from basketball and took up baseball--a turn of events none of us could have imagined--it's natural for us to be on the alert for the myth in the making. The very idea of the world's greatest athlete leaving his chosen profession and trying his hand as a beginner in another sport seems mythological, a Herculean task much larger than real life ought to be capable of, so we probe every moment for meaning, to divine the essence of the event.
Even with the late start, Wrigley Field was slow to fill. More than half the seats appeared vacant when the game began. Yet when Jordan stepped into the on-deck circle in the top of the first--batting sixth, with two men on base--an eerie sense of trepidation went through the ballpark. There was a sound of mixed cheers and jeers, an intake of breath en masse, as if we were finally seeing, in the flesh, what we had refused to believe, no matter how many times we had read it in the paper or seen it on television. There was Michael Jordan--no mistaking that build or that familiar, purposeful, almost slouching stride--in a baseball uniform! The sound that went through the park was reminiscent of the sound that can be heard on bootleg recordings of Bob Dylan's first appearance with a band, at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Dylan goes electric, and Michael goes baseball--defining moments for generations 30 years apart.
Jordan didn't get to bat that inning; fifth hitter Robin Ventura made the last out. But as he trotted out to right field, the fans in the bleachers greeted him with their trademark salaams. Then, with every set of eyes trained on him, Jordan dropped the first warm-up toss from a player in the White Sox bull pen, and the sound that went through the park was laughter. Sportswriters watching from the safety of the press box described a loving, worshipful crowd in their reports the next day, but the actual, initial Chicago response to Jordan the baseball player was a good deal more ambivalent. All through the bottom of the first, the right field bleachers produced a sort of roiling rumble, a mixture of catcalls and inspirational chants. One could never make out quite what was being said, but it was clear that these were rabid opposing factions canceling each other out. He seemed so out of place: the man who had been the center of attention in every second he spent on the basketball court now exiled to the periphery of a baseball game; the man who had dictated the outcome of basketball championships now stuck in right field like a bad Little Leaguer, waiting for the game to find him.
Yet when Jordan came to the plate to lead off the second inning the response was indeed overwhelming, a standing ovation. Here he was, back where he belonged, at the center of a sporting contest. When the Cubs' starter, Lance Dickson, came inside with a waist-high fastball on the first pitch, the fans immediately reacted with boos. Jordan took two more balls, working the count to 3-0, then jumped at a bad pitch and popped it to the first baseman. Unfortunately, major-league pop-ups do not a major leaguer make.
Pro or con, the fans knew who they had come to see, to the point where they applauded a crisp Jordan groundout his next time up. Much worse than that, they booed the White Sox' second baseman, Joey Cora, for pursuing a pop fly into short right field, taking a play away from Jordan. The con forces, however, got their wish in the brutal bottom of the third, when Jordan got his first fielding chance. He came in on a hit into right and just plain ran over it--the oldest mistake in the game, not getting down for a grounder--and the result was more jeers and laughter. Jordan's error was the third and, in fact, the least-damaging error in an awful four-run inning for the Cubs, but that offered no solace. When Jordan made his first putout, on a fly ball in the fifth, there was a chiding facetious note to the fans' standing ovation and their salaams.
That's what made Jordan's simple base hit in the top of the sixth so dramatic; he had been on the verge of becoming a laughingstock, this greatest of all athletes, only moments before. Yet there he was on first base, having driven in a run, and when his fellow apprentice major leaguer, catcher Julio Vinas, followed with a pinch-hit homer, Jordan scored a run and the Sox closed to 4-3.
The Sox loaded the bases but failed to score again in the sixth, so when Jordan caught another fly to end the Cubs' sixth he was due to bat in the seventh. The leadoff hitter fanned, but then Shawn Buchanan singled. That brought up Jordan, and this time--off Cubs pitcher Chuck Crim--he lashed a ball down the left-field line for a double, chasing home the tying run, and he stood out on second base as the possible hero of the game, Wrigley Field echoing with cheers of disbelief that, at the same time, reflected the attitude that we knew it all along: Of course he can play baseball. He can do anything.
This, however, was a day not of complete triumph but--just as with the early chants from the bleachers--of a hard-won no-decision. Jordan, the potential lead run, tagged up on Vinas's following drive off the left field wall. Where any other major leaguer would have gone halfway to third and trotted home when the ball dropped, Jordan only got to third on the double. When the next batter grounded sharply to third Jordan was caught in a rundown. The Sox failed to score, and neither team scored again as the game was declared a tie after ten innings. Faced with a series of breaking pitches from the vindictive Crim, Jordan struck out in his last at-bat.
And so it is that what the city's baseball aficionados feared has taken place: The Cubs and the Sox have been upstaged by a basketball player. Not that they didn't deserve it; at the very least the Windy City Classic has been waiting to be upstaged for a long time, and the Cubs and Sox have done little to merit attention since last season.
The Cubs, in fact, face another in a series of seasons with higher ticket prices and lowered expectations. Facing an ownership-imposed salary cap, general manager Larry Himes waved good-bye to pitchers Greg Hibbard and Mike Harkey and made no free-agent signings. The team will once again rely on Wrigley Field, Harry Caray, and pretty-boy ball players like Ryne Sandberg and Mark Grace for its appeal. Karl "Tuffy" Rhodes takes over in center, but without answering the team's long-term need for a decent leadoff hitter. The pitching staff remains at least one ace short of a load, even after the acquisition of Anthony Young (a low-ball pitcher with hard stuff who should excel in Wrigley).
As for the Sox, they rely on simple development to lift them from last year's American League West Division champions to this year's world champions. Their young pitchers hold the key to how far they'll go. But it's an unwritten law in baseball that young pitchers will break a general manager's heart, and the short-lived last Sox dynasty--beginning and ending in 1983--was based on a foundation of young pitchers (Richard Dotson, Floyd Bannister, Britt Burns, and the relatively experienced ace LaMarr Hoyt) who were only slightly older than the present group (Alex Fernandez, Wilson Alvarez, Jason Bere, and the more experienced Jack McDowell). The hitting is not much different from a year ago, except that Jackson replaces the departed Ellis Burks, and Tim Raines is expected to continue his revival of a year ago.
So let's get right down to making predictions in baseball's new three-division format. The Cubs will finish in the middle of the surprisingly competitive National League Central, behind the Houston Astros and Saint Louis Cardinals and ahead of the Cincinnati Reds (this year's New York Mets) and Pittsburgh Pirates. The Atlanta Braves will win the NL East, and the San Francisco Giants by default in the West, with the Cardinals the wild card. Then it's the Braves over the Astros for the pennant.
The Sox will win the AL Central by a slight margin over the Cleveland Indians. The Baltimore Orioles will win the East, with the Texas Rangers in the West. The Toronto Blue Jays will be the wild-card team, but it'll be the Sox over the Orioles for the pennant, and the Braves over the Sox for the championship.
No, Michael Jordan won't play in the World Series. I suspect we might already have seen his greatest game as a baseball player. But our skepticism is part of what made that day the stuff of mythology, a collective dream that had no business being real.