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."