Before he became the hottest college football coach in the country, before he became a Hall of Fame NFL cornerback, Deion Sanders was a minor-league baseball player. For the Yankees.
The year was 1988 and Sanders was 20, playing centerfield at three minor-league levels, reaching as high as Triple-A. The Yankees had drafted the lefthanded hitter in the 30th round out of Florida State.
He wasn’t bad at baseball, but he was great at football. Sanders was entering his senior year, one that would lead to a first-round selection (fifth overall) by Atlanta in the 1989 NFL Draft.
In the minors in 1988, Sanders hit .285 with 14 stolen bases in 28 games. Sanders’ manager for six of those games — and for 33 more the next season at Double-A Albany — was Buck Showalter.
The two are long-time friends.
“Oh, my God,” the Mets' manager said the other day at Citi Field. “I’ve got too many stories here.”
Let’s start here: Was he already “Prime Time” as a part-time minor-league baseball player?
“In baseball,” Showalter said, “he was Deion. Really smart guy. [The players] loved him. He would have been elected captain in Double-A. Playing the game every day, he wasn’t the guy you see in football. Very respectful. Could have been as good a baseball player as anybody if he wanted. He had power, he could throw, he could run the ball down. That foot speed was unlike anything I've ever seen. It took my breath away. There was another level.
“He’s something, though. And funny. But the only time he’d really become Prime Time was on the bus rides and stuff. He would talk. Oh, my God.”
How about the time the next season when Showalter called Sanders to tell him the Yankees wanted to promote him from Double-A to the majors?
“I said, ‘Hey, Deion, they want to call you up,’ “ Showalter said. “And he goes, ‘No, Buck, I really love the guys here. We’ve got a chance at a ring. I'd really like to stay here.’
“I said, ‘I'm talking about the big leagues, not Triple-A.' He didn’t want to go up. And I hear the phone drop.”
Sanders made his big-league debut on May 31, 1989. The Yankees were bad. Dallas Green/Bucky Dent/Stump Merrill-era bad. Even with a lineup that included Rickey Henderson, Steve Sax and Don Mattingly, the Yankees went 74-87.
Sanders was the No. 9 hitter in front of 22,946 at Yankee Stadium. In a 9-5 victory over Seattle, he went 1-for-4 with a run scored and an RBI. He hit a run-scoring groundout in the fourth inning and a ground single to right in the seventh.
He played in 14 games for the Yankees that season, batting .234 with two home runs and one stolen base. Then it was back to football.
That was always the theme for Sanders’ baseball career. He was mostly a curiosity in MLB, with flashes of the player he could have been.
“He would have been great,” said Yankees YES Network play-by-play announcer Michael Kay, who covered Sanders as a beat writer for the Daily News. “He had speed. He had great hand-eye coordination. He's just an incredible athlete. I don't think he would have hit for a lot of power, although he would have hit his share of home runs. But he would have, I think, been over a .300 hitter. I think he would have been very, very good. I don't know if he would have been like one of the greatest of all time, but he had the skill set and he would have succeeded.”
Sanders’ biggest moment as a Yankee came on July 17, 1990, in a game between the Yankees and the Kansas City Royals and their two-sport star, Bo Jackson.
Man, was that series hyped. The Yankees were even worse in 1990 (67-95). But the hype on this unforgettable night was more than justified.
Jackson already had homered three times, good for seven RBIs, when Sanders hit a line drive to centerfield in the sixth inning. Jackson full-body dived for the ball, couldn’t reach it and dislocated his left shoulder.
Sanders took off like a jet as the ball headed to the wall. As he turned third base, he was waved home by third-base coach Showalter, who had been added to the Yankees' coaching staff that season.
The throw home beat Sanders but short-hopped and got past catcher Mike Macfarlane.
Sanders didn’t slide. He tried to jump over Macfarlane like the great punt/kick returner he was, crashed into the catcher, and hurdled over home plate without touching it.
Pitcher Mel Stottlemyre Jr. — son of the former Yankees pitcher and future Yankees pitching coach who was making his major-league debut — retrieved the ball and threw it to Macfarlane as Sanders scrambled to touch the plate.
Again, the ball beat Sanders, but Macfarlane couldn’t handle it. Sanders was safe. Still sprawled over Macfarlane at home plate, Sanders raised his left arm, then stood and pumped his fist as the 26,777 fans at Yankee Stadium went wild.
“That was one of the highlights of my career,” Showalter said. “You’ve got to pull it up [on YouTube]. He jumps over [Macfarlane]. Now it’s slow motion. Can Deion get his hand back on the plate before Macfarlane can catch the ball and come over and tag him? Durwood Merrill's the home plate umpire. He gives the safe sign. I thought we just won the World Series.”
The Yankees, convinced Sanders would never commit to baseball and would be too expensive for a part-time player, released him two months later.
“It was something that wasn’t working out the way it was,” general manager Gene Michael said at the time. “It wasn’t good for him and it wasn’t good for us.”
Sanders spent parts of seven more seasons in MLB, with four different teams, and definitely had his moments. He went to the World Series in 1992 with Atlanta while also playing for the Falcons.
In that World Series, which Toronto won in six games, Sanders hit .533 (8-for-15) with five stolen bases. He is the only player to appear in a World Series and Super Bowl (twice).
The most baseball games Sanders ever played in one year was 115 in 1997 with Cincinnati. One of his teammates was current Yankees manager Aaron Boone.
After that season, Sanders left baseball until 2001, when he made a comeback and played in 32 games, also for Cincinnati, and also with Boone as a teammate.
“Good dude,” Boone said last week. “He was a lot of fun to be around. Good teammate. I enjoyed it. Obviously, it was a big deal and it’s like kind of cool. He was much more reserved than the celebrity. He was very serious about [baseball] because, obviously, he couldn't devote 12 months a year to baseball. So he was very serious about working on fundamentals and the skill of it all. He was a hard worker. That’s how I would describe him.”
Sanders always knew how to respond to a moment. In the first game of his comeback in 2001, he went 3-for-3 with a home run (Boone also homered).
But Sanders had only 10 hits in the other 31 games, finishing with a .173 average, and that was the end of his major-league baseball career. His total stats: 641 regular-season games, .263 average, 43 triples, 39 homers, 186 stolen bases.
Sanders played in the NFL until 2005 (having retired from 2001-03) and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.
His college coaching career began when he was hired in 2020 by Jackson State. In three seasons, he went 27-6, including a 12-0 regular season in 2022.
Sanders then was hired by Colorado, which went 1-11 last season and has had two winning seasons since 2005.
Sanders has the No. 19 Buffaloes off to a 3-0 start going into Saturday’s road game at No. 10 Oregon.
From “Prime Time” to “Coach Prime,” Sanders is the hottest thing in college football. Colorado games are selling out and setting TV ratings records, and replicas of Sanders’ signature sideline sunglasses have sold $5 million in presales before they’re even ready to ship. His “60 Minutes” interview on Sunday earned the show’s highest ratings in two years.
Who knows how much — if at all — Sanders’ Yankees days helped shape the coaching sensation he has become at age 56. Maybe a little. Maybe you could start to see it even back then.
“I think he's got something that clicks with people,” Kay said. “If he's on your side, you run through a wall for him. So I guess that's happening as a coach. Maybe he took some of the best of some of the people that he's played for. I don't think he's coaching Colorado like Buck would. But he's an incredible leader.”
With Laura Albanese