The problem kept growing. Deep breathing, extra batting
practice, 15 years of karate training--nothing helped to solve
it. He understood that it could happen to anyone, but that
didn't stop it from getting worse. And so last October he bore
frustrated witness to his own metamorphosis from an outfielder
of uncommon grace and power into the inspiration for a snide
catchphrase meaning 1) an ill-timed batting slump or 2) utter
ineptitude, as in "I might have hit only .250," as Atlanta
outfielder David Justice said, "but I didn't pull a Reggie
This is an article from the March 12, 1996 issue
A stranger approached Sanders at a mall near his home in Tampa
and reported Justice's remark. The words stung the Reds
rightfielder, but the stranger couldn't have known it by
Sanders's reaction. For even while he was batting .138 with 19
strikeouts in 29 at bats in seven postseason games against the
Dodgers and the Braves, Sanders never muttered anything saltier
than "heck" and always answered the media's queries in a soft,
sweet voice. "What he said," the 28-year-old Sanders recalls,
referring to Justice, "wrecked my day right there."
He is sitting on the tailgate of his Land Cruiser in a Tampa
parking lot in January, waiting his turn at His&Her barbershop
("Precision cuts with the precision touch"). In 1995 Sanders
was brilliant: He hit .306, mashed 28 homers, slugged .579,
stole 36 bases, drove in 99 runs and tied for fourth among NL
outfielders in assists, with 12. But he slumped in September as
he strained to reach the 30-30 mark and then flailed wildly
against the league's two best pitching staffs in the playoffs.
"I wouldn't trade those experiences for anything, because
they're going to make me a better player," he says. "I have to
master what to do when I'm shooting for a goal and I get near
it--how to stay focused. I have to learn how to kick to another
The higher the level, however, the more intense the spotlight.
Sanders, using the phrase that pads many of his sentences,
prefers things "blah-zay-blah"; a bumper sticker affixed above
his meticulously organized Riverfront Stadium locker reads I'D
QUIT MY JOB BUT I NEED THE SLEEP. When Cincinnati's new manager,
Ray Knight, suggested after the season that Sanders might be
switched back to centerfield to take better advantage of his
athleticism, Sanders was reluctant to disrupt his routine. "That
whole idea just upset my stomach," he says.
"If Reggie feels there's pressure on him, he fights himself,"
says his wife, Wyndee, a former point guard at Kansas. She
believes Reggie can be true to his laid-back, unfailingly
pleasant nature and still take charge on the field at crunch
time. "Most great players have a cockiness about them, but
that's not Reggie," Wyndee says. "I tell him that you can be
confident without being evil about it. He's developing that."
Sanders has already traveled light-years beyond his boyhood
dreams of baseball. His mother, Thelma, was the star of the
family back then, playing fast-pitch softball in the Florence,
S.C., men's leagues. Reggie's uncles prodded him into playing
baseball when he was seven. Reggie earned a scholarship to
Spartanburg (S.C.) Methodist College, where he played shortstop
and studied computer science for two years. The Reds selected
him in the seventh round of the 1987 draft.
In August 1991 Jim Bowden, then the team's director of player
development (he's now the general manager), left his seat at a
Double A game in Knoxville, Tenn., walked to a pay phone and
called his boss, Bob Quinn. "You've got to take Reggie to the
big leagues," Bowden said.
"How can I?" Quinn responded. "He's only in Double A."
"He's already better than anyone you have up there now," said
Sanders was called up that night and has not gone back down
since. In his first three full seasons in the majors, he
averaged .269 with 16 homers, 73 runs scored and 21 steals.
Still, it took a chat with veteran slugger Kevin Mitchell two
years ago to convince Sanders that he belonged not just in the
big leagues but also among the biggest sticks. Mitchell, then a
Red, was fond of calling Sanders "a walking Black &
Decker"--loaded with all the tools. "Kevin told me, 'All you
have to do is figure out what kind of player you want to be and
go for it; you have no limits on you,'" Sanders says. "So that's
what I did last year. I tried to figure out who Reggie Sanders
is as a baseball player."
Last spring he made an adjustment in his stance, moving his
hands from high and back to low and toward the front of the
plate, which improved his timing. Though no one in the NL swung
and missed with greater frequency (Sanders struck out 30% of the
time), he raised his average 43 points from '94 and began to
pound the ball to all fields. Against Colorado on Aug. 15, he
had a home run hat trick, blasting a slider 425 feet to left, a
fastball 377 feet to right and another heater 404 feet to left.
When reporters arrived at Sanders's locker afterward, he had
already slipped away. But Wyndee has encouraged him to be more
outspoken this year. "He's learning to express himself rather
than lock things in," she says. Besides, the more exposure he
gets to the spotlight during the season, the less blinding its
glare will be in the playoffs.
Sanders is outside the barbershop now, his hair trimmed just so,
and he is eager to put those nonprecision cuts of October
behind. "I love the game, but I was ready for last season to
end," he says. "Now I can't wait for it to start." He is
smiling, steeling himself for the next stage in his development.
He is pulling a Reggie Sanders.