Sanders believes he has four choices: "A, play baseball full-time through the World Series and go to football on November 1; B, play baseball during the week, football on the weekends; C, play football only; D, the hell with 'em both, and just go fishing. Well, it looks like B and D are out. I want to decide soon—by the end of the week, I hope. But right now I have no idea which way I'll go."
Money is very much a factor in his decision. The Braves paid him $600,000 for his services from April through July, and he is earning $125,000 for each month he is with the team thereafter. They have made him a long-term offer that is believed to be about $2 million per year. For their part, the Falcons are scheduled to pay Sanders $750,000 this season, and he says their offer of a $1 million bonus to report to the team is still on the table. Even though $1.75 million is more than Lawrence Taylor ever made in a season, it's not enough to make Deion come running.
"Don't compare me with just defensive players," he says. "Compare me with everybody. Compare me with Dan Marino and his $4.4 million. Don't tell me I'm not two thirds the player for Atlanta that Marino is for Miami. Pay me that." Sources close to the Falcons-Sanders negotiations say Sanders wants at least $2.5 million a year; for that he'll give up baseball in late summer each year.
Although both the Braves and the Falcons have been careful not to alienate him while awaiting his decision, neither club is helping him make up his mind—by forking over the loot he's looking for. What has become apparent is that the Falcons and Sanders need each other a little more than the Braves need Sanders or Sanders needs the Braves.
Three years ago the Falcons closed the 1980s with 7,792 people watching another loss in their mausoleum of a home, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Their 3-13 record was their seventh straight losing season, and the team's bosses, members of the Rankin Smith family, were petrified. A few blocks away the first spadeful of dirt had recently been turned on the site for a $210 million domed stadium, which would have 203 luxury boxes and 71,000 seats. However, who would be fool enough to buy a ticket to watch these bums, never mind pay as much as $120,000 a year to "entertain" corporate clients in a cushy suite by making them sit through a Falcon game?
Two weeks later Atlanta hired Glanville, and he and vice-president of player personnel Ken Herock went about making their team faster and faster, and meaner and meaner, and Deioner and Deioner. Last year the Falcons went 10-6, won a playoff game and were the most exhilarating team in the league, with the charismatic Sanders intercepting passes and returning kicks and mugging with Hammer on the sideline. Suddenly the Georgia Dome didn't look like such a bad idea. In fact, the Falcons went from being cash-poor to a cash cow. They leased every luxury box. As of Sunday they had sold all but 5,000 of the 715,940 tickets available for the entire 10-game home schedule, including two exhibitions. Conservatively, the Falcons will rake in $10 million more this year than they did in 1991—even if they finish 0-16.
If this all sounds too easy, too happily-ever-after, that's because it is. For all Atlanta's success last season, the team still had a soft spot—the defense, which was rated 24th in the league—and events of this off-season have made the situation worse. A symbol of the sudden turn that threatens to derail the Falcons arrived at the team's training camp in Suwanee, Ga., last week in the icing on a birthday cake.
The players had just finished a morning practice when a huge sheet cake, with HAPPY BIRTHDAY DEION written across it, arrived. Beneath the sprawling script, drawn on the icing, was the image of a football being split in half by a fastball. Sanders had sent the cake himself. His 25th birthday had been a few days earlier, and he wanted to be sure his Falcon teammates didn't forget him while he was across town, playing for the Braves.
Don't worry, Deion, they haven't forgotten you. Nor have they forgotten Brian Jordan, one of the best young safeties in the NFL last year, or Andre Rison, one of the best receivers in the game. Sanders, Jordan and Rison were three of the Falcons' best eight or 10 players in '91, but not one of them was around last Saturday night, when the Falcons dropped their second preseason game in two weeks, a 40-28 stinker at Tampa Bay.
Jordan, an outfielder who signed a three-year, $2.2 million, baseball-exclusive contract with the St. Louis Cardinals in June, was sitting on the bench of the Louisville Redbirds, the Cards' Triple A affiliate, recovering from a stiff back. Under the terms of his contract, the earliest Jordan can play football again is 1994. Rison was home in Lansing, Mich., waiting for the Falcons to renegotiate his contract, which has two years remaining. Having caught more passes in his first three years as a pro (215, including 26 for touchdowns) than anyone else in NFL history, he's mad that the Falcons are kowtowing to Sanders instead of to him.