It's His Call to Make
The reigning National Football Conference Defensive Player of the Week stood outside the Atlanta Braves clubhouse late last Thursday night, looking longingly at the players filing onto the three buses that would take them on a critical road trip in their pursuit of the National League West pennant. The star football player wasn't going with them, but from what he said, you had to wonder: How long before Deion Sanders gets on the Braves bus for good? "I love the damn game," Sanders said. He meant baseball.
Sanders, the full-time Atlanta Falcon cornerback and part-time Braves outfielder, says there's "definitely a chance" he'll play the entire baseball season next year, delaying his annual return to the NFL until almost the midpoint of the pro football schedule—a practice followed in recent seasons by a more heralded baseball-football phenomenon, Bo Jackson.
"The only way I have a chance to be successful in baseball is to give it a shot for a full season, and I have to do it soon," Sanders says. "How can you write me off? When I go down to the minor leagues and play every day, I'm successful. But in the big leagues, I get 100, 120 at bats a year. One of my best friends in baseball is Barry Bonds. If Barry's season ended after 100 at bats this year, what would he have hit? About .150 [actually .170]. I'm not saying I'm Barry Bonds. I'm just saying I'm not giving myself a chance to be successful. I know I can play the damn game."
What a week-and-change it was for Sanders. On Sunday, Sept. 22, he held Los Angeles Raider wideout Willie Gault without a catch, sacked quarterback Jay Schroeder and forced a fumble on the play, and intercepted a pass in a 21-17 Falcon victory. On Monday he got a call from Braves general manager John Schuerholz and agreed to make himself available to the Braves—for whom he had played until July 31—after football practices and on Falcon off days. On Tuesday, a football off day, he reported for a Braves-Reds game at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, but it was rained out. On Wednesday he practiced (at cornerback, wide receiver and as a punt returner) with the Falcons, then he was taken by helicopter and car to the stadium for a Braves doubleheader, pinch-ran in each game and stole one base. On Thursday he did double duty again but wasn't used in the baseball game. Then the Braves left town. He devoted last Friday and Saturday to the Falcons, and then he had two tackles, four kickoff returns for a 20.8-yard average and three punt returns for an 12.3 average in a 27-6 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. By coincidence, this final week of the baseball regular season also is the Falcons' bye week on the NFL schedule, so Sanders flew to Cincinnati on Monday for the start of the Braves' three-game series with the Reds.
But as the Braves hit the road last Thursday night, Sanders definitely was in a baseball frame of mind. He talked about his bitterness over the Falcons' having fined him $68,000 when his abbreviated baseball seasons caused him to miss the opening weeks of the last two football training camps. And he talked about "the best sign I've ever seen in my life," at the stadium that night—THIS IS YOUR BRAIN (next to a baseball), THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON DRUGS (next to a football).
On Second Thought
Before Sanders rejoined the Braves, Schuerholz was skeptical that Sanders could be successful part time in the final two weeks of the pennant drive. "At this level our game is too hard," says Schuerholz. "I refused to make the assumption that he could do it. But the more I thought about it, the more legitimate it became. Then I read in the papers [where Sanders said] that all I had to do was call and he'd be here. So I called."
After stealing second in the first game of the doubleheader against the Reds, Sanders jumped to his feet and pumped his fist as the Atlanta crowd went berserk. As a pinch runner in the nightcap, he was forced out at second on a ground ball. Reds pitcher Jose Rijo was disappointed when Sanders did not get into the game the next night.
"I was hoping he'd play tonight—he's my idol," said Rijo, who pitched seven shutout innings in Cincinnati's 8-0 victory that night. "It's not that he plays two sports, but he plays them both very well. He's got a chance to be not just a good [baseball] player, but a great player."
Braves with Envy
Last year, when he was playing part time for the New York Yankees, Sanders hit a home run and scored a touchdown in the same week. "I'd love to just have the opportunity to have the ability Deion has," says Braves infielder Jeff Blauser, in a typical Atlanta baseball player's response to Sanders's two-sport shuttle.
