With the Super Bowl coming up this weekend, it is a good time to look back at an NFL legend who rapidly rose through the Yankees’ system. Deion Sanders is one of the best athletes to ever wear a Yankees uniform, but he never focused solely on baseball, leaving much of his potential untapped on the baseball diamond.
The Yankees gambled little to draft Sanders in the 30th round of the 1988 MLB draft. The star outfielder from Florida State University had skipped baseball during his senior season in order to focus on football and preparing for the NFL draft. His focus on football was not unwarranted, as he was a two-time All-American while in college. Sanders was so confident about his NFL draft stock that he had walked out of a pre-draft interview with the New York Giants after finding out that they had the 10th overall pick, knowing he would be drafted before that. His confidence and ability was rewarded as he was taken fifth overall by the Atlanta Falcons.
Late in the draft the Yankees took the best available athlete on the board, and brought Sanders into the organization. The center fielder was one of the fastest athletes coming out of college in any spot, having also run for the Florida State track team. During the NFL combine he was clocked by various sources as having run the 40-yard-dash in 4.2 seconds.
In his first season with the franchise, Sanders played 28 games in the minors hitting a combined .284/.323/.379 across three levels that included the Yankees’ Rookie Level Gulf Coast League team, Class-A Fort-Lauderdale, and Triple-A Columbus. He also demonstrated his world-class speed by stealing 14 bases in 17 attempts. He crossed paths with future major leaguers Brad Ausmus, Russ Davis, and Gerald Williams during his first season with the Yankees. Leaving in late July to prepare for his football career, the Yankees and the world watched Sanders’ exploits on the gridiron live up to the “Prime Time” nickname that became his calling card.
When Sanders returned to the Yankees for the 1989 season he was very clear on what his priorities were when it came to the sports he was playing. In an interview with Sports Illustrated that year he stated, “I’m married to football, baseball is my girlfriend.” He was sent back to the minor leagues and started the season with the Double-A Albany-Colonie Yankees and their manager Buck Showalter. During this stop he was teammates with Jim Leyritz, and Hensley Meulens on a team that would win the Eastern League title that season. Upon Sanders being promoted to Triple-A, the Yankees promoted another young centerfielder who would go on to make a name for himself in Bernie Williams.
Quickly promoted to Triple-A Columbus after just 33 games, Sanders continued to put together solid numbers. With the Yankees on notice that he would be leaving the team again to prepare for the upcoming football season, he earned a promotion to the majors and made his debut on May 31, 1989. Sanders played 14 games with the Yankees, even returning for a five-game stretch in early September. While his numbers at the major league level were slightly below average with only a 92 wRC+, he had produced a solid minor league campaign. The rapid rise through the system, coupled with his obvious physical tools and potential, earned Sanders a ranking as the 53rd best prospect in the sport by Baseball America following the 1989 season.
Given the chance to start the season on the major league roster in 1990, Sanders performed poorly. After 57 games he was hitting just .158/.236/.271, yet the Yankees offered a $2 million deal for the remainder of 1990 and the 1991 season. The was a catch with the deal in that Sanders would have to play the entire baseball season before leaving to play football.
Some people associated with Sanders have indicated that he was strongly considering signing the deal, but after George Steinbrenner began his suspension, the offer was no longer on the table. “It’s just better we part because of the atmosphere here,” Yankees General Manager Gene Michael said. “In a different town, he might be better.” Likely playing into Michael’s decision to pull the offer was Sanders’ poor performance, and several incidents like a back and forth with White Sox catcher Carlton Fisk after Sanders did not run out a fly-ball.
Once released from the Yankees’ roster, Sanders found a home in Atlanta where he could play for both the Braves and the Falcons. After struggling for Atlanta in 1991, Sanders played 97 games and posted a 130 OPS+ in 1992, by far his best season. He also returned to the Braves in the postseason, hitting .533 in a losing effort during the World Series. Sanders would hit .263/.319/.392 over 641 major league games.
It is hard to entertain the idea of “what might have been” for Deion Sanders when he is considered one of the best to ever play his position in football. In fact, it is almost scary to think about what it would have meant for the organization and a player like Bernie Williams if Sanders had panned out in a Yankees uniform. Getting a major league player in the 30th round of the draft was a gamble worth taking, and the Yankees can count one of the best football players in history as an alumni of the team.