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Braves Throwback Thursday: Deion Sanders’ mercurial baseball career

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Twenty-five years ago this month, ‘Prime Time’ became first to play in both World Series & Super Bowl

Atlanta Braves v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Deion Sanders wasn’t the first person to play Major League Baseball and in the National Football League at the same time, nor was he even the most famous person to do so in his own era.

But 25 years ago this month, Sanders accomplished something no one had done before and no one has done since. Three years after suiting up with the Atlanta Braves in the 1992 World Series, “Primetime” took the field with the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX on Jan. 29, 1995.

Thus, Sanders became the first man to play in both a World Series and a Super Bowl. He played both sports simultaneously for five consecutive years from 1991-95, often at a very high level in both sports.

No discussion of Sanders’s baseball career can take place without also mentioning Bo Jackson, who was also an outstanding multi-sport high school star in Alabama a few years before Sanders was building his legend in southwest Florida. Jackson was drafted in the second round by the New York Yankees in 1982, but turned down pro baseball in order to play both sports (and also to run track) at Auburn.

Sanders was an all-state performer in football, baseball and track and field as a senior at North Fort Myers (Fla.) High School, and was selected in the sixth round of the June 1985 draft by the Kansas City Royals (the same team that would draft and sign Jackson the following year, following his senior year at Auburn). Sanders turned down a reported $75,000 from the Royals to enroll at Florida State, which promised him he could play both baseball and football.

In the spring of 1986, while Jackson was contemplating turning down football for baseball, Sanders was making an immediate impact on the college diamond. He led off and played center field in the Seminoles’ season debut vs. Grambling, going 2-for-3 with three runs scored and three stolen bases in a 12-1 FSU win.

Sanders batted .333 with 21 runs scored and 11 stolen bases in 16 games as a freshman, but missed extensive time with an ankle injury. He got into 60 of the Seminoles’ 73 games in 1987, but his average dipped to .267 along with 41 runs and 27 steals.

Sanders decided not to play baseball as a junior in 1988, instead concentrating on track and spring football. And of course, by this time he was already an established star on the gridiron, having earned unanimous All-America honors as a cornerback and punt returner in 1987 and picking up the dual nicknames “Neon Deion” and “Prime Time.”

But the specter of what Jackson was doing with baseball’s Royals and the NFL’s Los Angeles Raiders continued to hang over Sanders. The New York Yankees drafted Sanders in the 30th round in June 1988, and he played games that summer at three different minor-league levels.

Sanders repeated as All-American in football in the fall of 1988, and won the Jim Thorpe Award as college football’s top defensive back. It appeared to be a foregone conclusion that he would opt for pro football, and the Atlanta Falcons selected him No. 5 overall in the 1989 NFL draft.

Sanders’ contract talks with the Falcons stalled, and he returned to playing baseball in the spring of 1989. Never one to miss a chance to grab headlines, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner saw to it that Sanders was called up to the big club on May 31 after just 61 games as a professional.

”There’s no doubt in my mind that he can be a major league star,” Steinbrenner told Sports Illustrated for a story published on July 3, 1989. “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.”

Predictably, Sanders didn’t play particularly well after being rushed to the majors, batting .234/.280/.404 with two homers in 14 games in 1989. Jackson, meanwhile, was Most Valuable Player of the 1989 MLB All-Star Game, and ended the year with 32 home runs and 26 stolen bases.

Jackson was also excelling as a running back with the Raiders. And his “Bo Knows” Nike ad campaign had helped make him one of the most famous athletes in the world.

Sanders wasn’t about to let Jackson steal all the headlines as a two-sport star.

So even after an excellent rookie year with the Falcons in 1989, Sanders returned to the Yankees in the spring of 1990. He made the team’s Opening Day roster, but batted .158/.236/.271 in 57 games before heading back to football late in the summer.

Sanders’ tenure with the Yankees was most-famous for a dust-up with future Hall-of-Fame catcher Carlton Fisk during and after a game with the Chicago White Sox on May 22, 1990. Fisk screamed obscenities at Sanders after Sanders failed to run out a routine pop-up, running to the Yankees dugout instead.

The incident led to the predictable “play the game the right way” admonishments for Sanders, whose star had begun to dim in New York. After negotiations stalled on a contract for 1991 (Sanders was reportedly demanding $1 million), the Yankees waived him in late September and released him a few days later.