"He's incredible," says Braves pitcher Mark Grant. "I'm kind of proud to be on the same team as a guy who is making history like this. I don't know how he's doing it. In football there are so many plays and assignments. Then he comes and plays baseball the same day. We love having him. I admit I prejudged him at the beginning. I saw him on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED [Nov. 13, 1989] and thought, Who is this idiot? But you get to know him, and you realize he has a heart of gold, he's fun and he plays hard."
Braves catcher Greg Olson said Sanders has motivated the Braves with the enthusiasm he has brought to the team. "I think the Falcons are in a no-win position," he says. "They can't tell him to forget the pads, because they'd lose a lot of fan support. Deion is in a win-win situation. Everyone loves him in our locker room, and the fans love him. He gets a standing ovation every time he stands on the field. I'm surprised he didn't fly that helicopter in here himself and land it on the field."
In 1987, at the Metro Conference spring championships in Columbia, S.C., Sanders was scheduled to play rightfield for Florida State in a 3 p.m. baseball tournament game, run the third leg of the 4 x 100 relay at 7:15 for the Seminoles' track team and then play rightfield in another baseball game at 7:30.
The Seminoles won the afternoon game, which ended at 5:24. "We're all celebrating, and there's Deion in the dugout with the track coach, changing clothes and putting on track spikes," recalls Florida State baseball coach Mike Martin. Sanders ran the third leg of the relay, Sammie Smith, now a running back with the Miami Dolphins, ran the anchor and the Seminoles finished second, good enough to give them the conference track title. Sanders jogged back to the baseball stadium for the night game. His two-run single gave him the game-winning RBI as Florida State beat Cincinnati 6-3 to win the conference baseball championship.
The standard NFL player contract prohibits players from "any activity other than football which may involve significant risk of personal injury" during the season. But a rider to Deion's contract with the Falcons says that the Falcons "will not prohibit [Sanders] from playing professional baseball."...A deal struck last week by the Braves and Sanders's agent, Eugene Parker, calls for Sanders to receive a $5,000 bonus for returning to the Braves, in addition to pro rata salary payments for nine games, the number he would be with the team, that will earn him approximately $12,000.... Should Sanders suffer an injury while playing for the Braves that causes him to miss time with the Falcons, the NFL team would not be liable for Sanders's football salary for the period he's sidelined. Sanders took out an insurance policy for the duration of his stay with the Braves to recompense him for any football income lost because of injury....
The Falcons had only three days of workouts scheduled during their bye week: a film session and light workout on Monday and full-scale practices, with meetings and film sessions, on Wednesday and Thursday. Sanders attended Monday's session before flying to Cincinnati to rejoin the Braves; planned to miss Wednesday's practice, meetings and film session; and was expected to fly back to Atlanta with the Braves after Wednesday night's game in time to take part in Thursday's drills. Falcon owner Rankin Smith Sr. already has decided Sanders will not be fined for missing the Wednesday practice.... Braves president Stan Kasten, who is also president of the Atlanta Hawks, called the NBA office last week about a matter concerning his team's No. 1 draft pick, Stacey Augmon. "The NBA guy didn't even say hello, he just said, 'No, we will not let you sign Deion to an NBA contract. No. No. No,' " said Kasten, laughing....
Sanders's future as an every-day player with the Braves may depend on the status next season of his friend outfielder Otis Nixon. On Sept. 16, Nixon was suspended for 60 days for violating the terms of his substance-abuse aftercare program. He can be a free agent after this season, but one American League general manager said Nixon's drug involvement "will hurt him a lot in free agency. If he thinks a $2 million contract will be out there, he's wrong." ...Sanders's lifetime batting average was .183 in 122 major league games through Sunday. Entering this season, only one player on an Opening Day roster—Chad Kreuter of the Texas Rangers—had a career average lower than Sanders's in 100-plus games.
The End Zone
Falcon coach Jerry Glanville is unhappy with the moonlighting Sanders but tries to mask it by saying that the baseball mania on his team is contagious: "I've got [295-pound guard] Houston Hoover wanting to go to Detroit to bat behind that giant guy—what's his name?—Cecil something?" Fielder, Jerry. Cecil Fielder.
For the peripatetic Sanders, Falcon practice remained the top priority last week, but...
...that didn't stop him Wednesday from going by helicopter to a Braves-Reds twin bill...
...in which he was used as a pinch runner in both games, stealing second in the opener.