Deion Sanders's injured left ring finger was taped to the adjacent middle one, as is common in the NFL, where he has starred for the Atlanta Falcons as a cornerback and kick returner. But now his game of choice is baseball, and he's at it full-time this time, says Prime Time. He's so focused on it that he rarely even utters the word football anymore.
"I've accomplished my goal in that other thing," he says. "Now it's time for me to accomplish a goal in this thing." The goal? "Success. Enormous success.... I'm a good baseball player. But I can be a great baseball player. A star baseball player."
Through Sunday, Sanders was batting .426, with at least one hit in each of the 13 games the Atlanta Braves had played. His sixth triple of the year, last Saturday night, kept him on pace to obliterate the National League single-season record of 36, set in 1912 by the Pittsburgh Pirates' Owen Wilson. Further, "this is a guy who's going to hit 20 home runs this year," says Braves manager Bobby Cox.
Last week fans in Atlanta went wild when Sanders said, "I'm a full-time baseball player," which appeared to put the national pastime ahead of his All-Pro football career, at least for now. Perhaps there won't be any helicopter shuttling between Falcon practices and Braves games come fall—as there was last autumn—but Sanders still has time to make that decision.
But now he had to decide about playing baseball with his lingers taped. At Dodger Stadium last Friday afternoon, Cox and Clarence Jones, Atlanta's batting coach, watched Sanders take BP, not to see how many balls he could hit out of the park, but to sec whether he could hit at all. The kamikaze style that Sanders brings from that other thing to this thing had bitten him the night before. In stealing his fourth base of the season, he had plowed into second headfirst and jammed the knuckle of his left ring finger. "I damn near slept in an ice bucket," Sanders said. "When I woke up, it was very stiff."
(Oh, by the way, Sanders also has been playing with a hairline fracture of his left foot, suffered when he slid into a base late in spring training. "Yeah, it really hurts," says Sanders. "If I wasn't a football player, I probably wouldn't be out there.")
On the first pitch during batting practice on Friday, the lefthanded-hitting Sanders slapped the ball foul to the opposite field. "Damn!" he yelled in pain, his cry echoing off the upper decks of the empty blue canyon.
"I just don't think he's going to be able to play," Cox said. "But Deion's the type of guy you better let try. He's going to be ticked off if you don't." So Cox penciled Sanders in as his centerfielder and lead-off hitter. On the first pitch of the game, Sanders singled to left off Dodger righthander Ramon Martinez.
Sanders began the season as a replacement for Otis Nixon, his best friend, who was sitting out the first 18 days of the season as part of a drug-related suspension. When Nixon returns this week, Cox will play them both, with the more powerful Sanders hitting second and Nixon taking his customary spot at the top of the order. That's the way it will be until rightfielder David Justice returns from the disabled list later this month, leaving Cox, who also has slugger Ron Gant and the hard-hitting Lonnie Smith on his roster, in the enviable position of having too many good outfielders.
"I've got to where I know in my heart I'm going to go out there and get me two every day," says Sanders. "Two base hits. That's my goal."