Deion Sanders paused in mid-cheese stick over lunch at a Columbus, Ohio, hotel, and his engaging smile suddenly vanished. The fried appetizer was just fine. What stuck in Sanders's craw was the mention of Bo Jackson and the two-sport king's recent advice that young Deion do more talking with his bat and glove and less with his mouth.
"Man, I hate that," said Sanders, shaking his head. "The Kid. He's always sayin' The Kid. The Kid this. The Kid that. At this stage of my career, I feel I'm so far ahead of where he was. He says The Kid needs to be quiet. Well, I think he's just jealous that somebody else is trying to do what he's doing."
Only two years after Jackson jolted the sports world by deciding to play the outfield for the Kansas City Royals and tailback for the Los Angeles Raiders, Sanders, the flamboyant, bejeweled 21-year-old nicknamed Prime Time, is preparing to do the same kind of double duty.
An All-America cornerback and erstwhile centerfielder at Florida State University, Sanders was still glowing last week from his brief stint with the New York Yankees. But as he adjusted to a new assignment with the Yankees' Triple A club in Columbus, Sanders's contract talks with the Atlanta Falcons, who made him the fifth pick of the National Football League draft on April 23, were at an impasse.
July 2, 1989
Everything seemed much clearer on that April afternoon as Sanders, decked out in his finest gold jewelry, celebrated his selection at the Winnetka, Ill., home of his agent, Steve Zucker. In spite of having played well for three Yankee farm clubs during the summer of '88, Sanders was giving every indication that he intended to make pro football his career. As a defensive back he was without peer, an athlete who could be All-Pro in his rookie season. And to the young man who had arrived in a tux and chauffeured limousine for the Seminoles' end-of-season showdown against Florida last fall, the NFL had to look far more enticing than the minor leagues. Now, with the Falcons and their No. 1 draft choice millions of dollars apart in negotiations, Sanders is telling everyone that maybe baseball doesn't look so shabby after all.
Zucker, who orchestrated the selling of Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, has hastily altered his marketing strategy for Sanders—which includes a line of Prime Time jeans, sweat-suits and sneakers. Sanders the football star is now Sanders the dual threat. "What Deion's got going for him is the two-sport concept—he's Bo Jackson with a personality," Zucker says.
Quite a turnaround for a young man who didn't even play baseball his last two years at Florida State. But seeing that the phenom appeared to be agonizing over the direction of his career, the Yankees saw an opportunity; on May 31 Sanders was plucked from Double A Albany and brought to New York, and in only his 62nd game as a professional, Sanders found himself in pinstripes, bathed in the lights of Yankee Stadium.
"I couldn't believe it," Sanders says. "I'm thinking about Mickey Mantle, and about Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. I'm saying, 'I'm 21 years old and I'm really here.' And since I've been there, I've proven to myself that I can compete at that level and be successful."
During his 12 days with the Yankees, Sanders threw out a runner at third in his first game, used his remarkable speed (40 yards in 4.25 seconds) to make several circus catches, and even hit a home run. Though he batted only 212, going 7 for 33, he finished with a 3-for-7 flourish before being sent down to Columbus on June 11.
"There's no doubt in my mind that he can be a major league star," says Yankee owner George Steinbrenner. "Sure, he made some mistakes, but those are of a learning-experience type. I've never seen a kid come in and do what he did."
Ultimately, what Sanders did was change the dynamics of his contract talks with Atlanta. "Deion has always said that football is his wife and baseball is his girlfriend," says Zucker. "Well, baseball just became Miss America."
Sanders, too, is humming a different tune. "Football doesn't realize that I don't need it," he says. "I would miss it, because I love the game. But Mr. Steinbrenner can pay me just as much as Atlanta. So they need to think about that."
Playing centerfield at Yankee Stadium could turn anyone's head, but there is considerable suspicion that Sanders's sudden romance with baseball is simply a bargaining ploy. Sanders flew to Atlanta on June 12 to talk money with the Falcons but walked out when he heard their offer: roughly $3.5 million over five years. Sanders wants a six-year contract worth $10.75 million, a number that he and Zucker based on the $11 million, six-year deal signed by quarterback Troy Aikman, the No. 1 pick of the Dallas Cowboys.
"They're telling me Troy Aikman is $6 million better than me," Sanders says. "No way in the world."
"We want to sign Deion, and we made an offer that is substantial," says Atlanta's vice-president and chief financial officer, Jim Hay. "But there is a tremendous gap. I've never been this far apart in negotiations before."
If September arrives with no deal, Sanders says he will forget Atlanta and reenter the NFL draft in 1990. "I'm not sitting around until September and then jumping into the league with no preparation and people expecting miracles of me," he says. "The Falcons are going to tell me what to do. If they come with an offer of $5 million or $6 million, they're telling me, 'Deion, play baseball. We don't want you.' If they come right, I will pursue a career of both football and baseball."
But Sanders's two-sport balancing act could be more precarious than Bo's. Jackson made baseball his priority from the start, playing parts of two seasons with the Kansas City Royals before joining the Los Angeles Raiders as a running back eight weeks into the 1987 NFL schedule.
In his case, says Sanders, it depends on the cash: "If football paid me $1.3 million and baseball paid me more, I'd play a full season with the one that's paying me more. That's only right."
