By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 30, 2001; Page D01
Deion Sanders is having early success in his improbable baseball comeback, casting further doubt upon his football future with the Washington Redskins.
Cincinnati Reds General Manager Jim Bowden said yesterday Sanders's performance during spring training has virtually ensured Sanders will be back in the major leagues soon after he is eligible to rejoin the Reds May 1. Bowden said he could envision Sanders, 33, becoming the Reds' leadoff hitter this season and continuing to play in the big leagues until he's 40.
"He's done very well, extraordinarily well," Bowden said by telephone from the Reds' spring camp in Sarasota, Fla. ". . . Had he been eligible to make our roster, he would have made our team coming out of spring training."
Meantime, the Redskins released wide receivers Jammie Deese and Ethan Howell yesterday to clear salary cap space for linebacker Kevin Mitchell, who signed a two-year, $1.2 million contract Wednesday. Mitchell received a $75,000 signing bonus and will have a $477,000 salary next season.
Sanders will be a notable absence from the two-day minicamp at Redskins Park beginning Saturday. Coach Marty Schottenheimer has said he has no problem with Sanders playing baseball but would expect Sanders to be on hand for the opening of training camp in late July if he intends to play for the Redskins next season.
Asked at the NFL owners meetings Wednesday whether last summer's signing of Sanders could end up being a salary cap calamity for the Redskins, Schottenheimer said: "It may or may not. I've taken the position that I'm not going to comment any more on Deion. I've said what I had to say. I have not talked to him. He's a Washington Redskin. Right now he's playing baseball, and I wish him the best in that regard."
The Reds seem to believe Sanders is committed to playing an entire season for them. Sanders has juggled the two sports in the past, but Schottenheimer also seems to want a full-time commitment from the opening of training camp.
If Sanders retires from football or the Redskins release him after June 1, the Redskins would save about $2.5 million next season against their $67.4 million salary cap. Under those circumstances, Sanders would count $1.14 million against the salary cap next season and about $5.7 million against the cap in the 2002 season.
The Redskins perhaps would attempt to force Sanders to repay a prorated portion of his $8 million signing bonus and seek salary cap relief if Sanders retires. The Detroit Lions were able to compel running back Barry Sanders to return much of his signing bonus following his retirement. But some football sources say the Redskins might have a tougher time because the wording of Deion Sanders's contract differs from that in Barry Sanders's deal.
Deion Sanders said during an interview last month he would not discuss his football future until the time arrives when he must make such decisions. He said then he did not give the Redskins advance notice of his decision to return to baseball because team officials had not kept him informed about Ray Rhodes, the club's defensive coordinator last season who left to join the Denver Broncos.
He was not available to comment yesterday. The seven-time Pro Bowl cornerback has played one season for the Redskins since being signed to a seven-year, $56 million contract last June following his release by the Dallas Cowboys.
When the Reds signed Sanders to a minor league contract and invited him to spring training, it seemed the Redskins had little about which to worry. Sanders last played in the majors in 1997, and most baseball people dismissed the signing as a spring publicity stunt.
But Sanders has knocked the rust off his game and has played relatively well, hitting .244 (with 11 hits in 45 at-bats) in 20 Grapefruit League games, including 11 starts. He has two triples and five stolen bases in six attempts. It is a far cry from last season, when Sanders -- coming off arthroscopic knee surgery -- couldn't run and left the Reds organization in May after batting .200 for Class AAA Louisville.
"I've told [Sanders] that had he played baseball only, he'd be right up there with Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines as one of the greatest leadoff hitters of our time," Bowden said. "He didn't, and because he didn't, he'll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in football. But he has another whole career in baseball starting now. I don't see any reason why he can't play our sport -- and play it well -- for the next seven years."
Because of baseball's rules pertaining to the way Sanders was re-signed by Cincinnati, he is ineligible to play for the Reds until May. Every other major league team had to pass on Sanders before he could re-sign with the Reds. According to Bowden, Sanders is scheduled to remain in Florida for extended spring training until April 9, then he will join Louisville and play every day until the Reds can promote him.
The Reds have Ken Griffey Jr. in center field and have four other outfielders -- Alex Ochoa, Dmitri Young, Ruben Rivera and Michael Tucker -- to split time at the other two spots. But Griffey this week reinjured the hamstring that plagued him late last season. And even if everyone is healthy, Sanders's speed could dictate that Reds Manager Bob Boone find playing time for him. Early in the spring, Sanders said he put a lineup card with his name in the leadoff spot where he could see it every day.
"He brings an element we don't have: He's a leadoff hitter capable of stealing 75 bases," Bowden said.