Sunday, July 20, 1997
Deion avoids talk
of his other sport

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. The longest distance is the lengths one must go to get a straight answer from Deion Sanders.

America's favorite all-purpose athlete is the genuine article, but a decidedly indefinite article. Concerning the question of when his commitment to the Cincinnati Reds ends and his commitment to the Dallas Cowboys begins, Neon Deion is pinned down less easily than a laser beam.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones met with his moonlighting millionaire Thursday in Dallas and says he was assured Sanders will show up for all 16 of Dallas' regular season games. Reds General Manager Jim Bowden insists Sanders is obligated to baseball so long as his club is in contention. Sanders himself is a sphinx, deliberately vague, constantly coy.

He is a part-time cornerback and a full-time coquette. It is probably the best position he can play in the baseball-football tug-of-war.

The Reds are still ostensibly in contention and the Cowboys have just started training camp. There's no point in making promises now that he may have to break Aug. 31.

That's the day Sanders' baseball schedule first comes into conflict with the NFL's regular season. The Cowboys play in Pittsburgh that afternoon while the Reds complete a road trip in Minneapolis. Because the two games start one hour apart, even the swift Sanders will be hard-pressed to play in both. Altogether, four Cowboys games could be at issue - one-quarter of the NFL season.

Sanders' baseball deal stipulates that the Reds have first call on his services so long as the postseason remains a mathematical possibility.

Yet if Bowden wants to sign Sanders to a long-term deal, he would be wise to be flexible. If the Reds are technically alive but 10 games behind, Bowden would probably permit Sanders to spend his Sundays as a football player.

Where the matter gets murky is if the Reds remain five or six games back, but 10 or 11 games under .500. Bowden could claim Sanders was indispensable to the stretch run. Jones might argue the Reds were dead and/or delusional. Sanders would have to declare his loyalty.

''I know Deion and I know Deion's caring for teammates and caring for winning,'' Bowden said. ''He's not the kind of athlete who would leave his team in a pennant race and let his team down.''

Yet, inherently, Sanders has to let at least one of his teams down. By skipping the Cowboys' training camp, and the chance to refine his skills as a pass receiver, he is already short-changing Jones on a $35 million contract and compromising the Cowboys' chances at another Super Bowl.

Even if you accept the premise that Sanders is the finest cover cornerback in football, no player can show up once a week and expect to be as productive as he would be through daily diligence. This is particularly true of a player who presumes to play both offense and defense.

Jerry Jones knew from Square One that he could not command Sanders' full attention, but he had to believe he had bought the biggest share with all of those green rectangles.

Instead: ''Football's the last thing on my mind,'' Sanders told the Enquirer on Tuesday. ''And it will be for a long time.''

Deion Sanders has been preoccupied of late by divorce proceedings, which explains why he was in Dallas on Thursday instead of with the Reds in Pittsburgh, and which serves as a constant reminder that he can't make everyone happy.

Pleasing other people has never been high on Sanders' list of priorities. When asked about his decision to return to baseball this spring, Sanders explained: ''I'm doing this to please myself.''

If he had returned to the Reds no better than he had been on his previous tour of duty, Deion Sanders would be eminently expendable. But in learning to exploit his speed - hitting the ball on the ground instead of in the air - he has become a commodity.

Sanders was hitting .289 after an 0-for-4 Saturday in New York, and leads the National League with 46 stolen bases. His recent defensive difficulties notwithstanding, Sanders was among the most obvious oversights on the National League All-Star team.

''He wants to be a good baseball player, and he wants to work hard to improve,'' Bowden said. ''And I think he's been a good influence on our young players. In between innings, he's the first one to his position whether it's 9-1 or we're down 4-2. That's hustle.''

Hustle is finishing a Sunday afternoon game at Cinergy Field in time to suit up for the Cowboys that evening in Arizona. That opportunity exists on Sept. 7. Deion Sanders is just the man for the job.