Sanders had an excellent second year with the Falcons, starting all 16 games and scoring three touchdowns — two on interceptions and one a punt return. His baseball future looked cloudy at best heading into 1991.

Enter the Atlanta Braves.

John Schuerholz, who had orchestrated Jackson’s first baseball deal in Kansas City, had been hired as Braves general manager shortly after the 1990 season ended. On Jan. 30, 1991, Schuerholz signed Sanders to a $650,000 minor-league contract, which included a $500,000 signing bonus.

“What plays into this signing is his tremendous baseball potential that is about to bubble to the surface,” Schuerholz told the Atlanta Constitution. “We want to be the organization that brings that baseball potential to its full light.”

Sanders’ baseball contract did not require him to stay with the Braves past July 31, freeing him up to return to football. But with both his baseball and football teams in the same town, that transition would be an easier one.

Sanders made the Braves’ club out of spring training, and went 1-for-3 as leadoff hitter and left fielder on Opening Day against the Los Angeles Dodgers. But he was losing playing time to free-agent import Otis Nixon by early May, and was sent down to Triple-A Richmond.

Sanders returned to Atlanta in late June and saw action mostly as a pinch-hitter before returning to the Falcons at the end of August. He gave Braves fans a memorable goodbye on July 31, however, blasting a three-run homer in the fifth inning to help Atlanta rally to an 8-6 victory.

Nixon was suspended in mid-August for violating MLB drug policy, and the Braves were embroiled in a tight NL West pennant race with the Dodgers. As September moved along, rumblings began that Sanders might try to play both sports simultaneously (Jackson had always waited until after the baseball season was over to report to the Raiders).

On Tuesday, Sept. 25, a Falcons off day, Sanders returned to the Braves, with the intention of serving as a pinch-runner that night against the Reds. However, the game was rained out and re-scheduled as part of a doubleheader the following day.

That led to an elaborate plan in which Sanders would practice with the Falcons in the early afternoon, then take a helicopter to Fulton County Stadium to play for the Braves. He pinch-ran in both games, with the Braves and Reds split.

Sanders appeared as a pinch runner in three more Braves games in early October, making his biggest impact on Oct. 1 against the Reds in Cincinnati (he flew in a plane this time, rather than a helicopter). He pinch-ran for Mark Lemke in the top of the ninth, and later scored ahead of David Justice’s two-run homer, which capped a 7-6 victory.

Sanders also pinch ran for the Braves the following day, and pinch hit in the regular-season finale against the Houston Astros on Oct. 6. He did not appear for the Braves in the postseason, spending the rest of the fall with the Falcons and earning his first Pro Bowl berth.

It’s up for debate as to whether or not Sanders could have been a difference-maker in the Braves’ World Series loss to the Minnesota Twins in seven games. Lonnie Smith filled in for Nixon and performed very well — save for one infamous baserunner blunder — so it’s unlikely Sanders would have been much more than a pinch-runner.

(Sanders also deserves credit — or blame — for the Tomahawk Chop, the ubiquitous and controversial Braves fan chant that was co-opted from Florida State. As the story goes, some Braves fans who were also Florida State rooters showed up at Fulton County Stadium in May 1991 and began directing the “chop” at Sanders. By the time the 1991 World Series rolled around, the Chop had become a phenomenon.)

Sanders finished his first baseball season with Atlanta sporting a .191/.270/.345 line, with four homers, 13 RBIs and 11 steals in 31 games. Nevertheless, with Nixon set to sit out the first 16 games of the next season, Sanders was sure to have a role with the Braves in 1991.

As it turned out, 1992 would be the high point of Sanders’ Atlanta Braves tenure and his baseball career overall.

Leading off and playing center field on a daily basis, he got off to a red-hot start, batting .447/.462/1.330 by mid-April. It was around this time that Sanders began to make rumblings about giving up football, his Falcons contract set to expire after the 1992 season.

On April 13, Sanders told the Atlanta Constitution “I’m a full-time baseball player.”

Nixon returned to center field and the leadoff spot on April 24, but Sanders stayed in the lineup in right field while David Justice battled a bad back. By the end of April, Sanders’ average had fallen to .329, but he still had a .598 slugging percentage, thanks largely to an NL-best six triples.

In a Sports Illustrated story published April 27, 1992, Sanders doubled down on the idea that he might give up football.

”I’ve accomplished my goal in that other thing,” Sanders said, not even deigning to mention by name what to that point had been his primary sport. “Now it’s time for me to accomplish a goal in this thing. ... I’m a good baseball player. But I can be a great baseball player. A star baseball player.”

