Deion Sanders paused in mid-cheese stick over lunch at a Columbus, Ohio, hotel, and his engaging smile suddenly vanished. The fried appetizer was just fine. What stuck in Sanders's craw was the mention of Bo Jackson and the two-sport king's recent advice that young Deion do more talking with his bat and glove and less with his mouth.
"Man, I hate that," said Sanders, shaking his head. "The Kid. He's always sayin' The Kid. The Kid this. The Kid that. At this stage of my career, I feel I'm so far ahead of where he was. He says The Kid needs to be quiet. Well, I think he's just jealous that somebody else is trying to do what he's doing."
Only two years after Jackson jolted the sports world by deciding to play the outfield for the Kansas City Royals and tailback for the Los Angeles Raiders, Sanders, the flamboyant, bejeweled 21-year-old nicknamed Prime Time, is preparing to do the same kind of double duty.
An All-America cornerback and erstwhile centerfielder at Florida State University, Sanders was still glowing last week from his brief stint with the New York Yankees. But as he adjusted to a new assignment with the Yankees' Triple A club in Columbus, Sanders's contract talks with the Atlanta Falcons, who made him the fifth pick of the National Football League draft on April 23, were at an impasse.
Everything seemed much clearer on that April afternoon as Sanders, decked out in his finest gold jewelry, celebrated his selection at the Winnetka, Ill., home of his agent, Steve Zucker. In spite of having played well for three Yankee farm clubs during the summer of '88, Sanders was giving every indication that he intended to make pro football his career. As a defensive back he was without peer, an athlete who could be All-Pro in his rookie season. And to the young man who had arrived in a tux and chauffeured limousine for the Seminoles' end-of-season showdown against Florida last fall, the NFL had to look far more enticing than the minor leagues. Now, with the Falcons and their No. 1 draft choice millions of dollars apart in negotiations, Sanders is telling everyone that maybe baseball doesn't look so shabby after all.
Zucker, who orchestrated the selling of Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, has hastily altered his marketing strategy for Sanders—which includes a line of Prime Time jeans, sweat-suits and sneakers. Sanders the football star is now Sanders the dual threat. "What Deion's got going for him is the two-sport concept—he's Bo Jackson with a personality," Zucker says.
Quite a turnaround for a young man who didn't even play baseball his last two years at Florida State. But seeing that the phenom appeared to be agonizing over the direction of his career, the Yankees saw an opportunity; on May 31 Sanders was plucked from Double A Albany and brought to New York, and in only his 62nd game as a professional, Sanders found himself in pinstripes, bathed in the lights of Yankee Stadium.
"I couldn't believe it," Sanders says. "I'm thinking about Mickey Mantle, and about Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. I'm saying, 'I'm 21 years old and I'm really here.' And since I've been there, I've proven to myself that I can compete at that level and be successful."
During his 12 days with the Yankees, Sanders threw out a runner at third in his first game, used his remarkable speed (40 yards in 4.25 seconds) to make several circus catches, and even hit a home run. Though he batted only 212, going 7 for 33, he finished with a 3-for-7 flourish before being sent down to Columbus on June 11.
"There's no doubt in my mind that he can be a major league star," says Yankee owner George Steinbrenner. "Sure, he made some mistakes, but those are of a learning-experience type. I've never seen a kid come in and do what he did."