Former baseball teammates and coaches remember what Deion was, and what he might have been (if that pesky Hall of Fame football career hadn’t gotten in the way)
Welcome to Baseball Week. As training camp approaches and baseball takes a break for its mid-summer classic, The MMQB presents a week of stories on the crossover between hardball and football.
Deion Sanders is dancing. Not down the sideline, balletically high-stepping after picking off yet another pass from yet another helpless quarterback. Nor in the end zone, bouncing from side to side on his tippy toes while performing his famed “Prime Time” shuffle after invariably taking that same interception to the house.
No, Deion Sanders is dancing off first base, and the entire stadium knows what’s going to happen next.
It’s May 31, 1987 and the Florida State Seminoles are facing the Arizona State Sun Devils in the College World Series. Sanders, a junior outfielder, has just lined a two-out base hit into centerfield. Now he’s eying second base, less than 90 feet separating him from his destiny. The pitcher throws over to first a couple of times, hoping to keep Sanders at bay. He is simply delaying the inevitable, trying to keep water in a sieve.
With the count 1-and-1, many base runners would be wary of a pitchout. They’d probably wait one out, thinking that if they are to get caught stealing they’d rather do so on a two-strike count.
“But Deion doesn’t think that way,” says FSU coach Mike Martin. “He’s ready to roll.”
As Sanders takes off like Secretariat out of the gates, the pitch is, sure enough, a pitch out. It’s a perfect one, too, no wasted motions, directly on target, a fastball whipped to the catcher who is standing and raring to throw down to second. But as the ball comes whistling in to the shortstop covering the bag, Sanders is already popping up from his slide and dusting off his uniform.
A perfect call and flawless execution somehow foiled, Arizona State manager Jim Brock rises from his seat, takes one step out of the dugout, removes his hat in disbelief and makes eye contact with Martin across the field. His look, in Martin’s estimation, expresses the thought that Brock had never seen anything like that before in his life.
“All I did,” Martin says, “was turn my hat sideways and look at him like, Partner, I’ve been seeing that all year long.”
It wasn’t the first time Sanders achieved something the baseball cognoscenti had never before witnessed. Earlier that same season, Martin had timed Sanders at 9.9 seconds from first to home—a time so awe-inspiring that it made the coach question his own stopwatch-clicking abilities. “I know I started the watch as soon as he hit first base and I stopped it as soon as he touched home plate,” Martin says, still in disbelief. “I know I got it right.”
In another game, Sanders was again dancing off first base when a pick-off attempt went flying into the outfield. As the right fielder, who was playing at normal depth, came over to scoop up the overthrown ball, Sanders was already rounding third. The throw home was ceremonial. Sanders scored standing up.
“I still laugh at that,” Martin says, cracking up. “Who does that?”
Another one that makes the coach titter with wonderment: In the 1987 Metro Conference championship in Columbia, S.C., Sanders played a baseball game at 3 p.m. (a win), changed from his baseball uniform into his track uniform in the dugout as a wall of teammates surrounded him to provide privacy, hustled across campus to run the third leg of the 4 x 100 relay (earning a conference title), and then made it back for the start of the second game of a doubleheader (getting the game-winning RBI to win another conference championship).
“He was so unique, so special,” Martin says. “He was obviously one of a kind. I don’t think there’d be much debate that he was the best cover corner in the history of the NFL. [But] he really became a great baseball player, too.”
* * *
We remember Deion, the football player. The Hall of Famer. The stuff of a quarterback’s nightmare, walking, talking, and dancing across the gridiron. We remember one of the greatest cornerbacks of all time, the 53 interceptions, the 18 touchdowns; we remember Prime Time.
But there was also Deion, the baseball player. The leadoff hitter. The prolific base stealer. The field-shrinking outfielder. He had so much potential that MLB teams kept signing him even though he could only play for a fraction of each season before he’d have to report for NFL training camp. Or, as he often did, play both sports simultaneously.
Early on, Sanders chose to prioritize football over baseball. He didn’t play the latter in 1988, his senior year at FSU. But after being selected with the fifth overall pick in the 1989 NFL draft by the Falcons, and the 781st pick in the MLB draft by the Yankees, Sanders decided to try juggling both sports. He installed a batting cage in his backyard, sneaking away from football to take hacks at fastballs, like a forbidden tryst, in an attempt to re-acclimate himself to the sport.
