DUNEDIN, Fla. — Deion Sanders' attempt to return to the major leagues with the Reds is no longer just a curiosity (as his fans might say) or an imposition upon the rest of the team (as a base ball purist might argue). Now, Sanders' comeback is looking more like a distinct possibility, if not an impending reality.
Sanders may never vault past fellow outfielders Dmitri Young, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Ochoa and Michael Tucker on Cincinnati's depth chart. But that doesn't mean he won't play alongside them.
Sanders is batting .261 with no extra-base hits and a subpar .320 on-base percentage. He's still struggling with consistency, but he has displayed hints of finding a decent hitting stroke. Monday against Tampa Bay, for example, he hit a first-pitch single in his first at-bat, then struck out on a 3-2 pitch from Doug Creek, a modestly talented left-hander.
“You'll have days when you swing well and days when you don't,” Reds manager Bob Boone said.
Sanders also has stolen three bases in three tries, flashing the speed that made him a star NFL cornerback and still intrigues Reds management.
“He has shown me signs that he can get back,” Boone said. “I thought he could when we hired him, and the more I see him play, the more I'm thinking he can get back.”
General manager Jim Bowden, who answered Sanders-related questions impatiently at the start of spring training, helpfully spoke in terms of Sanders' “route back to the major leagues” the other day.
Bowden insisted Sanders, 33, must prove he belongs with the Reds. “He has to fight his way back,” said Bowden, who's widely considered to be Sanders' biggest booster.
The contrast in Sanders' Reds experiences from 2000 to 2001 says plenty.
At about this time last spring, Sanders started playing minor-league exhibitions while other Reds inten sified their preparations for the season. There's no sign Sanders will be shunted so quickly this year.
Even Sanders' role as an intermediary between the Reds and unhappy Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Gary Sheffield, who publicly has dropped his trade demands, reflects his comfort as a Red.
Sanders firmly believes he'll become the fleet offensive dynamo Reds management hopes for, as long as he continues to receive opportunities.
“I just look at it as my getting at-bats,” Sanders said before the Reds' exhibition game against the Toronto Blue Jays was rained out Tuesday. “Because with the multitude of at-bats, I'm go ing to do my thing. And they know that. My biggest asset is time right now.”
Nobody can argue that point. Because the Reds wanted to sign Sanders to a nonguaranteed minor-league contract after refusing to tender him a contract in December, he became a free agent, forcing the Reds to obtain permission from other clubs to get him back. Under baseball's rules, he cannot play with Cincinnati before May 1.
As a result, the Reds can allow events to shape the course of what happens with Sanders.
“It takes the handcuffs off of Jim Bowden so he doesn't have to make a move immediately,” Sanders said. “I know I'll be hitting come May 1. But if it were April 1, there'd be a lot of maneuvering going on here right now.”
While the Reds open the regular season, Sanders said, he'll spend the first two weeks of April refining his skills in extended spring training at their Sarasota complex. But Bowden said that plan isn't final. Either way, Sanders will find his way to Triple-A Louisville at some juncture.
And when the Reds feel compelled to make a player move because of injury or ineffectiveness, Sanders could be among the first players summoned.