Friday, January 31, 1997
Sanders time, skills not exactly prime

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The contingencies are covered. If the Cincinnati Reds are still part of the pennant race in September, Deion Sanders will be a full-time baseball player.

This is what the Cincinnati Reds are saying, at least. General Manager Jim Bowden claims to have a contract that binds Sanders to the Reds as long as the team is mathematically eligible for the playoffs.

What the Dallas Cowboys are saying is entirely different. Owner Jerry Jones says Sanders will suit up for all 16 regular-season football games next season, presumably in shoulder pads.

What His Neonness is saying is that he will do his best to accommodate everyone, recognizing that this is inherently impossible.

''You've got to just weigh it,'' Sanders said Thursday afternoon. ''If you're playing against Houston for a weekend series and you've won Friday and Saturday and (the Cowboys) are playing Green Bay on Sunday, what do you do?''

Better at football

Decisions, decisions. The problem with being a Prime Time player in overlapping seasons is that you must be a part-time player in at least one of them. Deion Sanders is a far better cornerback than he is a center fielder, but the Reds covet him no less than do the Cowboys. He returned to baseball Thursday after a one-season sabbatical and an operation on his right eye, and was nonetheless projected as the Reds' regular leadoff hitter.

Because the alternative is Curtis Goodwin, this was not such a long leap of faith.

Sanders notwithstanding, the Reds are a .500 team that will be hard-pressed to maintain that level of mediocrity. Having hit the wall on player payroll, which had helped to camouflage his low-yield farm system, Bowden has been forced to plunge head-first into retread mode.

The acquisitions of Ruben Sierra (unwanted by the woeful Tigers) and Terry Pendleton (way past his prime in Atlanta) speak to the Reds' mounting desperation. Deion Sanders speaks to Bowden's dreams.

Necessity has forced the Reds' resourceful general manager to try to catch lightning in a bottle cap this winter, and Sanders will likely be his best bolt. Bowden is infatuated with the man's astonishing speed, and remains hopeful that he can still find a game to go with it. Deion is 29 now - an advanced age for a phenom - but baseball people still tend to talk of his possibilities rather than his production.

''Deion is one of the best athletes in the world,'' Bowden said, ''and has always had the potential to be one of the premier leadoff hitters in the league.''

Potential? A guy with Deion Sanders' legs ought to be able to bunt .300. He is, instead, a .264 lifetime hitter who shows little patience and less power at the plate. His speed gives him remarkable range in the outfield, but Switzerland is better-armed. Perhaps he puts some people in the seats - certainly he sells some sportswear - but Sanders' baseball career to date looks a lot better on the highlight reels than it does in the scorebook.

Cinergy can use Neon

Not that a little glitz won't gladden Cinergy Field this summer. Having lost Eric Davis and lost out on Fred McGriff, the Reds looked a little lean in the excitement department before Thursday afternoon. Barry Larkin is a superstar, but a solemn one. Willie Greene is a power hitter, but yet unproven. What Reggie Sanders is right now is anyone's guess.

Deion Sanders, if nothing else, is guaranteed drama. (Limo or helicopter? Learjet or Concorde? Steals or pickoffs? Bat-man or robbin'?)

''He changes the game,'' said Chris Welsh, the pitcher-turned-broadcaster. ''I've never seen (Atlanta pitcher) Greg Maddux get rattled on the mound, but he did with Deion on first base.''

Later on, it might matter how much the Reds see of Sanders in September. For the moment, though, it is a moot question. When the circus comes to town, you enjoy it while it lasts.