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Deion, we hardly knew ye

Page 2 columnist

Deion is, I am confident, about to take leave of the Washington Redskins and most likely professional football as well. He leaves us, needless to say, as the greatest Deion of his era, and perhaps any other era, so symbolic a Deion that there is no need to use his last name. Can any other Deion make that claim?

Deion Sanders
Deion Sanders has turned his back on the Redskins in favor of the Reds.
To those of us who are Deionistas, the idea of his leaving pro football, and leaving the Redskins, is sad news (particularly for us Giants and Cowboys and Eagles fans), now that Deion has lost a step or two and was perhaps the weakest link in the Washington secondary last year.

I guess I should explain at this point that a true Deionista roots against any team that Deion plays for in any sport, something which over the years, in two sports and with countless teams, Deion has made extremely easy. This is not to take away from Deion's talents. A true Deionista knows that Deion is very talented, and that in the three sports he excels at he has a good chance for the Hall of Fame in pro football; is unlikely for it in baseball; and is an absolute lock for it in something which is at the heart of the newest and most important of modern American games, the Hall of Fame for Self-Promotion.

I am a New York Giants fan, and that means on two occasions I have been thrilled when Deion Sanders signed with the Giants' sworn enemies, the Cowboys and the Redskins. I was thrilled despite knowing, in the case of Dallas, that in the immediate future and the very short run he would help the Cowboys. He is, or at least was in the prime of his career, a very talented cornerback, who had a capacity to shut down a large part of the field. You cannot, as they say in pro sports, coach speed -- and Deion had great speed. So what if he did not particularly like to tackle? He rarely needed to.

What buoyed me at the time of his Dallas signing was the price, as I recall, $25 million for five years. That, whatever the immediate value, meant that the Cowboys, with Aikman, Irvin and Smith already carrying singular price tags, were mortgaging their future, putting a disproportionate amount of their remaining cap money into one position and thereby limiting their flexibility, either to retain valuable starters, or to sign and keep young ascending players who were key to what was then an unusually strong organization.

I figured that signing Deion would cost Dallas, minimally, two and quite possibly three or four quality players. To me, it spelled the beginning of the end of Dallas' formidable reign. Looking back, I think I was right; if anything, I underestimated how quickly the team would break down.

A year ago, I was absolutely stunned by the bountiful contract that Redskins owner Daniel Snyder offered him. The signing of Deion and other older players for such immense contracts struck me, and I think many other serious football fans, as the wrong way to go. Chemistry in football is delicate and, even in an age of free agency, the way to build a football team seems to be from the bottom up, starting with a core of your own players and then grafting on a few veteran free agent players -- usually, by the way, not superstars, more often than not a relatively little known offensive lineman.

But I suppose there was something that Deion and Dan had in common, a belief that money was everything, more important in the end than character and respecting other people and the game itself (and, of course, the secret ego corollary -- that an owner who signed a star was himself now a star). So there he was, very Deionesque, having arrived for the signing and his $8 million bonus in his new suit made out of Redskins colors, burgundy and gold.

Deion Sanders
Deion's dash couldn't match his flash after arriving with the Redskins.
That's our Deion, many of us Deionistas thought. The salary was immense, and though pro football salaries are often greatly inflated and the tail end of the contracts might as well be in Monopoly money, there was one part that was carved in stone, and that was the signing bonus. "That suit was probably his best single move of the year," says my old friend Larry L. King, the writer, and author of among many other things, "The Best Little Whore House in Texas."

King and I have been friends for 40 years and he is the most knowledgeable and passionate Redskins fan I know. He is from Midland, Texas, and he hates the Cowboys and he lives and dies with the Redskins. He is a fellow Deionista, so I know how he thinks. When Deion was signed by Washington, I called King. "Larry, he's all yours now," I said.

"Yes," he answered, and I could hear the melancholia in his voice. "It's not going to play out well -- he's the most egocentric football player I've ever seen. Everything he does is about himself."

If King was not pleased at the time of the signing, he remains not pleased a disastrous year later: "When the signing was about to take place I got a call from my old friend Bud Shrake (another prominent Texas writer), who seemed to think that I had a lot of influence with the Redskins ownership and who told me I ought to prevent the signing because Deion had lost it, and opposing teams were going after him. Shrake was right, of course -- he was our third best cornerback last year, and it's going to take years to get out of the hole that bonus will cost us. Dallas really snookered us on that deal."

