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Sanders saga still unsolved

Cornerback Deion Sanders left open the possibility of returning to the Washington Redskins yesterday and NFL sources said the Redskins are leaning strongly toward keeping Sanders long enough to get him to play next season or, if he refuses, perhaps return the bulk of his $8 million signing bonus to the team.

Sanders said during a radio interview that he continues to expect the Redskins to release him eventually and he does not know whether he will play football again. But he indicated that if he plays in the NFL, he would expect it to be for the Redskins. He was conciliatory toward Redskins Coach Marty Schottenheimer, maintaining that his criticism of Schottenheimer this week was misrepresented.

The Redskins are likely to retain Sanders at least until the opening of training camp in late July, sources said. If Sanders is not playing major league baseball then, his seven-year, $56 million contract with the Redskins would require him to report to training camp. The Redskins probably will decide at that point whether to keep him or release him to clear more than $3.6 million of salary cap space, sources said.

If Sanders, 33, retires from football or refuses to join the Redskins when he is not playing baseball, the Redskins almost certainly would attempt to force him to return a prorated portion of his signing bonus, sources said. Several people familiar with the situation continued yesterday to place the chances of Sanders playing for the Redskins at as high as 50 percent.

On the ESPN Radio show hosted by Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser, Sanders said he "can't really answer" the question of whether he will return to football.

"Football is the last thing on my mind right now," Sanders said. "I'm trying to hit a slider, man. . . . I'm not even hitting my weight right now. . . . When I'm in one sport, I try my best to focus on that sport."

Asked whether his intention would be to play for the Redskins if he does return to football, Sanders said: "Yes. I can answer that question fairly. Yes, it would."

Sanders declined to say whether he would report to Redskins training camp if he is not playing in the major leagues when camp opens.

Schottenheimer said later at Redskins Park: "Our position has not changed at all. There's really not much more to say about the situation."

Sanders said Monday night that the Redskins were playing a waiting game and would have to release him at some point. He said he did not trust Schottenheimer.

Yesterday Sanders said that "a lot of things I said [Monday] were true" but indicated that he did not intend some of his comments to be made public.

"That's not fair to [Schottenheimer] because I really don't know him," Sanders said. "It wasn't supposed to come out like that. I wasn't talking about him as a person I didn't trust. I was talking about the situation: I didn't trust it."

Sanders said yesterday that he has no immediate plans to speak with Schottenheimer and still expects to be released.

"I think they're really trying to wait and see how baseball pans out because I think they don't want to be in a Catch-22 situation," he said. "I don't think they want to do something like release me on the first day, which was June 1, and something goes unfortunate in baseball and I'm not here [with the Reds]. The next thing you know, I'm free. And I could have the possibility of going to another [NFL] team, and you're playing against me. . . . I think they would rather wait and see how things pan out, and if I'm still with baseball, then they would therefore release me at the beginning of training camp. . . . I think it's just protecting themselves."

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