Early April, early innings. Michael Jordan is called out on a close pitch, and he doesn't like it.
He stomps around the batter's box, goes face-to-face with umpire Andy Fletcher, and angrily flings his bat toward the dugout.
Mid-May, middle innings. Jordan is called out--again by Fletcher--for sliding out of the basepath trying to break up a double play. The interference ruling with the bases loaded is a big one, and Birmingham Barons manager Terry Francona goes crazy and gets ejected.
Jordan, however, stays cool. Instead, at the end of the inning, as he runs past the umpire on his way to right field, he stops and calmly says, "Andy, I'm 6-foot-6. I think I can reach the bag from there."
Fletcher patiently points out he doesn't think so, and that's it. No waving arms, no going wild.
"I think the problem early in the season was that Michael didn't know how to argue with an umpire," said Brian King, Fletcher's partner on the two-man Southern League crew. "He's gotten much better at it."
There have been a lot of things for Jordan to learn this year in his quest to become a baseball player, and how to jaw with the ump is one of them. It's not like the NBA, where he got superstar treatment from the officials, it was explained early.
"I told him you can't try to show me up or make a scene every time," Fletcher said. "Then I said something to Terry."
"Andy said there was a problem and that I needed to fix it," Francona said. "I appreciated that. That was the right way to do it, I think, to let the manager deal with a problem with one of his players. I thought Andy and Brian showed a good understanding of the situation."
Next, Francona took aside Jordan.
"I don't really remember what I said. It wasn't much," Francona said. "I think we just talked about umpires and the job they do and dealing with them."
King said he's seen the improvement.
"He uses our names now when he argues. He didn't do that before," he said. "There's nothing wrong with him questioning a call. There's just a right way and a wrong way to do it."
To Jordan, it's how the umpire handles himself that matters.
"I always try to get along with officials," he said. "Sometimes, they won't let you. They build a wall when they won't admit they're wrong. I admit I am wrong, when I am wrong."
"One of the great things about Jake O'Donnell was he could say, 'I blew it.' I can respect a man for that," he said.
O'Donnell, a prominent NBA referee, was a former baseball umpire. In the Southern League, in fact, on a crew with Bill Kunkel.
Jordan, however, was the one admitting a mistake recently. It happened after that play in which he was called out for sliding wide of the baseline.
"I saw the film the next day, and I was out," Jordan said. "That night, I went up and apologized to Fletcher and told him I was wrong."
Marv Wright and Randy Wagner, another Southern League crew, have seen the difference in Jordan's demeanor.
"I called him out on a steal play early this year in Carolina, and he jumped up and was in my face," Wagner said. "I called him out on strikes twice recently and I don't think he liked the calls, but he didn't say anything and went back to the dugout."
Wright said that even if Jordan doesn't hoot on a call, the umpires are sure to hear it from the crowd.
"If he's batting and it's a close pitch and you call it a ball, people think you're just giving it to him because he's Michael Jordan," he said. "But if you call it a strike, they think you're sticking it to him because of who he is."
Wright said there's one thing Jordan quickly picked up.
"Usually, when a player is in his first year, he always calls us 'blue.' As in, 'Hey blue, that pitch was low.'
"But not once has Michael called us 'blue.' He's learning our names."