The day at FSU when Deion did the impossible

Two conference championships. Two different sports. One day.

May 16th, 2024
Photo via FSU, art by Tom Forget

"Don't Stop Him."

Those were the three words Florida State University baseball coach Mike Martin once told his assistant coach Chip Baker regarding Deion Sanders.

And during one afternoon and night on May 16, 1987, that's exactly the advice the FSU athletic staff abided by.

Photo via FSU

The day was a big one for the Tallahassee-based university.

A couple of their teams -- baseball and track & field -- were in Columbia, S.C., for the Metro Conference Championships.

The baseball team had a semifinal game against Southern Mississippi at 3 p.m. If they won, they'd play another game at around 7:30 p.m. for a shot at the Metro title. A young, bright, energetic star on their roster? Deion Sanders.

"It was unique to watch him," Baker, known as Big Shooter during his years at FSU, said. "I hear the word phenomenal, but Deion was just unique. He really was."

Deion was an athletic wonder coming out of North Myers High School to Florida State. He sometimes scored his entire team's point total during basketball games, he accounted for thousands of yards passing and running as the school QB, and he was such a good baseball player that he was drafted after his senior year by the Royals.

"He was just 17 years old," the late Kansas City scouting director Art Stewart once said. "But he had amazing tools. He had speed and power. He hit from the left side and he could really fly. He ran a 3.94 to first, which for 17 years old, is pretty fast."

Deion nearly signed with Kansas City, but decided to go to college instead.

The Fort Myers native was a star defensive back for Bobby Bowden's football team and an outfielder for Martin and Baker's decorated baseball squad. And for that semifinal game on May 16, the sophomore was slated to bat seventh in the order.

But days before, FSU's track and field coach Dick Roberts had run into a problem.

Roberts had a 4x100 relay race and his runner for the second leg -- Arthur Blake -- had come down with mononucleosis. He needed a sub and he needed it fast. On the fly. The coach thought about it and then suddenly remembered the baseball team might have someone who would be talented enough to do it. He'd be there that day, anyway.

"They asked if Deion -- if we were not playing at 7 p.m. that Saturday night -- could Deion run in the 4x100 meter relay," Baker recalled. "He'd be back for our night game [if FSU advanced]."

Sanders wasn't on the track and field team roster -- he'd officially join the next year in 1988 -- but Martin and Roberts seemed to agree that, if the timing worked out, Deion could sub.

The day arrived and the first baseball game, against Southern Mississippi, happened at 3 p.m.

Deion went 1-for-4 with a double and a run scored. The Seminoles won, 5-1, with the game ending around 5:30 p.m. Sanders' team would be advancing to play in the finals at 7:30 p.m., leaving barely enough time for the baseball/track-and-field/baseball experiment.

Sure enough, from about 200 yards away on South Carolina's campus, Roberts trotted toward the baseball dugouts.

"Everybody's sitting around eating chicken sandwiches," Baker recalled. "Coach Roberts comes over and he brings Deion some track stuff -- some shorts, you know. Deion swagged it out, looked really good."

One issue: Deion had never done a 4x100 relay race -- and now he had to do one in a Division I Conference Championship meet. He could run, but he didn't know the techniques involved in handing off/receiving the baton. That's where Baker stepped in.

"If there was video cameras back in the day, it would've still been the No. 1 video ever," Baker laughed. "Me with Deion trying to practice hand-offs."

After a few rounds with the baton, Deion was as ready as he could be. Around 7 p.m., the entire baseball team walked over to the track to watch their teammate lace up in the second turn and attempt something really only he could, or would, ever attempt.

FSU finished second in the 4x100 with Deion timing in at 100 meters in 10.4 seconds. That's elite level, less than one second off Usain Bolt's current world record (9.58). The runner-up placement would help the Seminoles eventually take home the track & field title.

It was an amazing spectacle -- one worth celebrating and talking about. But there wasn't time for any of that. FSU had a baseball championship to win on the next field.

"Deion comes back, we're playing baseball in 15 minutes," Baker said. "Our pitching coach had to warm up the starting pitcher in the bullpen because everybody had run over to the track."

The game between FSU and Cincinnati was a back-and-forth affair and, by the bottom of the sixth inning, things were all tied up at 2.

On a couple of hits and a walk, the Seminoles loaded up the bases with nobody out. This was their chance to strike and get the momentum -- and possibly the game -- in their hands.

Up at the plate? Deion.

The kid who'd already played a full Metro Conference Championship semifinal baseball game and then placed second in his first ever 4x100 Metro Conference Championship relay race was in position to deliver big for his team in the Metro Conference Championship final. He had to be exhausted. His legs had to feel like jelly. Did he even know which sport he was playing? Was he waving around a bat or a baton in the batter's box?

Either way, the 19-year-old came through.

With the track squad now over watching the baseball game after clinching their championship, the once-in-a-generation star knocked a two-RBI single to left field. FSU went up 4-2 and never looked back, winning the Metro final 6-3.

"It all worked out perfect," Baker said, telling me he'd never seen any athlete like him.

Sanders was named to the Metro baseball all-tournament team in '87, became a three-time champion in outdoor track in '88 and was, of course, a two-time All-American cornerback for the football team. Then came the Yankees, Braves, Falcons, 49ers, Cowboys (among others) and, later on, the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The day back with FSU in 1987, quite rightfully, doesn't seem real. It's a tale that feels changed as time's gone by, passed down and exaggerated to make a person seem that much better or that much more exciting. But Deion already was all of that. He did things like this all the time, and on this afternoon into late evening, his coach was there to see it.

"That happened," Baker told me. "I've been known to stretch the truth for a story, but that happened. My eyes saw it."