Wednesday, May 2, 2001

CINCINNATI It sounded as if the Washington Redskins were the furthest thing from Deion Sanders’ mind last night as the future NFL Hall of Fame cornerback made a sparkling return to major league baseball.

With the Redskins wondering whether baseball has become his priority, Sanders went 3-for-3 with a three-run home run in the Cincinnati Reds’ 7-6 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers at Cinergy Field. He hit the first pitch he saw for a single and the second one for the homer, receiving his first career curtain call after the latter.

“I wish my vocabulary was equipped to express what I feel,” Sanders said afterward. “I was moved [by the curtain call] teary moved. I’ve never received an ovation in this game. That’s the first time in sports I really felt appreciated for once… . I’ve received a lot of accolades in sports, but I was really touched tonight, if you can believe that.”

The 33-year-old Sanders, playing in the majors for the first time since 1997, started in left field and batted second. In a news conference before his heroics, he said the absence of football worries along with being healthy allowed this improbable comeback to succeed where last year’s failed.

“Everything’s gone,” Sanders said. “I don’t have a contract over me, something I’m trying to get involved with, a football team hanging over my head. There are no uncertainties in my life. Everything is certain right now, and I’m certainly glad I’m here.”

Asked whether he feels an obligation to the Redskins, who have begun making roster moves to prepare for his absence, Sanders appeared to make a veiled reference to some dissatisfaction with the club.

“I feel an obligation to this baseball team,” Sanders said a bit tersely. “That [question is] just like asking them if they feel obligations to me. Pose that question to them.”

Sanders’ night ended with another ambiguous comment when he said, “Trust me, I know what I’m going to do. [The media keep] on guessing. It won’t even come to a stressful decision for me.”

Generally, Sanders dismissed questions about football. Once, when asked when he would get in touch with Redskins coach Marty Schottenheimer, Sanders replied, “I intend to get in touch with whoever’s pitching tonight a couple times.”

Another time, when asked why he wanted to return to baseball, he indicated that he has accomplished all he could in football, saying, “It’s been a good run.”

“There isn’t too much left to do [in football] besides complete a team-oriented goal,” Sanders said. “Baseball, there’s so much left, so much to do, so much to accomplish.”

Reds general manager Jim Bowden said he expects Sanders to complete the Reds’ season, which could run into October if they reach the playoffs. Baseball’s regular season ends Sept. 30, the day of the Redskins’ fourth regular-season game.

“We wouldn’t have signed him if we didn’t think he was going to finish the year playing baseball,” Bowden said.

However, Sanders’ one-year, $500,000 contract which includes no incentives does not commit him to finish the Reds’ season.

“His word is good to me,” Bowden said, declining to say what Sanders’ “word” was.

Sanders’ football contract also does not compel him to meet Redskins commitments over those of a major league baseball team. That fact likely will allow him to depart Washington after just one season with his $8 million signing bonus intact.

Assuming Sanders does not flop in his return to the majors, the Redskins have two options: release him after June 1, recouping $3.5 million of salary cap space but making him a free agent, or place him on the Did Not Report list, retaining his rights and gaining $205,882 with each regular season game he misses.

If last night was any indication, Sanders won’t flop. After leading the Class AAA International League in batting (.459), hits (34), triples (five), on-base percentage (.494) and slugging percentage (.689), Sanders stayed hot.

In the first inning, Sanders lined the first pitch from Dodgers starter Eric Gagne into center field for a single. In the second, he hit a three-run homer to right on Gagne’s first offering. In the fifth, Sanders took a ball from reliever Jose Nunez and bunted the second pitch for an infield single. He later stole third and scored. In the seventh, Sanders sacrifice bunted Barry Larkin to second, and Larkin scored the winning run on a single by Dmitri Young.

“He really learned how to hit this spring, and he carried it over,” Reds manager Bob Boone said. “I knew he had the capability. It’s a real tribute for him to get back to where he’s at.”

Sanders’ failed comeback last spring ended when he was allowed to return home to rehabilitate his knee after hitting .200 in 25 minor league games. In his last major league season, 115 games for the 1997 Reds, he hit .273 with 56 stolen bases. He left the club Sept. 4 to play football for the Dallas Cowboys, and he concentrated on football full time in 1998 and ‘99.

Sanders now might be shifting full time to baseball, where Bowden believes the outfielder can enjoy a solid end to a patchwork career.

“This is the first time, in my opinion, that Deion has had his personal life intact, his spiritual life intact, [has] been physically sound and [has] been totally dedicated to baseball,” Bowden said. “That’s why we think he has a chance to succeed more than he’s ever succeeded before.”

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