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Inside The NFL

Dec. 13, 1999
Dec. 13, 1999

Table of Contents
Dec. 13, 1999

Inside The NFL

BATTER UP
Believing he has some unfinished business, Deion Sanders is
eyeing a return to baseball

This is an article from the Dec. 13, 1999 issue Original Layout

Deion Sanders has wanderlust again, even as his Cowboys are
fighting for survival in the NFC playoff race. Last Saturday, as
carols from an ice rink in downtown Providence wafted up to his
12th-floor hotel room, Sanders sounded like a man who hopes he
finds an outfielder's glove under his Christmas tree. "All men
reach an age and say, 'I wish I had just....' You complete the
sentence," said Sanders, his feet propped up on an ottoman the
night before his team would face the Patriots. "For every man
it's different. That is where I am with baseball. It is not a
desire with me. It is a passion. And a passion is something that
never goes away."

Sanders paused to let those words sink in. Then he added,
"Sometimes I walk around my house carrying a bat, getting the
feel of it. My wife will say, 'You're thinking about it, aren't
you?' I say, 'What do you think?'"

Sanders has always been a calculating man. Coming out of Florida
State in 1989, he basically invented his Prime Time persona as a
way to make quarterback money while playing cornerback. It
worked. Four years ago, when such contracts were still the stuff
of dreams, he finagled a then record $13 million signing bonus
as part of a seven-year, $35 million free-agent deal with the
Cowboys. He got that big dough even though he was shuttling
between football and baseball. Dallas owner Jerry Jones, a
showman in his own right, just had to have him. Now Sanders is
thinking seriously about playing a full baseball season for the
first time since 1997--and maybe not playing football at all.

This romance with baseball is not a way for Sanders to squeeze
one last megabonus out of Jones when the two sit down to
restructure his untenable deal after the season. (Sanders's base
salary in 2000 is $10.5 million, and the Cowboys would cut him
before paying him that.) Now 32 and having missed time with
injuries in each of the last five football seasons, he knows he
can't expect another historic payday. This is about what Sanders
really wants to do. The Reds, for whom he last played baseball,
have placed Sanders on their 40-man roster and intend to take up
the matter of signing him with agent Eugene Parker after the NFL
season.

"In baseball," Cincinnati general manager Jim Bowden said last
Friday, "the age from 32 to 37 can be a great time for a player.
Deion is a winner. He's a great influence on our younger
players. Our door is always open to Deion. I realize he hasn't
played baseball in two years, and that's a long time in our
game. But if anyone can do it, he can."

Last summer Sanders sat on the Reds' bench, in uniform, for a
game. Afterward he and shortstop Barry Larkin went out to eat.
"Barry asked me, 'Man, why don't you play? We'd love to have
you,'" Sanders recalls. "I told him, 'I've got so much peace in
my life. I don't know if I can.' And he said, 'You need some
tribulation in your life. Come on back.'"

That's when Sanders started seriously thinking about
returning--and when his two children entered the picture. Since
their parents separated (and eventually divorced) about two
years ago, 9-year-old Deiondra and 6-year-old Deion Jr. have
lived in Houston with their mother; Deion gets the kids all
summer and every other weekend during the rest of the year. Last
off-season he coached Deiondra's softball team and Deion Jr.'s
T-ball team, and he loved doing both.

"I'm praying about this baseball issue," he says. "I love my
time with my babies, and if I played baseball, I'd be away from
them so much. The way it is now is so convenient. That's the
thing that concerns me. So it's got to be the Lord telling me to
play."

Does the fact that he never established himself as a baseball
star bother him? "You hit it right there," he says. He showed
flashes of brilliance, but Sanders was a pedestrian player
overall in parts of eight seasons with the Yankees, Braves, Reds
and Giants. In 609 career games he batted .266 with a .322
on-base percentage, lousy numbers for a leadoff hitter.
Nevertheless, says Bowden, "he had unlimited potential in our
game, but it could never be realized because he kept shuttling
back and forth between football and baseball."

Adds Sanders, "There's no contemplating about if I could do it.
I can. But it takes time, and it takes a commitment."

Sanders won't talk about it, but friends say his dream
professional year would be playing a full baseball season with
the Reds, working on Fox's NFL pregame show in October and
November and then signing with a contender in December for the
stretch drive to a possible Super Bowl.

That scenario is a long shot, to be sure, and Sanders's time in
the NFL is rapidly slipping away. Still, when healthy, he can
dominate a game at cornerback and as a return man, and Jones
says Sanders could be an offensive threat if he devoted an
off-season to working on his receiving. It's also clear that he
would miss football if he cast his lot with baseball.

"I live for these Sundays, man," he says. "Now Monday through
Saturday, that's another thing. But Sundays are the best. I love
shutting down my man, then I love fourth downs. I love sitting
back there, getting ready to return a punt, knowing that the
punter's as nervous as a man on death row whose time has come."

Bowden recently acquired Dante Bichette from the Rockies and is
trying to get Ken Griffey Jr. from the Mariners. Still he wants
Sanders in his outfield picture. Sanders seems to want that too.
"I will tell you this," Bowden says. "When Deion was here last
summer, he ordered a dozen bats. Louisville Sluggers."

"Not true," Sanders says with a laugh. "It was two dozen."

