MICHAEL JORDAN PUT ON A GOOD show of blowing out the candles at an early 31st-birthday party in Chicago last week, but his birthday wish had already come true. Just hours earlier, Jordan, who retired from pro basketball last fall, had signed a minor-league contract with the Chicago White Sox. "Playing baseball is a dream I've had ever since I was a kid," Jordan, who hasn't played the game since high school, said during the Feb. 7 gathering of 600 friends and fans at the downtown Chicago restaurant that bears his name. "That's where I started, and that's how I envision myself finishing."

In contrast to legions of skeptical sportswriters and baseball people, most at the party—a benefit for the Night Ministry, a Chicago group that helps homeless teenagers—seemed to think he'd make it. "Mike is skinny. If you're skinny, you can be a good baseball player," joked Darryl Bell, a former costar of A Different World.

Jordan, whose actual birthday is Feb. 17, is set to attend spring training later this month in Sarasota, Fla., then join the White Sox's AAA team, the Nashville Sounds. Inspiration for his decision, he says, came from his father, James "Pops" Jordan, who was found murdered seven months ago in North Carolina. "He and I talked about playing professional baseball, and I'm going to do that no matter what people say about me," said Jordan with a tear rolling down his cheek. "He's watching me. I know he is. And I know he's really proud of what I'm trying to achieve."