(Photos by Associated Press)
Whenever I’m asked who’s the best athlete I’ve ever covered in MLB, the answer is easy: Deion Sanders.
Not the best baseball player. Not by a long shot. Not the best athlete I ever witnessed. That was Bo Jackson, hands down. But I never covered Bo Jackson. I was fortunate, as San Francisco GIants beat writer for the San Francisco Examiner in 1995, to get a two-month fill of Prime Time.
Sanders — who gets inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame tomorrow in Canton — was traded to the Giants on July 22 of that year for a parcel of players: Dave Burba, Darren Lewis and Mark Portugal. There was a lot of grumbling in the clubhouse and from fans about the Giants giving up on the season — those three were all key contributors — but the truth was, they weren’t very going anywhere anyway. The Giants were seven games under .500 at the time of the trade, en route to a final mark of 10 games under .500.
What Deion Sanders was supposed to do was add some spark to a team that was way down in attendance following the long strike the previous year. Mind you, Barry Bonds was on the team as well. With Bonds in left and Sanders in center, the Giants had some serious star power. Sanders had just gotten done playing in the previous Super Bowl for the 49ers, the one in which they crushed the San Diego Chargers, 49-26, in Miami. It got so out of hand that Sanders even lined up at receiver at the end of the game. I covered that Super Bowl as about the seventh or eighth sidebar man, which is one of the sweetest gigs in sportswriting. But I digress.
At the time of the trade to the Giants, Sanders was between gigs in the NFL — a free agent. The Giants’ grand plan, which they weren’t shy about sharing, was to turn Sanders into a Bay Area megastar, one who played his summers for the Giants, his late falls and winters for the 49ers. The Giants hoped to feed off the synergy. The only problem was, in early September, the Dallas Cowboys swooped in with a huge offer and signed Sanders. That effectively ensured that his tenure with the Giants would end when the season did, which indeed was the case. Sanders didn’t play baseball at all in 1996, came back in 1997 with Cincinnati, then left for good except for a token return to the Reds in 2001.
I’ve always felt pretty certain that if Sanders had devoted himself to baseball, he would have been a superstar. Even as a part-timer, he had the makings of a complete player, especially early in his career with Atlanta. In 1992, he hit .304, stole 26 bases and led the National League in triples with 14, all in just 97 games. He hit .533 in the 1992 World Series, with two doubles among his eight hits. Sanders stole 56 bases in just 115 games with the Reds in 1997, second in the National League. And, of course, there was always the spectacle of him trying to weave the two sports together, the home run and touchdown in the same week in 1992, the helicopters and limos racing him from the football field to the ballpark just in time for a Braves playoff game in ’92.
By the time Sanders got to San Francisco in 1995, his interest in baseball was waning, it seemed. Every so often, however, he’d show a flash of something — an upper-deck homer, a gapper that allowed him to show his blazing speed on the way to a triple, a running catch on a ball no one else would have even gotten to — that made you wonder just how good he could have been.
We’ll never know. We’ll have to settle for small parcels of Deion the baseball player. I do know I enjoyed covering him. For all of his flamboyant trappings — the bling, the wild outfits, the rapping — he was a down-to-earth guy, very popular among his teammates, pretty accesible to the media (at least the traveling media). Sanders was good for Bonds, I believe in retrospect. As I recall, they lockered near each other, and Deion was a source of constant amusement for Bonds. This was the pre-steroids (I would presume) Bonds, who at age 30 was undeniably great, but not outlandishly so. His slugging percentage in 1995 was .577, a hefty number (it would rank fifth in the majors right now), but the lowest it would be for Bonds until 2006, when he was 41 years old.
Sanders was just 27 when he played for the Giants in 1995, which should have been his baseball prime. But Prime Time never really had a baseball prime. He was a football player dabbling in baseball. As he heads to Canton, I doubt if he’d change anything.