That statement certainly rang true, as Sanders carried a .317/.361/.552 batting line into the All-Star break. On July 12, he popped a two-run homer in the eighth inning of a game at Wrigley Field to spark a 3-1 Braves win.

Sanders’ original baseball contract called for him to leave for the Falcons on July 31, and the Falcons sweetened the deal with a $1 million reporting bonus that would trigger if he showed up to training camp by Aug. 1. After months of negotiating, however, Sanders agreed on July 31 to stay with the Braves “indefinitely.”

Sanders was troubled by a bad hand for much of late July and early August, but return to the starting lineup on Aug. 9 vs. the Dodgers. The Braves by that time were in command of the NL West race, but the question remained … would the team have Sanders for the playoffs?

A resolution finally came on Sept. 10, when Sanders agreed to a one-year contract extension with the Falcons. The deal allowed Sanders to split his time between the two sports, and ensured he’d be available for the Braves in the postseason.

Sanders slumped down the stretch in 1992, but finished the season with a .304/.346/.495 line with eight homers, 26 steals and a league-high 12 triples, good for 3.2 WAR on a team. The Braves won 94 games and claimed the NL West by eight games over Cincinnati, and got set to face the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Championship Series for the second straight year.

Sanders played in four of the Braves’ seven games in their NLCS victory over the Pirates, failing to get a hit in five at-bats. But he made headlines for off-the-field reasons.

During Game 4 of the series in Pittsburgh (a 6-4 Braves win in which Sanders struck out in his only at-bat), word leaked that Sanders planned to leave the Braves that night and fly to Miami, where the Falcons had a game with the Dolphins the following day. Sanders would then fly back to Pittsburgh and be available for the Braves that night.

Schuerholz was furious, telling Atlanta Constitution columnist Furman Bisher that Sanders “went back on his word.” Many observers dismissed Sanders’ “double play” as a marketing stunt cooked up by Nike and Sanders’ agent.

During the CBS telecast of Game 4, analyst Tim McCarver poured gasoline on the fire.

“How can he leave in the playoffs and go play in a football game?,” McCarver said. “The way I look at that . . . that is just flat wrong, and I guess could be construed as a breach of contract.’’

Sanders made it back to Pittsburgh by the beginning of Game 5, but did not play in a 7-1 Braves loss that cut Atlanta’s series lead to 3-2. (The Falcons also lost in Miami 21-17, as Sanders saw action on defense, special teams and even on offense).

Two days later, Sanders (who by this time, had stopped talking to the media, at least in baseball) went 0-for-2 in a 13-4 Braves loss in Game 6, which evened the series 3-3. He pinch hit and struck out in the eighth inning of Game 7 the next night, a game the Braves rallied to win 3-2 on Francisco Cabrera’s single and Sid Bream’s slide, advancing to the World Series.

In the aftermath of what to that point was probably the most exhilarating victory in Atlanta Braves history, Sanders sought out McCarver — who was in the clubhouse to conduct post-game interviews — for revenge. Sanders repeatedly doused the then-51-year-old broadcaster with ice water, leading to McCarver’s infamous retort, “you’re a real man, Deion.”

Sanders broke his media silence to explain his actions.

“He’s flat-out ignorant,” Sanders said, according to the Chicago Tribune. “He’s more of a coward. I never met him and never spoke to him in my life. We were just having fun.”

(Sanders was later fined $1,000 by National League president Bill White.)

While Sanders’ interaction with McCarver was a turnoff to many, his play in the 1992 World Series against Toronto was difficult to ignore. A slumping Gant was benched after Game 1, and Sanders put on a show in the four games in which he saw action.

Despite playing with a broken bone in his foot, Sanders went 8-for-15 with four runs scored, two doubles and five stolen bases as the Braves dropped the series in six games. Sean McDonough, McCarver’s CBS broadcast partner, noted at one point, “If the Braves win, [Sanders would] have to be considered the MVP.”

Sanders enjoyed his best year so far with the Falcons in 1992, earning All-Pro honors for the first time and returning two kickoffs for touchdowns. He also played in his second straight Pro Bowl.

Despite his excellent play the previous year, Sanders saw a reduced role with the Braves in 1993. Gant, Nixon and Justice all stayed healthy and productive, eating into Sanders’ playing time.