It should be noted here that Deion will leave the Redskins much the way he played -- it was, as ever when things go wrong with him, someone else's fault. In this case, it was the fault of Marty Schottenheimer, who did not call him quickly enough in the offseason and did not keep, as an assistant a coach, Ray Rhodes, whom Deion liked. (I think the reference to Rhodes was an attempt to play the race card just a bit, something that Deion has tended to do from time to time, but it's hard to do when you've taken a huge bonus, played only one year under it, so that the bonus averages out to $500,000 a game).

I loved it: Schottenheimer was being accused of insufficient loyalty by the man who virtually invented the Velcro team label.

So it appears to be all over with Deion in football, and he is back to baseball once again, where he is, by the way, very fast, not a great outfielder, does not have a strong arm, and is a career .260 hitter (an average which is going down, as pitchers have learned more about him).

My passion as a Deionista began some 10 years ago, when he had a near scuffle with Carlton Fisk at home plate in Yankee Stadium during Deion's brief tour as a Yankee in 1989 and 1990. Fisk, who had been a party to many great Red Sox-Yankee games and took playing in Yankee Stadium very seriously, was by then with the White Sox. The incident started because when Deion came to bat, he would always draw a dollar sign in the dirt with his bat. That offended Fisk, who -- as he told Boston Globe baseball writer Dan Shaughnessy -- was upset because he thought when Deion did it, "He was pimping me."

That day Deion hit an infield pop-up and deigned not to run it out. Fisk, on that day more than any contemporary Yankee the standard bearer of the team's tradition, hated the idea that someone would wear that uniform and not play hard, and had shouted at him to run it out.

Deion Sanders
Deion's two-sport distractions didn't sit well with Atlanta Braves teammates in the early 1990s.
"I was burning," Fisk told Shaughnessy years later. "I was fuming for some reason. And this was a guy playing for the other team. So he comes up the next time and draws his dollar sign in the dirt and says, 'Hey, man, the days of slavery are over.' "

At that point the two men got in a shouting match, with Fisk telling him there was a right way and a wrong way to play the game, "and if you don't play it right, I'm going to kick your ass right here in Yankee Stadium." It's too bad he didn't -- it might have been that rare baseball time, I think, that no one would have come out of the Yankee dugout to defend a teammate.

Deion, it should be clear, is emblematic in team sports of me-first self-promotion, a virus that infects far too much of sports in this age of television and media commercials. And agents who are more powerful than coaches and managers (and owners), and who teach their athletes how to promote themselves rather than sacrifice for teams. In football, it is especially dangerous to have a tennis player's ego in what is quintessentially a team sport, where every success is produced by the interlocking efforts of so many teammates.

To me, the definitive Deion play is this: A defensive lineman on his team makes a great play, breaks through, nearly reaches the opposing quarterback; the quarterback, off-balance, about to go down, throws a dying quail; Deion, all alone on a busted play, makes an easy interception, runs it back almost unopposed for a touchdown, and then does a patented Deion celebration in the end zone -- Look at me! Look at me! All of this, it should be noted, is done with great calculation.

His timing as an athlete could not have been better. I think of him, and I think of his good fortune in being the beneficiary of what men like Curt Flood, a truly admirable man, did for him. Flood's career was marked by an unbending toughness of mind, and a flinty kind of integrity, and a willingness to sacrifice himself and his immediate material betterment for something larger and more abstract and demonstrably nonmaterial -- his beliefs and his sense of right and wrong.

  Here's the bad news for him: What worked for him in our culture when he was going up will work against him now that he's on the way down. The modern media machinery has a voracious appetite and a certain cruelty to it, whether you are an actor who uses drugs or a politician in the middle of an ugly divorce, or a cornerback who has lost two steps. It plays to you on the way up, and nips at you on the way down. Those who once courted you tend to turn on you.  

By contrast, people like Deion do not sacrifice, they always take. Indeed, more often than not, because they are so self-absorbed they did not even know that they are taking. Because of free agency, he was fortunate to be able to choose his teams, and for a time to graft himself onto winners, like San Francisco and Dallas. Had he stayed with the Atlanta Falcons, and helped raise them to a championship level, many of us Deionistas might have a slightly different opinion of him.

