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This Prime Time faces a blackout

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 20, 2001


It was the perfect summer job. The Taj Mahal of lemonade stands.

It was the perfect summer job. The Taj Mahal of lemonade stands.

The work was mostly outdoors. The pay was outstanding. There were plenty of perks to be had, like first-class travel and all the pine tar you can smear.

All Deion Sanders had to do was hit a baseball. Not even repeatedly. Just occasionally. Enough so that he looked useful in a useless lineup.

Instead, the Cincinnati Reds told Sanders to take his ball and (especially) his bat and go home.

This is the problem with summer.

It never seems to last.

Whether you are 13 years old and hoping to delay the start of another school year or 33 years old and angling to get out of an NFL training camp, the best days seem to fly right by.

The Reds designated Sanders for assignment last week, meaning they have the rest of this week to either trade or release him. Odds are, he never again will be allowed to misplay a fly ball.

Now there are all sorts of honorable reasons why a millionaire football player would endure the humiliation of being fired from a summer baseball job. Love of the game. Thrill of a challenge. Camaraderie of teammates.

For Sanders, it was clout. And maybe a little spite.

The job meant a lot to Sanders. It provided him the leverage he no longer commands in football. You see, without a spot on a major-league roster, Sanders will have to report on time to training camp next month, as if he were a common cornerback. Worse still, he will have to report to the Redskins.

This was the hidden beauty in Sanders' return to the majors after a three-year hiatus. His contract with the Redskins allowed him to miss the entire preseason, as long he was playing in the majors.

Eager to walk away from Washington after one season -- and an $8-million signing bonus -- Sanders was hoping the baseball threat would persuade the Redskins to release him for salary-cap reasons on June 1.

Except, as it turns out, Washington coach Marty Schottenheimer knows how to read box scores. Or at least knows that a .173 batting average with no power, no defense and a success rate of less than 50 percent on stolen bases is not going to earn a devoted following.

So the salary-cap deadline came and went and Schottenheimer said there was no reason to make a hasty move. The hint was merely implied. No reason to worry about Sanders missing training camp because he was hitting curveballs with about the same consistency as he hits fullbacks.

Realizing his bat was not going to get him out of Washington, Sanders tried using his mouth. He declared he did not trust Schottenheimer. Said he would jump in the air and click his heels when released by the Redskins. Suggested the team was using his imminent release in baseball as leverage.

And he, of course, would recognize the tactic.

This is an athlete accustomed to playing by rules established by, and for, himself. That was true from his final days at Florida State, when he realized he no longer had to go to class to play in a bowl game, to his NFL wanderings from Atlanta to San Francisco to Dallasto Washington.

Because he was exceedingly talented and bright, because he was Prime Time, Sanders was allowed to call his own shots for most of his adult life. Unfortunately for him, a step or two has been lost on the fields of his past and that means he has lost his own leverage.

Sanders still is above the curve when it comes to NFL cornerbacks, but he no longer is a differencemaker. And so his deficiencies (like an aversion to tackling) gradually will become more apparent.

That explains why the salary cap-ravaged Redskins are considering cutting him loose. Getting rid of Sanders would clear $3.6-million from the salary cap. And if Sanders is not outrageously better than the other cornerbacks on the roster, the move probably makes sense.

But the Redskins also know Sanders wants out. And they know he has $8-million of their money in his pocket from last season's signing bonus. Cut him loose and that money is gone. Hold him hostage and he might just be persuaded to offer a partial refund.

Two weeks ago, Sanders was boasting that the Redskins would be paying him "for doing nothing."

The possibility still exists, but Schottenheimer could exact his own revenge by holding on to Sanders throughout training camp. Not only could he make Sanders miserable, it would make it more difficult for Sanders to defect to the team of his choice if he were cut in late August.

So the reality is one of the great athletes of this generation could be released by two teams in two sports within two months time.

Sometimes, even Prime Time shows face cancellation.

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