‘Prime’ moments on diamond

By Chris Haft
Updated: February 4, 2011

NEW YORK — Deion Sanders is expected to join the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s newest class of inductees when it’s announced on Saturday.

If Sanders’ name is called, listen closely for the whisper: He played baseball, too.

Sanders wasn’t nearly as spectacular in the Major Leagues as he was in the NFL, where he intercepted 53 passes and lifted San Francisco and Dallas to Super Bowl victories upon joining each team.

But he was serviceable. The former center fielder hit .263 while starting 496 of 641 games in nine Major League seasons for the Yankees, Braves, Reds and Giants.

Sanders would become the eighth Pro Football Hall of Famer to have played in the Majors. The others are Jim Thorpe, Ernie Nevers, Red Badgro, George Halas, Paddy Driscoll, Ace Parker and Greasy Neale.

With all due respect to them — Thorpe and Nevers were legendary athletes — none matched Sanders’ baseball prowess.

Though Bo Jackson remains the epitome of athletic multitasking as the first performer to gain All-Star status in two major American sports, Sanders earned his share of admirers with his baseball skills.

Brian Johnson and Hal Morris have evolved from Major Leaguers into professional scouts, deepening their comprehension of Sanders’ abilities.

“If you look at it in a nutshell, you have to be the best at two different things,” said Johnson, a former catcher who played baseball and football at Stanford. “You have to have two separate skill sets to make that work.”

“Therefore, you’re twice as good as everybody else, from a skill-set angle. Especially with Deion and Bo. Deion was iconic in football, not quite so in baseball. Still, to be in the Major Leagues, what he did is pretty special.”

“The fact that Deion was able to perform as well as he did, given his full-time status as an NFL player, is remarkable, really,” said Morris, a former first baseman who played with Sanders in the Yankees organization and with the Reds.

“It’s such a challenge to make it to the Major Leagues, even if you focus your entire life on that pursuit. The fact that he could split time like that was extraordinary.”

Any discussion of Sanders, who could not be reached for this story, inevitably involves his speed. It could be described anecdotally, statistically or colorfully.

Morris recalled watching Sanders leg out a triple to left-center field when they were teammates at Triple-A Columbus. “I thought he was going to pull up at second base, and then he turned it into another gear I’ve never seen before,” Morris said.

“I don’t know how many strides he took between second and third, but it looked like seven or eight and he was there. It was electrifying when he got moving.”

Sirius XM Satellite Radio commentator Jim Bowden, who acquired or signed Sanders on three separate occasions when he was the Reds’ general manager, insisted that he saw “Prime Time” score from first base on an infield grounder.

“He was running on the pitch; a ground ball was hit to the shortstop in the hole,” Bowden recalled. “Deion rounds second and goes to third. They throw to first; Deion doesn’t stop and he scores. I’ll never forget it. I don’t know if I’ll ever see it again.”

In 1992 with Atlanta, Sanders led the National League with 14 triples in only 303 at-bats. After a one-year hiatus from baseball, he stole 56 bases in 69 tries with the Reds in 1997.

“Once he got rolling, he wouldn’t even touch the ground. That’s what it looked like,” Johnson said.

Ex-Reds shortstop Barry Larkin might not have seen Sanders run past him when they were opponents, but he felt it. “You when you go down the street so fast riding your bicycle and you get too close to a mailbox and the mailbox goes by your ear? I remember having the same sensation when Deion was running,” said Larkin, now an MLB Network analyst.

Sanders wasn’t merely one-dimensional. “I remember admiring his pure athleticism,” said Larkin, who ultimately became another of Sanders’ Cincinnati teammates. “Of course he was fast, but he also was really strong. That’s one of the things that surprised me, how big he was upstairs.”

“He had power in his swing,” said Giants general manager Brian Sabean, the Yankees’ scouting director when they drafted Sanders in the 30th round in 1988. “He wasn’t just a singles hitter. He could drive the ball in the gap.”

Said Bowden, “Most lefties like low fastballs. Deion could hit the high fastball. If you threw it 93, 94 [mph] up, he’d hit it.”

Sanders’ ascent through the Yankees’ Minor League system reflected his vast potential. He didn’t sign with the Kansas City Royals when they drafted him in the sixth round out of high school in 1985, but he welcomed the chance to join the Yankees when New York selected him after his junior year at Florida State.

Though he hadn’t played baseball since he was a college freshman, Sanders finished his first professional season in Triple-A. He was 21 when he made his Major League debut in 1989. “That tells you what kind of athlete he was,” Sabean said.

Sanders’ gifts tantalized talent evaluators so much that they were willing to excuse his ardor for football. The gridiron’s impact on Sanders’ baseball career was incalculable.

He played more than 97 games in a Major League season only once. While other hitters sharpened their swings in the offseason, Sanders was hounding Jerry Rice or Andre Rison.

Said Larkin, “I had conversations with him about trying to get better as a hitter. Those conversations ended after the baseball season did. When it was the offseason for most of us, he was talking about picking off Jeff George and taking it to the house.

“I remember him bunting the ball down the third-base line with the third baseman playing way, way in and him being safe, and him telling me, ‘If I could put it where I want to, it doesn’t make any difference where the guy’s playing me.”

“He’s not going to throw me out.’ And it was true. But the problem was having the time and enough reps to put it down where he wanted, regardless of what pitch the pitcher threw.”

How Sanders would have fared had he devoted himself exclusively to baseball remains unknown. Those familiar with him hazarded educated guesses.

“Had Deion focused on baseball, I think he would have been a perennial All-Star,” Morris said.

“I think he would have been an All-Star player,” Sabean echoed.

“He was one of those guys who, the more he played, the better he hit.”

“He had the chance to be one of the best in the game,” Larkin said. “He had the pure talent to get it done.”

“He would have been one of the premier leadoff hitters in baseball,” Bowden said.

Sanders’ critics recall that he would draw a dollar sign in the dirt with his bat before stepping into the left-handed batter’s box.

That represented the extent of his affectations as a baseball player.

He checked the “Neon Deion” persona at the clubhouse door.

“I spoke to Deion several times on the field during batting practice. He was a wonderful person,” Johnson said. “He was sincere and — if you can imagine — humble. When people ask me about Deion, it’s like, ‘He’s an awesome dude.'”

“He was a great, great teammate,” Larkin said. “He was a ‘chemistry guy.’ He was a clubhouse guy. He was a guy who would bring people together.”

When Sanders wanted to bond with a teammate, he’d take him fishing. Not nightclubbing.

“That’s what Deion does, and that’s what Deion did,” Larkin said. “He was a big ‘Let’s talk about life’ guy. I think guys were drawn to him.”