He pulls a black baseball cap down low on his forehead and
slowly climbs aboard his Schwinn Express for the one-mile ride
home. His Cincinnati Reds teammates have long since left the
building, but Elvis is still around as the clubhouse clock at
Cinergy Field hits midnight, wringing out another night at the
ballpark. There are not many quiet moments in the loud and
public life of Deion Sanders, but this city and this sport allow
him a few.
As he wheels his mountain bike out the side door, he looks as if
he's making his getaway, and Sanders concedes that that may not
be far from the truth. "I'll be honest, this is somewhat of an
escape," he says of baseball. "I lost my stepfather this spring.
I lost my biological father four years ago, and I still miss
him. My mother has been sick, and I'm going through a divorce.
And you know what makes me happy? I'm still able to do the
things I'm doing on the field."
The things he was doing included hitting .320 at week's end and
leading the major leagues with 25 stolen bases, counting a pair
in a 5-0 win over the San Diego Padres on Sunday. The Reds were
in last place in the National League Central, but at the top of
the order and in centerfield Sanders had already pulled off a
remarkable feat: He was, after sitting out an entire baseball
season, a better player than he had been when he left. Neither
time nor his dangerous day job have deterred his quest to become
a late-blooming gem on the diamond. "I was shocked," says
teammate Joe Oliver. "He took a year off and actually improved.
I don't know how you do that."
At 29, eight years after breaking into the big leagues, Sanders
has discovered new ways to apply his considerable physical gifts
to baseball, shortening up his swing and, through Sunday,
beating out a remarkable 18 infield hits, including four bunt
singles. Once on base he has emerged as Cincinnati's answer to
Rickey Henderson: a disruptive force who is always a threat to
run. Sanders attributes his base stealing success to a boost in
his on-base percentage (.367 this year, compared with his career
average of .325). "I'm just getting on more, man," he says. But
his teammates say he also spends more time studying pitchers and
trying to understand the art of the steal. "Last time he was
here, he didn't have a real focus. He just went out and played,"
says Reds shortstop Barry Larkin. "Now he's got a game plan, and
he sticks to it. He's a more complete player."
Sanders says one reason he came back to baseball was the rare
chance to exceed expectations. On the baseball field he can
still take people by surprise. He says his comeback had nothing
to do with money, and he's a rare professional athlete who can
make that claim with a straight face: Cincinnati general manager
Jim Bowden signed Sanders to a one-year, $1.2 million deal even
though the Reds and other teams were waving lucrative, long-term
offers in front of him.
How did the Reds land one of the game's premier gate attractions
for less than what Albert Belle pays in taxes? Sanders says he
only wanted to make sure he was up to the 162-game grind of
another major league season, and despite his recent success he
insists he doesn't know if he will play baseball next year. The
only thing he will say for certain is that he will play for no
one but the Reds. "This is the only place I want to be," he
says. "My teammates are cool, Jim Bowden is cool, the city is
cool. Everyone is laid-back and low-key. I can ride my bike
downtown and no one bothers me."
Sanders, of course, spends his autumns on another planet, as an
All-Pro cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys. He could probably
ride his bike through Dallas--provided he left room on the
handlebars for TV camera crews and collectibles hounds.
Cincinnati allows Sanders more than just an escape from his
personal problems; it also allows him some time away from the
madness of Jerry Jonestown. He has five years left on the
seven-year, $35 million contract he signed with the Cowboys in
September 1995, but the deal allows him to miss up to the first
eight of Dallas's regular-season games each year without losing
a penny. The Cowboys have no reason to worry about the Reds
keeping Sanders away from Dallas too far into the NFL schedule:
These Reds have as much a chance of qualifying for the
postseason as Marge Schott has of joining the Spice Girls.
Sanders has vowed to return to the Cowboys as soon as the Reds
are out of the pennant race, which had prompted cynics in
Cincinnati to suggest that Deion should be able to report to
Dallas's minicamp next month.
