Believing he has some unfinished business, Deion Sanders is eyeing a return to baseball
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 comerback. 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."