The phone rang on Sunday evening in Deion Sanders's hotel room, 19 floors above the streets of Pittsburgh. It was his good friend Terrell Buckley, now a holdout rookie cornerback for the Green Bay Packers, calling to see how Deion's baseball world was spinning. Sanders, an Atlanta Brave outfielder when he's not an Atlanta Falcon cornerback, leaned back in a soft chair near the window, the phone pressed to his right ear while he played mindlessly with the diamond earring in his left. He looked tired. He sounded tired. He was tired—and frustrated.
That afternoon, on a routine fly-out in a hitless performance against the Pirates' young knuckleballer, Tim Wakefield, Sanders had thrown his bat 30 feet as he ran to first base. When he reached the bench, he told pitcher Tom Glavine, "I'm going to go home and kill myself, Tommy. Will you read the eulogy at the service?"
After the Braves' 4-2 defeat he took his Louisville Slugger back to the hotel. He was planning to take a cut or two later, to try to get his swing back. But now all he wanted to do was rest and think about the toughest decision of the first 25 years of his life—a decision two playoff-contending teams awaited anxiously. "Man," Sanders said to Buckley, "my mind ain't on this junk. I ain't swinging worth a damn. I've got to make a decision."
When he got off the phone, he stared out the window, searching for words to describe the feeling of having to choose between two sports he plays very well. "I want it all, all," he said. "But you can't have it all in this world. So I need to make a decision. I need to know my destiny. I want the damn zoo to stop.
"You know the best thing? The best thing is, I know either way I'm going to win, even though either way I'm going to be giving something up."
Sanders has agonized over this before, of course, in each of the past three years. Things are different now, though. He is no longer some .191 hitter/pinch runner. He's an impact player on a team headed for a return trip to the World Series. He's slumping a bit now, hitting .303 through Sunday after being at .319 two weeks ago, but he's still leading the major leagues in triples, with 13, and platooning in leftfield with slugger Ron Gant.
Meanwhile, the Falcons are no longer one of the NFL's doormats, having made the playoffs last season for the first time since 1982. And Sanders is one of the league's best coverage cornerbacks, a critical element in the Falcons' risk-taking but talent-thin defense. He's a terrific kickoff and punt returner, too.
Sanders is frank about his role with the Braves. "They can do without me," he says. "I know it, and they know it."
General manager John Schuerholz says that the team is willing to share Sanders with the Falcons once the NFL season starts in two weeks, using him Monday through Thursday for the balance of the baseball season and lending him to the Falcons on Friday through Sunday. "We're willing to accommodate Deion," Schuerholz says. "Clearly we're better with him than without him."
The Falcons, however, aren't interested in time-sharing. "You know me," says Falcon coach Jerry Glanville. "You have to remember that I'm a team-concept guy. I have to think of 50 players, not one. The practice week is vitally important to me. If it's not important to one guy, and one of the best guys, then you're going to have everybody else looking around and saying, 'Why am I here?' "