It has been a big pro football weekend, and Buck Showalter is a football fan, too. It didn’t take long for the subject to get around to Deion Sanders, whom Buck managed in Albany, N.Y., in Double-A ball before Deion got called up to the Yankees in 1989.
As usual with Buck, all you had to do was ask the question.
“How good could Deion have been if he had only played baseball?” I said.
“That good,” Buck said.
There was a pause at his end of the call, and then he said, “He could have been as good as he wanted to be. He is one of the best prospects I had. Ever.”
When we think of two-sport athletes, of course we always talk about Bo Jackson, the Heisman Trophy winner whose career in pro sports was eventually shortened by injuries, the worst one to a hip. Bo played four years in the NFL and eight in baseball. Deion Sanders played in nine MLB seasons and played 14 in the NFL as one of the great defensive backs of all time, entering the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.
But Buck was only talking about Deion the baseball player now. Happily.
“There was a level of speed unlike I ever saw on a ballfield,” Showalter said. “I remember the first time I saw him steal second base in Albany, and it damn near took my breath away.
“You want to know how fast he was? We finally couldn’t let him participate in rundown drills. Guys would be doing the fundamentals exactly right, but they couldn’t get him out. Could. Not. Get. Him. Out. I finally just told him to just get out. The guys were doing it right and thought they had to be doing it wrong because they couldn’t get him out. It was like he was changing all the rules of rundown plays just by being out there.”
Then Buck added this: “To this day, there’s never been a prettier sight in baseball, at least not for me, than Deion Sanders running out a triple.”
He laughed then.
“He called one time when I was managing the Orioles and told me he was in town,” Showalter said. “When he got to Camden Yards, he asked if he could take some swings. Then during batting practice, he hit three home runs. In street clothes.”
Showalter said he understands that people can’t get past all of what he calls “the Prime Time” stuff with Deion. Sanders even capitalizes on it these days in insurance commercials with Alabama head coach Nick Saban, now that Sanders is the head coach at Jackson State.
“But his personality was different in baseball,” Buck said. “He understood the rhythms of it being an everyday sport. He embraced baseball’s past because I know he did, because the two of us talked about the past. And he wasn’t just a good teammate. He was a great teammate.”
Then Buck talked about his favorite Deion baseball moment of all -- Royals vs. Yankees on July 17, 1990, at Yankee Stadium. Buck was coaching third base for the Yankees. There had been a lot of talk about Bo and Deion being on the same field in the runup to that Royals-Yankees series, and some additional crosstalk between the two players. And that was before Bo hit home runs his first three times up that night.
But it turned out those home runs wouldn’t be the only thing people would remember from the night. In the bottom of the sixth, Deion lined a ball into right-center that Bo dove for and missed, separating his shoulder in the process while the ball rolled toward the outfield wall.
“I’m thinking that Deion’s triple is about to be as much fun to watch as Bo’s [three] homers,” Buck said. “Only now he comes flying around second, and I see that the Royals are playing it like it’s going to be a routine cut. At that point, it feels like [the Yankees] haven’t scored a run in a month. I decide, what the hell, I’m gonna send him. And start pumping him as hard as I can.”
A lot happened after Sanders came around third. It looked as if he was going to be out. But then the relay throw short-hopped Mike Macfarlane, the Royals' catcher blocking the plate.
“Then Deion isn’t just flying around the bases,” Showalter said. “He’s flying, period. He catapults over Macfarlane, over home plate, and then Macfarlane is scrambling and [pitcher] Mel Stottlemyre, Jr. is picking up the ball and tossing it back to Macfarlane and Deion is scrambling to get his hand on home plate. Which he does. Sneaks it in there. Durwood Merrill is behind the plate, yelling ‘Safe, safe, safe!’”
Another laugh from Buck.
“The place, as you can imagine, goes [absolutely] crazy,” he said.
I asked what he thinks Deion’s stat line would have been, in his best year, if he’d only played baseball.
“A .310 average, something like that, because he could get a little homer happy sometimes,” Buck said. “Fifteen to 20 homers. Score 100 runs a year on the right team. Steal 50 bases. Play center. Lead the league in triples every year. Impact games in so many different ways, people would have lost count.”
There was one more pause at the other end of this phone call, a prime one, about Sanders.
“I would have paid just to watch him run,” Buck said.