Deion Sanders's injured left ring finger was taped to the adjacent middle one, as is common in the NFL, where he has starred for the Atlanta Falcons as a cornerback and kick returner. But now his game of choice is baseball, and he's at it full-time this time, says Prime Time. He's so focused on it that he rarely even utters the word football anymore.
"I've accomplished my goal in that other thing," he says. "Now it's time for me to accomplish a goal in this thing." The goal? "Success. Enormous success.... I'm a good baseball player. But I can be a great baseball player. A star baseball player."
Through Sunday, Sanders was batting .426, with at least one hit in each of the 13 games the Atlanta Braves had played. His sixth triple of the year, last Saturday night, kept him on pace to obliterate the National League single-season record of 36, set in 1912 by the Pittsburgh Pirates' Owen Wilson. Further, "this is a guy who's going to hit 20 home runs this year," says Braves manager Bobby Cox.
Last week fans in Atlanta went wild when Sanders said, "I'm a full-time baseball player," which appeared to put the national pastime ahead of his All-Pro football career, at least for now. Perhaps there won't be any helicopter shuttling between Falcon practices and Braves games come fall—as there was last autumn—but Sanders still has time to make that decision.
But now he had to decide about playing baseball with his fingers taped. At Dodger Stadium last Friday afternoon, Cox and Clarence Jones, Atlanta's batting coach, watched Sanders take BP, not to see how many balls he could hit out of the park, but to sec whether he could hit at all. The kamikaze style that Sanders brings from that other thing to this thing had bitten him the night before. In stealing his fourth base of the season, he had plowed into second headfirst and jammed the knuckle of his left ring finger. "I damn near slept in an ice bucket," Sanders said. "When I woke up, it was very stiff."
(Oh, by the way, Sanders also has been playing with a hairline fracture of his left foot, suffered when he slid into a base late in spring training. "Yeah, it really hurts," says Sanders. "If I wasn't a football player, I probably wouldn't be out there.")
On the first pitch during batting practice on Friday, the lefthanded-hitting Sanders slapped the ball foul to the opposite field. "Damn!" he yelled in pain, his cry echoing off the upper decks of the empty blue canyon.
"I just don't think he's going to be able to play," Cox said. "But Deion's the type of guy you better let try. He's going to be ticked off if you don't." So Cox penciled Sanders in as his centerfielder and lead-off hitter. On the first pitch of the game, Sanders singled to left off Dodger righthander Ramon Martinez.
Sanders began the season as a replacement for Otis Nixon, his best friend, who was sitting out the first 18 days of the season as part of a drug-related suspension. When Nixon returns this week, Cox will play them both, with the more powerful Sanders hitting second and Nixon taking his customary spot at the top of the order. That's the way it will be until rightfielder David Justice returns from the disabled list later this month, leaving Cox, who also has slugger Ron Gant and the hard-hitting Lonnie Smith on his roster, in the enviable position of having too many good outfielders.
"I've got to where I know in my heart I'm going to go out there and get me two every day," says Sanders. "Two base hits. That's my goal."
"If he gets that second hit, then he's battling for the third," says Jones. "And the fourth. He's into the game, the whole game. He never slacks off."
But with his hand smarting on every swing, Sanders went a mere 1 for 4 Friday night. Still, he finished the weekend leading the league not only in batting average and triples but also in hits (23), extra-base hits (11), multihit games (8) and total bases (42). And this is a guy who was sent down to Triple A at the end of May last year, brought back only as a pinch runner in September and wound up batting .191 in 54 games.
"Before, he would just grab his bat and helmet and go up there and hit," says Jones. "Now he prepares himself before every game: who's pitching, what they're throwing, where they're throwing it and how they're trying to get him out. Now he's using his head along with his ability."
Until this year Sanders, the flashy—and immensely accomplished—football player, approached baseball almost literally as a kid's game, for some relief of body, mind and spirit from the hard knocks of the NFL. In a baseball clubhouse, there was a different Deion, somehow more at peace with himself than he was in the football locker room. As Braves general manager John Schuerholz puts it, "Deion leaves his gold on the football field."
The difference in demeanor is that "he knows he can play that game [football]," says Braves third baseman Terry Pendleton, last year's National League MVP. "He has the cocky confidence that he can go out against anybody and handle 'em. Baseball is a game he's learning to play, and he works very hard at it."
"I calm myself down for baseball," said Sanders. "I'm keeping a book. After every game I write down what they think it takes to get me out, how they come at me, their moves, everything."
Jones changed very little in the mechanics of Sanders's hitting in spring training, but one bit of tinkering with his stance might have detonated all the havoc he has wreaked on National League pitching. Sanders always struggled against lefthanders, so Jones got him to stand more erect against southpaws. "Now he can see the ball better than he could bent over in a crouch," says Jones. Sanders still crouches against righthanders, with good success, but against lefties, with that erect stance, he was batting .417 at week's end.
Even with his new stance. "I'm not your perfect leadoff hitter," said Sanders, who had only three walks coming into the series with the Dodgers. "If the first pitch is across the plate, I'm swinging at it. I'm not the type to take a lot of pitches; I'm up there to do something."
"That's all right," said Jones. "He's on base all the time—or more than anybody else on our ball club."
In the opposite dugout the Dodgers' leadoff hitter, 34-year-old Brett Butler, was opining that "Deion is going to have to develop patience" to be a complete leadoff man. But, said Dodger manager Tom Lasorda, "Deion is aggressive, and that's one thing you don't want to take away from him. He makes that offense."
"When I get a triple, even a single, I get up saying, 'I love this game,' " Sanders said Saturday, back in his hotel room after a visit to a hospital where X-rays of his hand were negative, meaning that the tough guy in him could carry on.
