It is only fitting that Pinstripe Alley remembers Deion Sanders's unique feat on the day that the NFL season begins in 2012 and New York sports fans face a tough decision on whether to watch the New York Yankees play a crucial game with first place on the line in Tampa, or to watch the New York Giants in the NFL season opener.
In the late 1980s and early '90s, a rare phenomenon occurred that had not really happened since the days of Jim Thorpe--the multi-sport professional athlete. The most famous of these players was Bo Jackson, who hit 32 homers and was the MLB All-Star Game MVP as an outfielder with the Kansas City Royals one year, then was named to the Pro Bowl as a running back with the Oakland Raiders the next. Although not quite as heralded, Deion Sanders pulled the same trick as well. A multi-sport star in high school, Sanders faced an early decision between his two favorite sports when he was drafted in the sixth round of the '85 MLB draft by the Royals, who offered him $50,000 to sign with them. It was a tempting offer since Sanders grew up in a poor environment and his family could have certainly used the money, but he chose to accept an athletic scholarship offered to him by Florida State University. Drawing inspiration from Jackson's success, Sanders starred as a Seminole by running track and field, helping the baseball team reach the College World Series twice (including a runner-up finish in '86), and by coincidentally winning the Jim Thorpe Award for college football's best defensive back in '88 after the Seminoles won the Sugar Bowl.
"Neon Deion" could do it all, and the New York Yankees decided that it was worth using a 30th round pick in the '88 draft on him. He accepted the Yankees' offer of $75,000 and spent 28 games in the minors honing his skills there that summer before returning to Florida State, hitting .284/.323/.379. After finishing at FSU, Sanders returned to the diamond, where he spent most of the season between AA Albany and AAA Columbus and hit .280/.348/.413. On April 24th, he was selected with the fifth overall pick in the NFL draft by the Atlanta Falcons, and it took him awhile to officially sign a contract with the Falcons since he was playing baseball. One month after the Falcons drafted him, "Prime Time" officially hit New York in his MLB debut; he got his first hit on an infield single against Brian Holman of the Seattle Mariners. He only played a couple weeks in New York before returning to the minors. He would return and later create quite the memory.
With the NFL season quickly approaching and no contract officially signed, Sanders returned to the Yankees as a September call-up. New York was in the midst of its worst season since the CBS ownership days of '67. New manager Dallas Green's team struggled, and the manager took issue with Steinbrenner's micromanging style, even calling him "Manager George," which did not win him favors with "the Boss." Green was fired on August 17th with the team nine games under .500. They finished 18-22 under his replacement, former shortstop Bucky Dent, and ended with an extremely disappointing 87 losses.
Sanders gave the team some excitement in an early September game though. On September 5th, he had his finest day as a big leaguer yet, again facing the Mariners. The Yankees won in a blowout at the Kingdome, 12-2, beating up on young starter Randy Johnson and his replacements, Jerry Reed, Bill Swift, and Tom Niedenfuer. Sanders chipped in with a 3-for-5 night on a pair of doubles and his second major league home run, a two-run clout to deep right-center field. The next day, he played six innings and left the team. He was disappointed to be leaving the Yankees, but "Prime Time" finally signed his lucrative deal with the Falcons and reported to Atlanta for a game on Sunday. Even without any time in training camp, Sanders caused a splash by returning a punt 68 yards for a touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams.
In doing so, Sanders became the only person to ever hit a home run in and score a touchdown at baseball and football's top levels in the same week. It was an incredible individual accomplishment, albeit a tough one for both the Yankees and Falcons to take. They each wanted their player to focus on one sport, but Sanders loved both too much to give it up. He played the '90 season with the Yankees, then moved on to the Braves in Atlanta, where it was easier for him to do the two sports. Sanders later became the only person to ever play in both the World Series and the Super Bowl. "Neon Deion" was a polarizing figure, but he was clearly one of the most talented athletes of the 20th century.