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Unless he's in the big leagues, Sanders may report to the Redskins next Sunday

There is only one man who knows whether Deion Sanders will report to the NFL's Washington Redskins next week or continue to play minor-league baseball with the Triple-A Syracuse SkyChiefs.

And that man isn't talking.

Sanders, who has been with the SkyChiefs since June 29, said he does not discuss football matters while he's playing baseball. For now, Sanders said he's concentrating on improving his batting average so the Toronto Blue Jays, the SkyChiefs' parent team, will consider promoting him to the major leagues.

"At one time in my life, at a certain age, I was able to think about a couple of things at once and be effective," Sanders said. "I can't do that anymore. I'm just trying to take it one thing at a time and focus on one thing at a time."

But by this time next week, Sanders will not be able to sidestep football any longer. If he's still with the SkyChiefs and not Toronto, he'll have a major decision to make.

Next Sunday, the Redskins' players are scheduled to report to training camp at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. The Redskins' first practice of training camp starts the next day.

If Sanders is not with the Blue Jays or another major-league team, he must report to the Redskins' camp or forfeit about $6.9 million of the $8 million signing bonus he received when he signed a seven-year, $56 million contract with Washington in June 2000.

That sounds like a no-brainer for Sanders. After all, why give up $6.9 million to play minor-league baseball in Syracuse? But it's more complicated than that, because Sanders wants out of Washington and the seven-time Pro Bowl cornerback has said he wants and expects to be released by the Redskins.

The best thing that could happen to Sanders is a promotion to Toronto. That way, he keeps his signing bonus, skips Washington's training camp and then either joins the Redskins in October or gets released and signs with another NFL team.

But Sanders, who turns 34 Aug. 9, has not recaptured the batting form that enabled him to hit .459 for the Cincinnati Reds' Triple-A team at Louisville in April. Sanders joined the Reds May 1 and hit .173 in 32 games before getting released in mid-June and signing with the Blue Jays.

Through Thursday, Sanders was batting .256 (20-for-78) with six doubles, one triple, no home runs and three RBIs in 19 games for the SkyChiefs. Sanders is a prototypical leadoff hitter who is supposed to get on base and wreak havoc on the base paths, but through Thursday he had a low .333 on-base percentage with just two stolen bases in five attempts.

Sanders, the SkyChiefs' left fielder and sometimes designated hitter, said he needed to get back into the groove after playing sporadically for six weeks in Cincinnati.

"I'm not the kind of player who looks at or relies on statistics," Sanders said earlier this week. "To me, it's a feel. And I'm trying to get that feel back."

Since Sanders joined Syracuse, the Blue Jays have promoted one outfielder from the SkyChiefs  Chris Latham on July 12. At that point, Sanders' performance prevented him from being considered for a promotion.

"If he's playing well statistically ... we'd have to keep our minds open," Blue Jays assistant general manager Dave Stewart said. "But as I said when we signed him, our first thought was that he'd be here in Syracuse, and after that we didn't promise him anything at the major-league level."

Stewart, who oversees Toronto's farm system, is well aware of Sanders' football deadline. With the Blue Jays falling out of the playoff race in the American League, it's possible the team will make a trade or two before the July 31 trade deadline and perhaps the deals will leave a spot for Sanders in Toronto.

"Whatever comes, we'll deal with it when that time comes," Stewart said. "We're hoping that when that decision comes he makes it a tough decision for us (by playing well at Syracuse)."

In Washington, meanwhile, Sanders' status is the source of great debate. A Washington Post online survey this past week asked readers if the Redskins should release or keep Sanders (as of late in the week, nearly 55 percent said they should release Sanders, while 43 percent said they should keep him and 2 percent said they didn't know).

It had been assumed Washington would eventually release Sanders and save his $3.6 million salary under the salary cap for this season. But a report in the Washington Post this past week said the Redskins are now leaning against releasing Sanders because they have reworked other contracts and no longer need the $3.6 million of salary cap space.

Under the NFL's complicated salary cap system, releasing Sanders this year would damage Washington's salary cap situation for 2002 (the majority of his signing bonus would count against their 2002 cap). By keeping Sanders this season and releasing him next year, the damage would occur in 2003, when Washington will be better equipped to take a salary cap hit.

But Washington's apparent change of heart about keeping Sanders could just be a smoke screen. The Redskins could test Sanders' determination to get out of Washington by agreeing to release Sanders, but only if he gives back a portion of his signing bonus. That way, Washington would save even more than Sanders' salary under the cap.

As the opening of the Redskins' training camp approaches, there are several possibilities. The team and new coach Mary Schottenheimer could decide it's not worth the hassle and release Sanders before camp starts.

Or Sanders could remain in Syracuse and buy a few more days by not reporting to camp. That's a violation of his contract, but holdouts occur all the time in the NFL and players do not normally lose their signing bonuses over short holdouts.

Sanders could report to Washington next Sunday. Or he could end up in the major leagues with Toronto or another major-league team (the Blue Jays will allow him to leave Syracuse if another big-league team wants him).

The countdown is on.

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