He is also, I should add, the product of something else -- a certain deplorable laziness in contemporary journalism, especially television journalism. He made himself into what television reporters love, a personality, by dint of egregious and provocative behavior. Television, after all, hates being bored, and it greatly prefers a talented racket thrower who loses to an even more talented racket nonthrower who wins. So it was with Deion. No matter that he rarely had anything important to say, he had a talent for making himself the center of attention.

In the modern age, this kind of behavior feeds on itself. Because he was glib and available and said outrageous things when most of his teammates were reserved, the television -- and print -- reporters were inevitably drawn to him. Because they were drawn to him, he became more of a personality and was the recipient of more and more commercials. Because he got more commercials, commercials which implied he had charm, which was not necessarily true, he became more of a personality.

I can remember one year when I was in Miami at the time of the Super Bowl. San Francisco was playing San Diego. The same 49er team included Jerry Rice, quite possibly the greatest player ever to play his position. But all the coverage seemed to be about Deion. Almost nothing was written about Rice. Writing about Rice demanded energy and originality and hard work; writing about Deion was easy, even if in the end the pieces were oddly empty and self-mocking.

His commercial sponsors -- especially Nike -- pushed him hard. If the innate understated charm that worked so naturally for Michael Jordan wasn't there, then the Nike people were always willing to try to create it artificially. They helped supply the helicopter to carry Deion back and forth from football to baseball in the fall of 1991, when the Atlanta Braves were in the playoffs and their schedule conflicted with that of the Atlanta Falcons .

His baseball teammates were, of course, privately furious about the distraction he created, and when Tim McCarver, who is one of our best announcers, had mildly made a note of the divided loyalty and the distraction that Deion's highly publicized crisis was causing to a team engaged in a playoff series, Deion responded, during the celebration in the winning locker room, by sneaking up behind McCarver and dousing him with a huge bucket of ice cold water, the water used to chill the champagne.

It was one of those moments when the true Deion showed -- everyone else was celebrating the team's playoff series victory, but what Deion was thinking about was taking revenge on a sportscaster, and attacking him from behind. "You're a real man, Deion," McCarver said to him. Deion, it should be noted, never apologized. Instead it was McCarver's fault for dissing him, he said later.

None of this deterred those who thought they had some kind of commercial stake in him. Sports announcers who should have known better spoke of him as perhaps the greatest athlete of his era because he played two professional sports. Nike, hoping for another Michael Jordan, mistakenly believing that chutzpah and narcissism were the same as charm, made him a poster boy for its products.

At one point, I called a friend of mine, a very senior Nike executive to protest. "It's all a con," I said, "he's about nothing but himself."

"But millions of American kids love him and think he's a hero," my friend said.

"All the worse for the millions of American kids -- and besides, if they do, it's mostly because people like you are pushing him too hard," I said.

Deion Sanders
Before the Redskins, Deion helped speed the decline of the Cowboys.
Well, it's all over now, or almost all over. The Nike commercials and the credit card commercials are gone, I think. The uniquely odious commercial showing Jerry Stiller, playing Vince Lombardi and speaking approvingly of Deion, is gone. I hope the Lombardi family got a lot of money for that one, because if there are two figures that represent vastly different eras in U.S. culture and sports, they are Deion and Lombardi. They represent completely different Americas and diametrically different definitions of the relationship of the individual (and his ego) to team success.

Now he's with the Cincinnati Reds. He's not that good a baseball player, and he tends to swing too often and too early in the count, and the pitchers have begun to hone in on that and throw him fewer strikes. A fourth outfielder at best for some team, noted Tom Boswell in the Washington Post the other day.

Here's the bad news for him: What worked for him in our culture when he was going up will work against him now that he's on the way down. The modern media machinery has a voracious appetite and a certain cruelty to it, whether you are an actor who uses drugs or a politician in the middle of an ugly divorce, or a cornerback who has lost two steps. It plays to you on the way up, and nips at you on the way down. Those who once courted you tend to turn on you.

Even Monday night as I was writing this, there Deion was on ESPN's "Baseball Tonight," going back ineptly on a fly ball which had got away from him, all of it lovingly reported. What goes around comes around. So we are coming to the end of it all. His football days are largely over, unless there is another young owner who is sucker enough to sign an aging cornerback who doesn't like to tackle.

So how good was he? He was a marvelous cornerback for a few years.

He was also, and we should never forget it, the greatest Deion we ever saw.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has written 12 bestsellers, including Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, The Reckoning and Summer of '49, writes a bi-weekly column for Page 2.

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