"There are a lot of reasons I came back, but I'll tell you the
main one: I wanted to," says Sanders. "I got bored. I had a
great time last year. I went fishing, I played basketball. But
one day I told myself I didn't want to look back and think what
might have been. I could be in Cancun with the fellas. I could
be playing basketball. But I'm not doing that because I don't
want to. I want to be here, out there on the bases, jumping
around and having a good time. You know why? Because I like it.
I like playing the game."
Sanders also likes to feel wanted, and beginning last September,
Bowden called him more often than a salesman from a spurned
long-distance phone company. The persistent general manager
reminded Sanders that he still regretted having traded him to
the San Francisco Giants in July 1995, even though in return
Cincinnati got pitchers Dave Burba and Mark Portugal, who helped
the Reds win the division that year. Bowden can only imagine how
New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner feels. The Yankees
released Sanders after the 1990 season. "The trade got us into
the playoffs," says Bowden, "but it's still the least favorite
trade I've ever made. To me, Deion is just a special player."
Some of the Reds pitched in and helped with Bowden's recruiting
effort. Larkin and infielder Lenny Harris called Sanders during
football season and told him that they were keeping the leadoff
spot open for him. Harris, Sanders's closest friend on the Reds
and a free agent after last season, told Deion that he would
return to Cincinnati if Deion would. "I just said, 'Why sit at
home when you can come up here and help us win a pennant?'" says
Harris. "It's an ego thing. He just didn't want to give up on
baseball yet. He told me he wanted to become one of the best
leadoff hitters in the game, and that's what he's doing."
Sanders joined the Reds in February and immediately began to
work on his game. In an effort to become a more effective
leadoff man, he practiced bunting and hitting to the opposite
field. "I realized there's a lot of money to be made over there
in leftfield," the lefthanded-swinging Sanders says. A career
.264 hitter coming into the season--an embarrassingly low
average for a guy who could outrun Silver Charm--he also
developed more patience at the plate and understood at last that
with his otherworldly speed a single or a walk is often as good
as a triple. (He recently scored from second on an infield
single to shortstop.) Larkin, as only he can, described one of
the more subtle advantages great speed affords Sanders:
"Infielders cannot take the time to find the seams on the ball
before they throw, so he gets on base a lot because of weak or
Sanders's 19 steals in April were the most in that month since
Henderson swiped 20 for the Yankees in 1988. It should be noted
that, along with speed, Sanders possesses another essential that
made Henderson the preeminent base stealer of all time:
arrogance. He doesn't strut nearly as much on the diamond as he
does on the football field, but he doesn't lack for confidence
when he reaches base. "Being disruptive, man," he says. "That's
what I like. That's my favorite part of the game."
Rickey on Deion: "I used to be distracting like that on the
bases, and they said I was a hot dog. But guys who hit behind me
had good averages because pitchers stopped concentrating on
them. Deion does the same thing with his hand motions,
strutting, faking. You start thinking so much about Deion, you
forget the batter."
Deion on Rickey: "Rickey's my man. He's my idol. I want to be
just like him out there, man."
As at most of the stops in his dual careers, Sanders draws raves
from his colleagues in Cincinnati for his willingness to work on
his game and his commitment to the team. "The thing people don't
understand is that it all comes down to his work ethic," says
Oliver. "He works as hard as anyone. After BP, he's in the cage,
he's in the weight room, he's talking to Barry and Reggie
[Sanders] about pitchers. He's really serious about the game."
Curtis Goodwin bats second in the Reds' order, plays leftfield
and watches Sanders's every move. He recently began to sprint to
his position at the start of each inning because he saw Sanders
do it. Goodwin compares Sanders to a former well-known teammate
of his, an outfielder from the Scottsdale Scorpions of the
Arizona fall league, where Goodwin played in 1994. "He's just
like Michael Jordan," Goodwin says. "They're probably the two
most famous people in the world, but they're both just regular
guys who work hard and don't act like anyone special."