“I’m married to football,” Sanders said in a 1989 Sports Illustrated cover story. “Baseball is my girlfriend.”
As Sanders quickly became a sensation on the gridiron, returning a punt 68 yards for a touchdown on the first touch of his NFL career, his professional baseball career started inauspiciously. He spent most of 1989 mired in the Yankees’ minor-league system, playing only 14 games for the big league club before having to decamp to Atlanta for the start of football season. The following year was more of the same, and his first MLB stint ended unceremoniously as the Yankees placed him on waivers shortly after the ’90 NFL season began.
But then Sanders signed with the Braves, enabling him to play for two teams in the same city, which made the double duty more tenable. Atlanta pitcher Marvin Freeman remembers the first time he ever saw Sanders, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Freeman was out to dinner, and someone at his table pointed out the dual-sport star. Look, it’s Prime Time, Freeman’s companion said in awe.
“I had never heard of him,” Freeman says. “He was real flashy so I was like, ‘What is he, a rapper or something?’”
Freeman and Sanders ended up having lockers side by side during Braves spring training in 1991. He quickly learned that Sanders was not the bombastic character he played on a football field. Every day, the pair would arrive at the stadium and say the same thing to one another: We still here, both pleasantly surprised that they hadn't been cut yet. With a baseball uniform on, Sanders was simply another one of the guys clawing to make a big league roster.
“He was exactly, 100% the opposite of what everybody thinks he is,” Freeman says. “That dude was some kind of teammate, some kind of friend, just a special person.”
When Sanders was called up to the Braves at the start of the season, many of his big league teammates were skeptical. They wondered about his desire. (Was this a hobby, something he was doing only because he was bored during the NFL offseason?) They questioned his motivation. (Was this all a spectacle just to garner more media attention?) And they were worried about his attitude. (Is he going to be an a------?)
First baseman Brian Hunter remembers how quickly all of those questions were answered, all of those worries assuaged, as soon as anyone sat down and spent some time with Sanders. He was there to be a professional baseball player.
“In his mind it was baseball time,” Hunter says. “We were so intrigued by him, we tried to force him to talk football. I didn’t realize how much he knew about baseball. I was like, Oh my god this guy really can play both. He was Deion Sanders in the clubhouse, he was Prime Time on the football field. He was two totally different people.”
Or, as Freeman says: “He transformed himself from Deion into Prime Time whenever the lights were on. He was like a superhero.”
In the clubhouse, Sanders fit in seamlessly. He created nicknames for just about everyone on the team. Otis Nixon was “Homie.” Lonnie Smith, “Lonnie Divac.” John Smoltz, “Big Butt.” Ron Gant, “Daisy Dukes.” That last one came with an accompanying theme song that Sanders would sing in honor of Gant’s skin-tight clothing: Look at them daisy dukes on, you really got it going on.
“His chemistry in the dugout and the clubhouse was excellent,” says pitching coach Leo Mazzone. “We looked at Deion as a star. I think teams envied us, they envied the type of personality our ball club had.”
Smoltz, the Hall of Fame pitcher, remembers Sanders as the consummate teammate. They’d play Nintendo, shag flyballs while competing in the game “500,” face off in one-on-one basketball games, or race on the field (Deion would give Smoltz a 20-yard head start).
“He was one of those guys that everybody says you don’t like until he’s your teammate,” Hunter says. “And then once he’s your teammate you love him to death.”
But one question remained: Could he play?
* * *
The first thing anyone mentions when they discuss Deion Sanders, the baseball player, is speed. It was the kind of speed never before seen on a baseball diamond. It was the kind of speed that inspires hyperbole that sometimes isn’t actually hyperbole.
“He was faster than the game,” Hunter says. “It was crazy to be around somebody who was faster than the baseball.”
“He was the fastest guy I ever seen,” Freeman says. “He looked like the Road Runner, his legs would turn into wheels. His feet didn't touch the ground.”
Says Nixon, one of the fastest players in the league himself: “I would hit a double, Deion Sanders would hit the same double and he’d turn it into a triple standing up. You do the math.”
In 1991, his first season in Atlanta, Sanders’ speed allowed him to become a situational weapon for the Braves, despite hitting only .191 over 54 games. He would often come on as a pinch runner, putting pressure on opposing pitchers and stealing 11 bases despite just 21 hits on the year. As Mazzone remembers, opposing coaches and pitchers were constantly worried about Sanders on the base paths. “It gave us a tremendous amount of pressure that we could put on the other team with our speed,” Mazzone says. “It didn’t take long for him to become an important part of our offense.”