"He's in some kind of pain," said Braves assistant trainer Jeff Porter, who could only shake his head as he cleared Sanders to play Saturday night. O.K., so Sanders's left foot and left hand were throbbing with every flex. So what did he do? First, he ran over Dodger first baseman Kal Daniels in the third while beating out an infield single. Then, after tripling in the sixth, he tried to score on a short fly to center. Butler fired to catcher Mike Scioscia, a former football guard who's the beefy maestro of plate-blocking. There ensued a collision that would have wowed an L.A. Coliseum crowd in autumn. Said Scioscia, "Deion came in like a truck." But Scioscia held on to the ball, which prompted Sanders to say, "I have a lot of respect for the man."
In his hotel room, while ironing one of his notoriously dizzying shirts, Sanders reflects on just when it might have been that he tumbled head over heels in love with baseball. If there was a single moment, it came last September during his celebrated helicopter commutes between the Falcons' practice by day and the Braves' pennant chase by night.
During one baseball game there was a banner draped from the upper deck of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, a bed-sheet spray-painted thusly: DEION: THIS IS YOUR BRAIN (drawing of a baseball): THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON DRUGS (drawing of a football).
"Best banner I've ever seen," he recalls. "I took it to heart."
It brought to the forefront a thought that had been rumbling round his mind: "When you talk about the best cornerbacks in the NFL, you say one of two names, point blank—Deion Sanders or Darrell Green [of the Washington Redskins]. That's it. So you see, I'd accomplished that other thing."
Yet he felt unfulfilled and not fully appreciated.
"Football takes athletes for granted," says Sanders. "As if you need them. To get what you're worth, you damn near have to kill yourself. You just about have to stand on the top floor and say you're going to jump. The only people football pays are quarterbacks."
The Falcons pay Sanders $750,000 a year for full-time work. The Braves pay Sanders $600,000 for moonlighting through July 31. Indications are that if Sanders goes full-time to this thing, his agent, Eugene Parker, could work out the finances. The Braves would certainly raise Sanders's salary to make up for any paybacks he might have to make to the Falcons, such as a prorated share of the $2 million signing bonus he received when he agreed to a five-year deal in 1989.
Which brings up another thing about that other thing. "Early on, the press made me out to be a bad guy, egotistical," says Sanders. "People take things out of context. They see me high-stepping down the field with my hands behind my head and think that's the way I am in everyday life. As if, when my fiancèe [Carolyn] asks me to get something to drink, I get up and high-step to the refrigerator, holding my daughter [Diondra, 2] over my head. It's not like that. But people seem to take the way I perform on my job for the way I am in life. The truth is, I'm a very family-and home-oriented person.
"On the field, I can't help getting excited about what I do. In a white man, that's called confidence. In a black man, that's called cockiness, trash-talking. You can say one thing and be labeled a trash-talker, and a black man can't shake that image. I can't shake that image."
So here stands the deep-down Deion at an ironing board in a luxury hotel crawling with valets. He is on the phone to Nixon, a victim of cocaine addiction. "Course we can't wait till you get back," Sanders says to Nixon. "I know I can't wait. I know I'm going to be seeing some fastballs [when he hits second], and I'm gonna be drivin' 'em. Don't worry, I've only got four stolen bases. I'm not getting any jump on you there. I'm waitin' on you, man."
Hanging up, Sanders says, "Whatever the public thinks, the truth is, I've gotten along with everybody on every team I've ever played on."
Take, for instance, pitcher Steve Avery, 22, who is your classic Father Knows Best white kid from Michigan. He and the 24-year-old Sanders are the Two Musketeers of the Braves, to be Three again when Nixon returns. In spring training last year, "our lockers were next to each other," Avery told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "The first thing I noticed was, the guy can talk. Boy, can he talk."
Said Sanders, "Here's this big kid, wears these big white underpants, what do you think, I'm gonna ignore him? I felt sorry for him."
They became inseparable. "That proves how guys who grew up different can get along," says Nixon. "You don't see friendships like that all the time."
This spring Sanders told Avery, the Braves' hero of the '91 playoffs and World Series, "You had a great year, you played great, you are great, everybody loves you, and now you've got to look great."
Avery hates to shop, so, says Sanders, "he gave me five grand to go out and buy him a new wardrobe." Sanders took Avery's sizes along in his pocket computer. Did he spend all the money? "Sure. Plus another grand he owed me when I got back. It only took me a couple of days. I can spend money very fast, especially when it's not mine."
Avery arrived in Los Angeles in a flowery shirt and mustard-colored pants. "Now," says Sanders, "he looks like a man."
As for the Falcons, they are approaching Sanders's talk about full-time baseball with an undercurrent of resignation. "Somehow we always knew it might come to this because of the caliber of athlete Deion is," says Falcon president Taylor Smith. "We just weren't sure when it would be."
Though the Falcons threatened to sue Sanders in 1990 when it appeared the New York Yankees might sign him full-time, "We haven't even talked about anything like that this time," says Smith. "I don't think anything we do is going to have a big effect on what Deion's thinking, anyway."
Falcon coach Jerry Glanville says with a sigh, "I guess I shouldn't have taught him to hit the curveball so well."
"I'm just having fun," says Sanders. "In baseball, it's going to be Prime Time's Year in '92."
And what will be Deion's next objective? "To be the guest star on The Bill Dance Show" Sanders says. Dance is a good ol' boy who hosts a popular TV fishing program in the South, and Sanders prides himself on being a superior bass fisherman: "I can catch 'em, man."
If it's not one thing, it's another.