A souvenir from 'Prime Time'
As spring training begins, we offer a story that has become an annual tradition for this blog, involving a superstar cornerback (and baseball player) and myself.
I don't collect autographs, and the one souvenir baseball I have on my desk contains a full sentence rather than a signature. The black print is all but faded now; however, the message remains indelible, 23 years later.
Deion Sanders wanted to kick my ass.
In 1989, I was just out of college and working for the Nashville Banner, covering the Nashville Sounds, the Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. I loved the job and jumped at any chance I could to write. So when I heard some griping about the Columbus Clippers' new center fielder -- "Neon Deion," as he was known back then -- it had all the makings of a perfect feature. Sanders was known mostly for his football exploits at Florida State, and when writing for papers in the South, you find any way to make a football connection, even during baseball season.
The Clippers came to Nashville for a two-game series, and before the first game, I walked up to Sanders' locker in the visiting clubhouse, which, in the middle of summer in Nashville, smelled like rotting garbage.
It was hot and damp, without air conditioning.
"Deion," I asked, "do you have a second?"
He glanced up at me, and within the quarter-second that we made eye contact, he might have calculated that I was a very young-looking writer from a college paper. Or maybe a high school paper. Or maybe he just saw my notepad and realized I was a reporter. Or maybe he quickly sized me up as someone he didn't need. Or maybe he was having a bad day. Maybe he was having a good day.
Sanders stood, reached into his locker, collected his glove and cap, and walked away wordlessly.
Being relatively new to the business, I was not familiar with the technical definition of what he had done. But later, after experiences with the likes of Albert Belle, I would learn: It's called being blown off.
I returned to the press box and wrote my column, which lacked Deion's perspective on Deion. There were details about how he had managed to draw a distinction between himself and his teammates; he was the only Columbus player who traveled with a girlfriend and the only player who didn't carry his own luggage. He drew a dollar symbol each time he stepped into the batter's box, which tended to annoy opponents, and also his teammates, who were reminded with each illustration that he had a lot of cash and they didn't. About five years ago, I found a copy of the column, and it was poorly executed and harsh -- probably too harsh. Actually, it was enough to make me cringe. I could understand a little better why Sanders apparently was not pleased with what I wrote.
The members of the Sounds who saw the column loved it; they, too, were put off by the dollar signs and by the special treatment that was fueling his rapid ascent through the minor leagues. Many of the Nashville players were career minor leaguers, guys who might have had a few days in the big leagues but were destined to ride buses through small towns for the rest of their careers. Some of them would never get a break, and now this football player with an awkward swing was being hand-delivered to the big leagues.
I didn't understand at that time that some of them probably were just jealous of Sanders.
A couple of them chortled about the column, and I was feeling good about myself, and that was about the time a bat boy walked out of the visiting dugout. "Hey, Deion wants to see you in the clubhouse," he said.
His words were flat, but the kid raised his eyebrows the way someone might while informing you a falling manhole cover is about to part your hair. "And he's really pissed."
This was one of those crossroad moments each of us has in our lives. Sportswriters come in all sizes, all heights, all widths. But they tend to be vertically challenged, and I fit the trend; throw in a pair of well-heeled work boots, and I'm still not flirting with 5-foot-10. Buster versus Deion equals total physical mismatch, so I wasn't enamored by the idea of he and I having a chat in that cramped visitors clubhouse, in front of 20 other players.
I also thought that personally delivering myself to him -- especially after he had ignored me the day before -- would be something of a surrender.
I wanted a more neutral site than the visitors clubhouse, but I had to stand behind the words I'd written.
Some of the Nashville players heard all this going on and listened in; my rep was at stake. So I took stock of the situation and told the bat boy, loud enough for all the players around to hear:
"Tell Deion," I said, with far more bravado than I felt, "that if he wants to talk to me, I'm out here."
I glanced around the batting cage. A couple of players smiled and nodded. Yeah, that's right, don't give in to that guy. Make him come to you. Way to stand up behind your words, man.
Yeah, what a tough guy.
What a joke.
So I leaned against the cage and waited and considered all the possible resolutions to the confrontation that now was inevitable. In later years, the NFL rap on Sanders was that he didn't like physical contact, he wasn't a great tackler and you could run right at him. But at that time, he still was larger than most baseball players and I didn't think my 150 pounds would intimidate him. (I've put on 20 poorly placed pounds since then, but I don't think they would change the basic dynamic of any Buster versus Deion confrontation.)
I knew the possibilities of what was to come, generally:
1. Sanders would rush out of the clubhouse and clothesline me like I was a receiver catching a pass over the middle.
2. Sanders would rush out of the clubhouse brandishing a bat and give me the Juan Marichal treatment.
3. Sanders would rush out of the clubhouse and come nose to nose with me and get so far in my face that I might accidentally nudge him, therefore giving him the opening to slap my notepad and my head over the left-field wall.
If he did come after me, my options for self-defense were limited. I wasn't going to run, so my only shot was one later popularized by an NBA coach about my size:
Dive at his legs, hang on and wait for everybody else to break up the fight. The Jeff Van Gundy Rope-A-Dope.
I was new to the business, so I never considered the possibility that Sanders -- who was much more experienced in the athlete-writer give-and-take than I was -- would simply verbally challenge what I wrote. I prepared only for the worst-case scenario.
I kept waiting behind the batting cage as Nashville finished hitting. No Sanders. No Columbus Clippers, in fact; it turned out they were having a team meeting. If Sanders actually wanted a piece of me, well, he would miss his chance, because the Clippers were getting an earful of inspiration in their clubhouse, probably inspired by a George Steinbrenner dictum.
So I returned to the press box before game time, not knowing about the Clippers' team meeting, wondering whether Sanders' anger had subsided and he thought it a waste of time to complain about a column written in a small afternoon paper (which would fold a decade later).
In fact, Sanders was still quite perturbed.
In the fourth inning of the game, the same bat boy who had summoned me on Sanders' behalf walked into the press box, holding a baseball.
"Deion told me to give this to you," he said.
The baseball was dirty, probably a leftover from batting practice. In the sweet spot, Sanders had scrawled a message. He didn't include his signature.
"Keep writing like that your whole life," he wrote, "and you'll always be a loser."
Words to live by.
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