But it's not right with the Yankees and Falcons: Both clubs want a full-season commitment from Sanders. "You couldn't have him leaving in August [for football]," says Steinbrenner. "I think he could probably handle it, but he couldn't expect us to take him on the basis of his leaving us every August."
The Falcons point out that Jackson, a running back, could easily integrate himself into the Raider offense. But Sanders is just one component of a defensive system. "He certainly needs to be here for training camp," says Hay.
So what will Sanders do?
"I've advised him to play baseball right now and seriously think of not playing football this year because we're so far apart," says Zucker. "His value as a baseball player will continue to grow, because he's just going to get better and better at it."
Sanders's prospects as a major leaguer are indeed bright, according to his three most recent managers, Buck Showalter at Albany, Bucky Dent at Columbus and Dallas Green of the Yankees.
"He has tremendous speed—it gives him a real edge," says Showalter, who watched Sanders bat .286 and lead the Eastern League with 17 stolen bases before leaving for the Bronx.
"Deion has great God-given talent," says Dent. "But he's still raw. He needs experience, maybe 500 at bats down here so he can learn from his mistakes."
"From what he showed me," says Green, "he has a great future."
In fact, New York's trade of leftfielder Rickey Henderson to Oakland last week could reopen the Stadium door for Sanders. "Deion was absolutely in our thought process in that deal," says Yankee G.M. Syd Thrift. "He could be back up here again this season."
Sanders's brash style—his Neon Deion image from football—has worn somewhat unevenly this spring. At Albany his teammates kidded him, and he responded in kind. During one long bus ride, a kangaroo court was convened, and Sanders was tried for dressing too nicely, wearing too much jewelry and taking his cellular phone on road trips.
"Deion was pulling out his wallet and trying to buy votes left and right," says Albany teammate Andy Stankiewicz. "It was a riot."
Sanders was a major attraction in Albany. At home games the club's organist would play On Broadway to introduce him, and the scoreboard would often ask WHAT TIME is IT?—and then flash PRIME TIME!
The mood is different in Columbus. Many players have kept their distance, and Sanders senses resentment. "Here there's a lot more competition," he says. "Everybody's teed off that they're not at "the show." I don't really like the atmosphere."
"We've pretty much let him go his own way," says infielder Randy Velarde. "Generally, a guy comes in and you show your welcome and have him be accepted as part of the team. But he's pretty much a guy to himself. We're just giving him some room."
While Sanders adjusts to his latest home, he daydreams about the future. He wants to build a house with an indoor swimming pool that has PRIME TIME in real gold letters at the bottom, and a turf-covered indoor workout center. But his first project will be to build a house in Fort Myers, Fla., for his mother, Connie Knight. "Whatever I needed as a child, she made sure I had," he says. "Now I want to make sure she has whatever she needs."
Connie, a teacher's assistant at an elementary school, is pulling for her son to play football. Her husband, Willie Knight, wants his stepson to go for baseball. "And my [12-year-old] sister, Trade, just wants the money," says Sanders, who also has a 18-year-old stepsister named Dorcas.
"I know he likes baseball," says Deion's mother, "but he loves football. With football, he's Prime Time. He has such confidence in himself."
He does play to the crowd. Most of the time, Sanders wears two thick gold ornaments around his neck—a cross and a dollar sign. But at his first post-draft visit with Atlanta's media, he wore a dozen chains—and four dollar signs, perhaps a hint to Falcon management of the trouble to come.
Zucker is currently negotiating for radio and TV shows for his client in Atlanta, conditional on his signing with the Falcons. Sanders owns more than 100 pairs of shoes and more than 50 hats and 50 pairs of sunglasses. "He doesn't like wearing the same shoes twice in one week," says his girlfriend, Carolyn Chambers, with a laugh.
"I say, if you look good, you feel good; you feel good, you play good; you play good, they pay good," he says. The Yankees have so far paid him roughly $500,000 over the last two seasons.
But Sanders says he turns down the neon when he's away from the limelight. He says he prays before each meal and before he goes to sleep, doesn't drink and answers every fan letter he receives.
His friends agree that the private Deion is mature and considerate, so they were shocked last winter when Sanders was arrested at a shopping mall in Fort Myers a week before the Sugar Bowl and charged with assault. Sanders says he had paid $25 for a pair of earrings; a salesclerk said he had not given her the cash. An altercation ensued, and the police were summoned. Sanders later pleaded no contest to a count of simple battery and disorderly conduct and was fined $800 with six months' probation. He is still bitter about the episode. "In Florida, if you're black and driving a 'Benz and wearing a lot of jewelry, you're seen as a drug dealer," he says.
Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, satisfied with his cocaptain's explanation, allowed him to play in the Sugar Bowl, and it was Sanders's dramatic, last-second interception that cemented the Seminoles' 13-7 win over Auburn and their final, No. 3 national ranking.
"If he's around a crowd of writers, he'll show off," says Bowden. "But by himself, he's very low-key and likable, and a very kind person."
Sanders fears being misunderstood and thinks that a TV special, perhaps a Barbara Walters interview, could reveal his true self. "It's like Michael Jackson," he says. "You think he wears that glove all the time? He puts it on for show, then takes it off. That's how I am."
He may not wear a glove, but Sanders always wears rubber bands around both wrists. It's part of his superstitious nature. He has one other unusual superstition. At the plate, he always traces a pattern in the dirt with the end of his bat. "I've been doing it ever since Little League," he says. "I'm not even sure what the shape is."
It might be a dollar sign.