Ted Johnson Returns
PATRIOTS GET A NEEDED LIFT

The thought hit New England middle linebacker Ted Johnson just
before Sunday night's game against Dallas: I haven't tackled
anybody in a year. After undergoing arthroscopic surgery on both
shoulders in 1998, Johnson tore the biceps tendon in each
arm--the right arm tendon during a game against the Steelers
last December, the left in a scrimmage at training camp in
August. The surgery to repair the latter was particularly
serious; doctors had to drill through bone to reattach the tendon.

But there on the field on Sunday night was Johnson, the backbone
of New England's run defense, ready for the stretch drive. Going
into the game, the Pats ranked 22nd in the league against the
run, yielding 111.1 yards per game; the Johnson-led troops held
Dallas, the league's second-best rushing team, to 63 yards on 23
carries in a 13-6 win. "When he came into the huddle to start
the game," said New England defensive tackle Chad Eaton, "he
said what he always says: 'Let's rock and roll.' I got goose
bumps. He brought aggression and adrenaline to us."

Johnson got into the fray right away, assisting on the tackle on
the Cowboys' first two snaps. He finished with six tackles. More
important, he said he felt no pain in either arm or shoulder.

But did his return come too late? At 7-5 the Patriots are a game
out of the final AFC wild-card spot, and they don't stack up
well in tiebreakers against the Bills and the Dolphins, the 8-4
teams they are trying to catch. Plus, New England has already
lost to another 7-5 team, the Chiefs.

Next up for the Patriots is a road game with the high-powered
Colts, not a good matchup for a struggling New England offense
that can't walk and chew gum at the same time. "We lose one more
game," said New England cornerback Ty Law, "and we'll have all
off-season to think about what went wrong."

Bruce Matthews's Record
TITANS GUARD NOT DONE YET

Titans guard Bruce Matthews likes to get a game of tape-ball
going in the locker room of the team's spacious new practice
facility. He'll pitch a ball of athletic tape to his
broomstick-swinging offensive linemates, not satisfied until he
blows a fastball past a batter or breaks off a nasty curve.
Keeps him young, he says.

On Sunday against the Ravens, the 38-year-old Matthews, who has
played all five line positions in a 17-year career, broke former
Ram Jackie Slater's NFL record for most games played by an
offensive lineman, appearing in his 260th. "You can't be Satchel
Paige in this game," says Bucs director of player personnel
Jerry Angelo, "but Matthews is about as close as you can come."

Perhaps genetics has something to do with it. Matthews's brother
Clay played 19 years at linebacker, mostly for the Browns,
before retiring after the 1993 season. "I work out and I don't
eat bad," says Bruce, "but I'm not a workout or nutrition freak.
I've just been blessed with a body that can take a pounding."

Since breaking into the Oilers' starting lineup as a rookie
guard in 1983, Matthews has missed only eight games, the result
of a holdout in '87. Matthews's durability and athleticism have
enabled him to thrive even in an era when a lineman may be asked
to block a nosetackle on one play and a blitzing safety on the
next. And what about his plans for the future? "The good Lord
willing," he says, "I'll be back next year."

Dispatches
SHARPE'S DENVER DAYS NUMBERED

Though the Broncos say they will try hard to keep him, look for
tight end Shannon Sharpe to sign elsewhere in the off-season.
The 31-year-old Sharpe, out since breaking his collarbone on
Oct. 10, thinks he has a couple of great years left. He could
land in Seattle, where Mike Holmgren needs a receiving tight
end.... Take this to the bank: The Cowboys won't allow wideout
Michael Irvin, placed on injured reserve last Saturday with a
narrowing of the spinal column, to play for them again. This is
a permanent condition, not something that gets better with
treatment.... Of all the crazy numbers in the NFL, the craziest
might be that Cleveland has more touchdown passes (14) than
Denver (11).

Send your pro football questions for Peter King's mailbag and
read more from Paul Zimmerman at cnnsi.com/football.

COLOR PHOTO: OTTO GREULE/ALLSPORT Sanders can still dominate a football game, and he thinks if he focused on baseball, he could be a hit on the diamond too.COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Matthews, though in his 17th season, is more than holding his own.

the buzz

1. VERMEIL WEEPS "It's an [gulp, pause] unbelievable [catch in
the throat, pause] feeling," Rams coach Dick Vermeil managed to
say after the franchise made the playoffs for the first time
since 1989. Surprise! In the World According to Dick, postseason
equals tears. Next up for St. Louis: securing home field
throughout the NFC playoffs. To clinch, the Rams may only have
to go 2-2 against four teams that are .500, at best.

2. SHOW HIM THE MONEY Out of the ashes of the Bengals' woeful
season will rise a free-agent quarterback who figures to land a
$5 million-a-year contract in the off-season. Jeff Blake is the
quarterback that the Steelers pray Kordell Stewart can still
become--great arm, nice touch, knows when to run and when to
stay in the pocket--and if he had played this well the past two
years, the Bengals wouldn't have had to draft Akili Smith last
spring. Blake, who lit up the 49ers for 334 yards and four
touchdowns in a 44-30 Cincinnati win on Sunday, will make a big
score in Tampa Bay, Miami, San Francisco or New Orleans.

3. THE AFC W(EIRD)EST Two weeks ago, the Seahawks were sailing
along at 8-2, leading the AFC West by three games. Now Seattle
is 8-4, a game up on the Chiefs, and the teams' Dec. 26 rematch
at the Kingdome might decide the division. We'd take Seattle in
a walk, if only Jon Kitna would stop making fatal mistakes. "We
know what's at stake," says defensive tackle Riddick Parker,
"and it's putting some pressure on us."