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JORDAN HITS SLUMP, BATS BELOW .200

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Michael Jordan, meet Mario Mendoza.

More specifically, Jordan is becoming familiar with the dreaded Mendoza Line - coined after the infielder who played in the majors for nine seasons and batted below .200 in five of them.While the NBA Finals that were his personal playground the last three years are set to begin Wednesday, Jordan is having Mendoza-like woes in the batter's box. His average has plummeted to .199 in the Double-A Southern League - hardly indicative of an up-and-coming major leaguer.

Jordan, who had a 13-game hitting streak early in the season but is hitting just .115 in his last 22 contests, remains confident his improbable odyssey is right on schedule, though.

"I've learned that this game comes in stages," said the Birmingham Barons right fielder, who actually improved his average with a 1-for-3 performance Saturday night against the Carolina Mudcats. "You learn one thing, then it's time to learn something else.

"When I started off, I was hitting all fastballs because people said my bat speed was slow. When I showed I could hit the fastball, they started giving me nothing but sliders and off-speed pitches."

Mike Barnett, the Barons' hitting coach, concurs.

"His average has gone down, but he's actually a better hitter now than he was during his 13-game hitting streak," Barnett said.

"In spring training, the big question everyone had was his bat speed. He had to prove he could hit the fastball. Once he did that, they tried to throw him a lot of breaking balls. He wasn't staying back, he wasn't being very selective with the breaking ball."

Jordan, however, is beginning to turn the corner against the steady barrage of curves, sliders and change-ups, according to Barnett. He pointed to Jordan's performance Saturday night, when he slammed a breaking pitch into the left-center gap for a double and also grounded out hard to second.

"To me, he's starting to understand what he needs to do as a hitter," Barnett said. "You've got to throw out his average. Of course, I would like to see it higher. But I can see how much he's improved since the beginning of the season."

Jordan's teammates say he's just one of the guys, albeit one who is renting an exclusive house on a golf course while most of them live in cramped apartments.

"The crowds are still there, especially on the road, but everything has settled down as far as the circus atmosphere which was there at first," said outfielder Randy Hood. "It's more focused now."

Jordan, who was batting above .300 during his hitting streak, has not been a total flop. He's fourth in the Southern League with 15 stolen bases, ranks third on the Barons with 21 RBIs and has helped Birmingham lead the circuit in attendance at 6,400 per game despite a 26-30 record.

But Jordan is striking out far too often (56 times in 191 at-bats) and has shown precious little power for a 6-foot-6, 205-pound player (his 38 hits include eights doubles and 30 singles for a measly slugging average of .240).