Even on the smallest stage, Neon's lights were bright

September 08, 2004|By Laura Vecsey

IN THIS far-flung world of sports journalism, your faithful correspondent has always hunted for tales of humble beginnings and humbled endings.

And then there is Deion Sanders.

I knew him when ... not that he cares.

"Sorry, sis. Nothing personal. I only talk on Thursdays," Sanders said yesterday.

Ah, to be Prime Timed not once, but twice, during an otherwise plausibly successful reporting career.

Some of us were around 15 years ago when "Prime Time" took his show to The Show. Or, rather, took his show to the prelude to The Show.

That was Albany, New York, home of the Albany-Colonie Yankees, where Sanders started his first full season of professional sports while this scribe was toiling for the Albany Times-Union.

To illustrate the way in which a fellow like Sanders could wow the local populace, the Times-Union recently took a poll of the favorite athletes ever to have played in upstate New York's Capital Region.

Only Pat Riley, Sam Perkins, Adam Oates, Mike Tyson, Derek Jeter, Jeff Blatnik, Phil Jackson, Bernie Williams, Dottie Pepper, Joe Juneau and John Starks ranked ahead of Sanders in terms of popularity.

Of course, only 58 people voted in the Capital Region poll, and goodness knows Sanders only played in 33 games, hitting a cool .286. Now Sanders is shaking up Ravenstown, which you'd think didn't need any glitz or fizz or spotlight heat. It's already so hot in here, Ray Lewis is taking off all his clothes. Or at least planning to dance again to that tune.

Ah, but the stage loves Sanders. And vice versa.

It fires up the ol' memory chip from the times when "Prime Time" first hit the big time - leaving Florida to earn money for his speed, even if a minor leaguer's per diem was barely enough to pay for Neon's tooth polish.

In 1988, the New York Yankees selected the Florida State star of the gridiron, diamond and running oval in the 30th round of the amateur baseball draft.

That was so long ago, the Yankees finished fifth in the seven-team American League East that season. Their payroll was a whopping $18,777,999.

And the Yankees made Deion the 781st pick overall.

That would appear to be humble beginnings, but we don't need ESPN Classic to remind us there is no such thing for the man known as "Prime Time."

He might have been relegated to bus trips to Eastern League burgs, but Sanders made it clear he wasn't there but for a cup of coffee.

He was all Jerri Curl back then, enough hair to make the Yankees' notoriously anal-retentive farmhand manager cringe. That's right, Buck Showalter was Sanders' first pro boss - after Tallahassee Bobby Bowden, that is.

Strangers in the night, Buck and Deion, exchanging glances. ... Talk about obtuse career paths converging in weird places.

Among the lesser-known facts about Sanders' illustrious two-sport career: He was the first player to get a hit in a professional baseball game in London, Ontario. That was on April 7, 1989, when Sanders, then 21, playing center field and batting leadoff against the London Tigers, singled off Don Vesling.

And we thought every detail of Sanders' athletic, rap-singing, evangelical life had been uncovered.

Better yet, Sanders went 4-for-4 that cold April night in Canada - when the wife of Tigers manager Chris Chambliss sang the anthem in a fur coat. Sanders made two sensational catches. By September, Sanders had gone through Triple-A Columbus and was hitting homers - at Yankee Stadium.

That Neon was the 781st pick overall didn't have any humbling effect on him, anyway. He was also the Atlanta Falcons' first-round pick, fifth overall, and he showed up at his NFL coming-out party wearing enough jewelry to open a Fortunoff's mega-store.

Yes, it was clear from the beginning where Sanders' bread was buttered. The NFL was where "Prime Time" was worth his weight in gold.

As Sanders himself once said: In baseball, you can't jump around and act the fool because the game requires too much concentration and patience and a lot more sacrifice of individual flamboyance, which is why athletes nearly as athletically gifted as Deion (Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey, Alex Rodriguez) were (eventually) willing to submit to being "just one of 25 guys."

Here in Ravenstown, the talk has been about Sanders' NFL comeback.

If we learned anything from Michael Jordan's career-ending sputter in Washington, it's that even the most sensational will eventually fall, or falter.

Watching that kind of thing happen really stinks.

And Prime Time won't easily ingest no humble pie.

He's already woofing on national TV to his buddy, retired receiver Michael Irvin.

"Prime Time" has issued a taunt in advance of the Ravens' season opener Sunday, daring Browns quarterback Jeff Garcia to throw to his side of the field.

Do the Ravens, prime Super Bowl contenders, need any more of this?

"There's a difference between arrogance and conviction," coach Brian Billick reminded us all yesterday.

Who could forget? Coach is the real "Prime Time" around these parts.

It's best to remain cautiously optimistic about what and when and how long Sanders will reappear. If he reappears.

He's picking his spots. Nickel coverage. Twenty snaps.

Most important: No talking - unless it's Thursday. Sis.

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