The Off-Season: Huddle Up
The Off-Season: Huddle Up
By Tim Kabel
February 14, 2022
In deference to the Super Bowl, I decided to go in a little different direction today. I’m going to write about a former Yankee, who is a Hall of Famer. In fact, he is a member of two Halls of Fame. Neither of them is the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. This man had a very brief but tumultuous career with the Yankees. He is quite possibly the best two-sport athlete ever to play for the New York Yankees. Of course, I am talking about Deion Sanders.
The New York Yankees drafted Deion Sanders in the 30th round in 1988, because their minor league leadership loved athletes, and George Steinbrenner loved football players. Sanders didn’t have much baseball experience. And his rawness showed. However, his amazing tools and talent were also obvious. He had incredible speed but beyond that, he wowed team officials and ultimately teammates with his work ethic, aptitude, and his hunger to succeed. When Sanders first took batting practice as a pro, the head of the Yankees minor leagues at the time, Bill Livesey, stated that Sanders could only beat the ball into the ground. A week later, the Gulf Coast League team staged its own impromptu Home Run Derby. Sanders won.
Despite Sanders’ lack of experience and undeveloped baseball skills, the Yankees put him on the fast track, mostly because they wanted to convince him to make baseball his full-time sport over football. He reached Triple A in 1989 and was briefly in the Majors. The special treatment that he was given backfired, and he never developed as a baseball player for the Yankees.
In addition to the special treatment and the high salary he was given to convince him to stay in baseball, his brash personality rubbed some people the wrong way. Everyone remembers the confrontation he had with Carlton Fisk in May of 1990, when Sanders drew a dollar sign in the dirt next to home plate, and then did not run out a pop up to shortstop. Most people don’t recall that a week later, when the teams played each other in Chicago, Sanders walked up to home plate and extended his hand to Fisk, which the curmudgeonly catcher shook. There were aspects to Sanders’ personality and demeanor that were not well known. Pitcher Dave LaPoint remembers that Sanders would write thank you notes to those who helped him each time he was sent down to the minors. LaPoint described him as, “maybe the most misread player ever.” Steve Sax, the second baseman on that team, said, “I had a preconceived notion of Deion, and I will say this: He completely changed the way I thought about him. He was a great teammate. He worked hard, was humble, and respectful.”
No less a baseball expert than Buck Showalter, who managed Sanders in the minors and coached him during his brief Yankees’ tenure, often said that Sanders would have been a great Major Leaguer if he stuck with baseball, because he had a terrific work ethic, strong arm, deceptive pop, and fantastic bat speed. However, his best skill was foot speed. Showalter said, “He could outrun the ball. They say a guy can really run but, no one could really run like Deion. It was just a different level.” In a game in July against the Royals in 1990, Sanders was matched up against the other two-sport sensation, Bo Jackson. Bo Jackson hit three home runs that night, all coming off Andy Hawkins. However, In the sixth inning, Sanders lashed a sinking liner to center off Mel Stottlemyre Jr., who was making his major league debut. Jackson dove like Superman but, the ball went by him. Jackson landed so hard that he dislocated his left shoulder. He missed six weeks and years later would say that the shoulder replacement surgery he needed was due to that play. Showalter, who was coaching third, waved wildly and Sanders, who was not an expert at cutting the bases, flew around them anyway. The ball beat Sanders to the plate, which was blocked by Royals’ catcher Mike MacFarlane. Sanders hurdled the catcher, got flipped and missed home plate. He scrambled and crawled back toward home and lunged over the catcher to touch the plate before he was tagged. Showalter later described it as one of the top three moments of his career.
Prior to the end of the 1990 season, the Yankees had worked out a 2-year, 2.5-million-dollar deal with Sanders to make baseball his primary sport. However, as word of the deal leaked out, other owners contacted Steinbrenner to complain that he couldn’t give an unproven player that much money. A few veteran Yankees voiced the same sentiment. Meanwhile, George Steinbrenner was going through his own ordeal. He was about to be banned for life by Fay Vincent, the Commissioner. On the same day that Steinbrenner was banned, he pulled the offer to Sanders. Sanders’ agent informed the Yankees that he would never play for them again and he was subsequently released.
Deion Sanders’ Yankees’ career was brief an unremarkable in many ways. He played a total of 71 games and had a batting average of .178. However, it was obvious that he was in over his head playing at the Major League level. He was rushed to appease him, and it clearly didn’t work. However, when you look at his baseball career after he left the Yankees, there continued to be some flashes of brilliance. In 1992, he hit .304 with 14 triples, which led The Major Leagues and had 26 stolen bases. In the 1992 World Series, he batted .533 and had an OPS of 1.255 He also had five stolen bases. Although the Braves lost the series, he was their star player. In 1997, while he was on the Cincinnati Reds, he stole 56 bases in 115 games. He is the only athlete ever to play in a World Series and a Super Bowl. He is the only person ever to hit a home run in the MLB and score a touchdown in the NFL in the same week.
Deion Sanders never reached his full potential as a Major League ballplayer, whether it was with the Yankees or any other team. He was never more than a part-time baseball player. As he said many times, “Football was my wife, and baseball was my mistress.” It is interesting to think of how good Deion Sanders would have been as a baseball player and as a Yankee If he had never heard of football.