Sanders’ father, Mims, died April 23, 1993, from a brain tumor at age 50. Distraught over his father’s death and angry over his lack of playing time — he’d started just six of the Braves’ first 20 games — Sanders left the team and vowed not to return.

“I want people to know this is the worst betrayal by a team in all sports history,” Sanders told reporters at the time, perhaps exaggerating somewhat.

Less than a month later, however, Sanders came back. Bobby Cox put Sanders into the lineup for a game in New York May 22, which alienated Nixon, the incumbent center fielder.

When he found out he wasn’t playing, Nixon intentionally showed up late for the next day’s game, and then demanded a trade. (The Braves did not accommodate him, but did allow him to leave as a free agent after the season.)

Sanders stuck around the rest of the season as the fourth outfielder for a Braves team that won 104 games and memorably chased down the San Francisco Giants to win the NL West. In 95 games, Sanders batted .276/.321/.452 with six homers, six triples, 28 RBIs and 19 steals (he saw action in five games of Atlanta’s NLCS loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, going 0-for-3.)

With Nixon gone to the Boston Red Sox, Sanders was again the Braves’ full-time center fielder to start the 1994 season. His status with the Falcons was less clear, as he’d become a free agent after posting a career-best seven interceptions in 1993.

Still, the Braves were in transition in the outfield. Gant had been lost for the season with a broken leg suffered in a dirt bike accident, leading to Atlanta releasing the veteran left fielder and installing rookie first baseman Ryan Klesko in his place.

Sanders was hitting .350 at the end of April, but his numbers began to tail off throughout May. His uncertain two-sport status and various off-field “distractions” had also begun to wear on the Braves, and on May 29, Schuerholz dropped a bombshell.

Sanders was traded to the Cincinnati Reds for center fielder Roberto Kelly and a minor-league pitcher. It was a straight challenge trade — when a club trades one player for another at the same position — and Sanders felt personally insulted.

“Hey, that’s John Schuerholz,” Sanders told the Atlanta Constitution. “You know how Schuerholz is; you know he’s getting back at me. Schuerholz has never been straight with me.”

Sanders became something of a baseball nomad after leaving the Braves, getting in a little more than two months with the Reds before the players strike halted the 1994 season. He signed with the 49ers that September, and had arguably the best season of his football career — returning three interceptions for touchdowns in just 14 games — for the Super Bowl champions.

(Kelly performed well for the Braves for the remainder of 1994, posting a 102 OPS+ with six homers and 44 runs scored in 63 games before the strike hit. After the work stoppage was settled the following spring, he was packaged in a trade that netted another leadoff hitting center fielder, Marquis Grissom, from the Montreal Expos.)

Sanders was traded again on July 21, 1995, this time to the San Francisco Giants as part of an eight-player deal. But he’d also soon move on again in the football, to the Dallas Cowboys.

Sanders sat out the 1996 baseball season, only to return with Cincinnati in 1997. He played a career-high 115 games with the Reds that season, posting a well-below average OPS+ of 80, before focusing on football-only for the next three seasons, two with Dallas and one with the Washington Redskins.

Sanders retired from football in 2001, and returned to the Reds again for 32 unproductive games that summer at age 34. That would be the end of Sanders’ baseball career, in which he played in 641 games, totaled 558 hits, 43 triples, 39 home runs, 186 stolen bases, posted a .263/.319/.392 line and an 89 OPS+, with a career WAR total of 5.5. (He came back for one last NFL season with the Baltimore Ravens in 2004, playing in nine games before retiring for good at age 37.)

As with Jackson, it’s difficult to know how good a baseball player Sanders might have been had he focused on the diamond full-time. At his best — as during that memorable 1992 season and postseason — he was a star-quality player, a potential All-Star.

On the whole, however, Sanders was an average Major League Baseball player. He could be a valuable member of winning teams, but probably not good enough to be a star in his own right (at least not for his on-field performance).

There have been a handful of baseball/football athletes since Jackson and Sanders’ heyday — Brian Jordan, Drew Henson, Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray among them — though none played at the NFL/MLB level simultaneously. For Sanders to perform like even a passable major-leaguer for a half-decade while simultaneously being one of the top NFL players of his time is truly an astounding accomplishment, and one we’re not likely to see again soon.

Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at darrylpalmerbraves4@gmail.com. No, that’s not his real name.

References: Newspapers.com; Sporting News archives (via Paper of Record); SI Vault; NoleFan.org; Baseball-Reference.com