“It was pretty incredible right away how impactful his talent could be,” Smoltz adds.
But Sanders was hamstrung by the limited amount of time that he was able to devote to baseball. While teammates played in instructional leagues or winter ball, Sanders was busy making Pro Bowls and winning Super Bowls. As baseball season turned from spring into summer, Sanders would have to begin preparing for the start of football season. Teammates would see him running the bleachers after practice, trying to get his body ready for a vastly different sport.
In 1991, Sanders had it in his contract that he had to report to the Falcons at the start of training camp. He had been fined $40,000 the year before for reporting to camp late. So, as the Braves were making a push for the playoffs, Sanders begrudgingly left the team. In his last game before heading to training camp, on July 31 against the Pirates, Sanders hit a three-run home run, came off the field, took a curtain call, waved goodbye to the fans, and left for camp the next day.
“He told me before that game, he had to go out on a bang,” Freeman says. “For a guy to set the stage for himself, then go out and perform and do what he said he was going to do, it can’t be a coincidence.”
The farewell was premature. Sanders returned to the Braves for five late-season games, as the Braves put the finishing touches on an National League West title. After the regular-season finale, Sanders told his teammates that in his next game with the Falcons he’d take a kickoff to the house, do his Prime Time dance, and end it with the Braves’ Tomahawk Chop.
“We were all in the players lounge watching the Falcons game and he ran it back and did exactly the thing he said he was going to do,” Freeman says of Sanders’ 100-yard return against the 49ers. “We were all like little kids, looking at each other like, Man this is unbelievable. It was one of the greatest athletic feats that I ever witnessed.”
Before the 1992 season, Sanders added a proviso to his Falcons contract that allowed him to stay with the Braves as long as their season went on. That year, Sanders would play in 105 games including the postseason, nearly doubling his previous career high. He was still a part-time player, platooning with Hunter—Sanders would face right-handers, Hunter would start against lefties—but he was able to get into the groove that he had never found at the plate. Sanders hit a career high .304 and, in only 303 at bats, led the league with 14 triples. He also stole 26 bases and provided strong defense at all three outfield spots.
“He was really starting to figure it out,” Hunter says. “That’s why it was like, Man if you stopped playing football you could be one of the top-of-the-line baseball players.”
Sanders accomplished all of this that while jet-setting between the Falcons and the Braves, his two lives connected only by frequent air travel. He’d go from Falcons practice one day to a Braves game the next, then back to a Falcons game on the weekend. He’d fly directly to the baseball stadium, the sound of a helicopter announcing his arrival.
“It was planes, trains and automobiles, but for Deion it was planes, trains and helicopters,” Smoltz says. “It was pretty incredible when you think about what he did playing both. It was unique and it will probably never happen again.”
In the ’92 World Series, Nixon remembers Sanders talking to his glove in the outfield, as he was wont to do. He named her Boosie, and Nixon, playing center, would hear Sanders chatting with Boosie over in left.
You can’t let me down now, Boosie. We’re in the World Series, everyone in America is watching, Boosie.
“He’s not talking to me, he’s not talking to David [Justice, the rightfielder], he’s talking to his glove,” Nixon remembers. “I said [in an outfield huddle during a mound visit], ‘Deion, what you doing’? He said, ‘Boosie a little nervous right now. Boosie don’t want no ball hit to him.’”
After the mound visit ended, the outfielders returned to their positions. The next batter hit a screaming liner to left, and Sanders had to run it down. Sure enough, Boosie made the play.
Ooooh Boosie, you scared for me a minute.
In that World Series, Sanders hit .533 with two doubles and five steals, but the Braves lost to the Blue Jays in six games. “If we had won that World Series, Deion would have been MVP,” Hunter says.
Sanders would go on to play five more seasons with the Braves, Reds, and Giants, stepping away from baseball in 1996, ’98 and ’99 in order to focus solely on football. His baseball career ended with potential untapped.
“He could have been of the best leadoff hitters of all time,” Smoltz says.
His old teammates are left to wonder: What would Deion Sanders’ baseball career have looked like if Prime Time, the football player, never existed?
“If he had taken off that football uniform and said, I’m going all the way in to play Major League Baseball,” Nixon says, “Deion Sanders would have been in the Hall of Fame. I know that for a fact.”
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