Sanders's teammates are amazed at the abuse he takes from
opposing fans, who often treat him as if he were coming into
town with the love-'em-or-hate-'em Cowboys. "It's just vicious,"
says Harris. "I guess that's what they're like for football, but
I don't know how he puts up with it. I couldn't do it. I'd climb
in the stands."
On a recent trip to San Diego, the home plate umpire heard the
catcalls and asked what Sanders had done to deserve them. "I
said, 'A little thing called the Super Bowl,'" says Sanders.
"[The San Francisco 49ers] beat their team, and it didn't help
that I high-stepped down the sideline about 90 yards [during a
regular-season game against the Chargers]."
Sanders admits that the football Deion has to be a different
player from the baseball Deion because the games are so
different. Football's weekly explosion of emotion is replaced by
baseball's daily test of mental strength and concentration.
"Football is just one big show, straight-out game day, and
there's nothing like it in the world," he says. "Baseball is
every day. You can't sit on it. You can't ride it. You've got to
show up and do it again the next day."
Sanders says the best part of both games is the camaraderie.
Some of his Cowboys teammates play on a charity basketball squad
in the off-season, and he says, "Man, you don't know how much I
wish I was there with them. Those guys are so special to me."
Still, he says, the Reds have one of the best clubhouses in
"People think he's cocky and arrogant, but when you sit with him
on a bus, he's like your next-door neighbor," says Oliver. "He's
not different, he's not arrogant, he's not into himself. He's
just a confident guy who believes in his ability."
Sanders smiles when asked if he is more confident than earlier
in his baseball career. "Man, there's never been a time when I
wasn't a confident dude," he says. Sanders also says that for
him happiness is not always as easy to come by. While staring
into his locker, he adds, "Sometimes it seems like the more
money you get, the more problems you have. It seems like my
whole family has been looking to me to take care of them since I
During spring training his stepfather, Willie Knight, died. His
father, Mims Sanders, died of a brain tumor in 1993, and Deion
pays tribute to both men each time he reaches base, tapping his
chest and pointing skyward. Sanders's wife, Carolyn, has filed
for divorce. She lives in the Dallas area with their
seven-year-old daughter, Deiondra, and three-year-old son, Deion
Jr. The elder Deion says he speaks to his children on the
telephone every day and visits when he can.
Although he is apart from his family, Sanders does not pedal
home to an empty apartment each night. He has a companion who
has already achieved a measure of fame in Cincinnati because she
accompanies him on the road, sharing his hotel room and even
sitting on his lap on team flights. "She doesn't go down with
the baggage," he says. "She stays with me."
Where else would you put a one-year-old Himalayan Persian cat?
Sanders is obviously secure in his manhood because he is not
afraid to keep company with a kitty, even if it makes him look
like a long-lost Gabor sister. His furry white friend is named
Duchess, and naturally Deion treats her like royalty. She not
only travels in uncommon luxury, but she also wears expensive
collars and gets groomed once a week. "I can trust her," he
says. "She ain't going to lie to me, she ain't going to cheat on
me. I know she'll be waiting for me when I get home."
He doesn't smile as he heads home to Duchess. Sanders says the
journey home is always tougher than the trip to the ballpark
because the bike ride is all uphill. Or maybe it just seems that
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS COVER MAN OF STEAL DEION SANDERS IS RUNNING WILD IN THE NATIONAL LEAGUE
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE The aim of some of Sanders's best footwork is to psych out the pitcher more than to steal a base. [Deion Sanders watching pitcher in game]
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS "Last time he was here, he didn't have a real focus. Now he's got a game plan, and he sticks to it." [Deion Sanders bunting in game]
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Sanders understood that with his otherworldly speed, a single or a walk is often as good as a triple. [Deion Sanders sliding into base in game]
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Sanders pays tribute to his father and his stepfather every time he reaches base. [Deion Sanders pointing skyward]