He pulls a black baseball cap down low on his forehead and slowly climbs aboard his Schwinn Express for the one-mile ride home. His Cincinnati Reds teammates have long since left the building, but Elvis is still around as the clubhouse clock at Cinergy Field hits midnight, wringing out another night at the ballpark. There are not many quiet moments in the loud and public life of Deion Sanders, but this city and this sport allow him a few.
As he wheels his mountain bike out the side door, he looks as if he's making his getaway, and Sanders concedes that that may not be far from the truth. "I'll be honest, this is somewhat of an escape," he says of baseball. "I lost my stepfather this spring. I lost my biological father four years ago, and I still miss him. My mother has been sick, and I'm going through a divorce. And you know what makes me happy? I'm still able to do the things I'm doing on the field."
The things he was doing included hitting .320 at week's end and leading the major leagues with 25 stolen bases, counting a pair in a 5-0 win over the San Diego Padres on Sunday. The Reds were in last place in the National League Central, but at the top of the order and in centerfield Sanders had already pulled off a remarkable feat: He was, after sitting out an entire baseball season, a better player than he had been when he left. Neither time nor his dangerous day job have deterred his quest to become a late-blooming gem on the diamond. "I was shocked," says teammate Joe Oliver. "He took a year off and actually improved. I don't know how you do that."
At 29, eight years after breaking into the big leagues, Sanders has discovered new ways to apply his considerable physical gifts to baseball, shortening up his swing and, through Sunday, beating out a remarkable 18 infield hits, including four bunt singles. Once on base he has emerged as Cincinnati's answer to Rickey Henderson: a disruptive force who is always a threat to run. Sanders attributes his base stealing success to a boost in his on-base percentage (.367 this year, compared with his career average of .325). "I'm just getting on more, man," he says. But his teammates say he also spends more time studying pitchers and trying to understand the art of the steal. "Last time he was here, he didn't have a real focus. He just went out and played," says Reds shortstop Barry Larkin. "Now he's got a game plan, and he sticks to it. He's a more complete player."
Sanders says one reason he came back to baseball was the rare chance to exceed expectations. On the baseball field he can still take people by surprise. He says his comeback had nothing to do with money, and he's a rare professional athlete who can make that claim with a straight face: Cincinnati general manager Jim Bowden signed Sanders to a one-year, $1.2 million deal even though the Reds and other teams were waving lucrative, long-term offers in front of him.
How did the Reds land one of the game's premier gate attractions for less than what Albert Belle pays in taxes? Sanders says he only wanted to make sure he was up to the 162-game grind of another major league season, and despite his recent success he insists he doesn't know if he will play baseball next year. The only thing he will say for certain is that he will play for no one but the Reds. "This is the only place I want to be," he says. "My teammates are cool, Jim Bowden is cool, the city is cool. Everyone is laid-back and low-key. I can ride my bike downtown and no one bothers me."
Sanders, of course, spends his autumns on another planet, as an All-Pro cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys. He could probably ride his bike through Dallas—provided he left room on the handlebars for TV camera crews and collectibles hounds. Cincinnati allows Sanders more than just an escape from his personal problems; it also allows him some time away from the madness of Jerry Jonestown. He has five years left on the seven-year, $35 million contract he signed with the Cowboys in September 1995, but the deal allows him to miss up to the first eight of Dallas's regular-season games each year without losing a penny. The Cowboys have no reason to worry about the Reds keeping Sanders away from Dallas too far into the NFL schedule: These Reds have as much a chance of qualifying for the postseason as Marge Schott has of joining the Spice Girls. Sanders has vowed to return to the Cowboys as soon as the Reds are out of the pennant race, which had prompted cynics in Cincinnati to suggest that Deion should be able to report to Dallas's minicamp next month.
"There are a lot of reasons I came back, but I'll tell you the main one: I wanted to," says Sanders. "I got bored. I had a great time last year. I went fishing, I played basketball. But one day I told myself I didn't want to look back and think what might have been. I could be in Cancún with the fellas. I could be playing basketball. But I'm not doing that because I don't want to. I want to be here, out there on the bases, jumping around and having a good time. You know why? Because I like it. I like playing the game."
Sanders also likes to feel wanted, and beginning last September, Bowden called him more often than a salesman from a spurned long-distance phone company. The persistent general manager reminded Sanders that he still regretted having traded him to the San Francisco Giants in July 1995, even though in return Cincinnati got pitchers Dave Burba and Mark Portugal, who helped the Reds win the division that year. Bowden can only imagine how New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner feels. The Yankees released Sanders after the 1990 season. "The trade got us into the playoffs," says Bowden, "but it's still the least favorite trade I've ever made. To me, Deion is just a special player."
Some of the Reds pitched in and helped with Bowden's recruiting effort. Larkin and infielder Lenny Harris called Sanders during football season and told him that they were keeping the leadoff spot open for him. Harris, Sanders's closest friend on the Reds and a free agent after last season, told Deion that he would return to Cincinnati if Deion would. "I just said, 'Why sit at home when you can come up here and help us win a pennant?' " says Harris. "It's an ego thing. He just didn't want to give up on baseball yet. He told me he wanted to become one of the best leadoff hitters in the game, and that's what he's doing."