Jul. 24—Shane Heams had Deion Sanders right where he wanted him.
The count was 0-1, and Heams, a Toledo native and pitcher for the hometown Mud Hens, knew what to do next.
"I started with a slider for strike one. So I was like, OK, I'm going to blow this thing by him letters high, because I used to throw 98 [miles per hour]," Heams recalled. "And he just freaking tomahawked it, line drive over the right-field fence. I remember it like it was yesterday."
The pitch and ensuing home run took place on July 26, 2001 at P&C Stadium in Syracuse, N.Y. It turned out to be the final home run and baseball game of Sanders' celebrated, sometimes pilloried, and often whirlwind two-sport career.
"He was the best teammate, the greatest guy," said Brian Bowles, a former pitcher in the Blue Jays organization who played two years in the major leagues. "We just all loved him. He was super cool and one of the guys. He wasn't anything like the Neon Deion image. He was down to earth and would sit down and talk to you. He mixed in great.
"He would show up early and work. Sometimes when an athlete is that great, people think he can roll out of bed and play. To get his body in shape, he was stretching, doing his agility stuff, doing his strength stuff. He was putting in time."
The 2001 baseball season began like a thunderclap for Sanders. He batted .459 in 19 games for Triple-A Louisville. Nine of his 34 hits were doubles or triples, earning him a promotion to the majors for the first time since 1997.
Sanders was literally perfect in his first appearance for the Cincinnati Reds, going 3-for-3 with two singles, a three-run home run that drew a curtain call, a stolen base, two runs scored, and a sacrifice that led to the winning run against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"I wish my vocabulary was equipped to express what I feel," Sanders said after the game. "I was 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."
A request to speak with Sanders for this story went unreturned.
Sanders' reintroduction to Major League Baseball appeared fortuitous as his football career was winding down. But the 33-year-old outfielder careened back to Earth, hitting .173 in 32 games, eventually resulting in his release to clear a roster spot for Ken Griffey Jr.
The Blue Jays quickly signed Sanders and sent him to the Triple-A Syracuse SkyChiefs. To make room, Syracuse shipped pitcher Matt McClellan to Double-A. The Toledo native was able to see Sanders up close for a few days before heading south, and his lasting image is one that doesn't correlate with most impressions of the hubristic Sanders, who, as the head football coach at Jackson State, walked out of a press conference this week because he was addressed as "Deion" instead of "Coach."
"The cool part about Deion Sanders was that he was one of the best teammates you could imagine," McClellan said. "All the things you see about Deion when he gets in front of the camera, that's more for the cameras. In the locker room, he's a great teammate. He became Prime Time when the cameras came on. There's Prime Time, and then there's Deion Sanders. The real Deion Sanders was a standup guy. Would give you the shirt off his back. He was quiet and still working his tail off. He was truly a great teammate in the locker room and on the field."
Sanders' arrival in Syracuse came with great fanfare and curiosity. In 2000, he signed a seven-year, $56 million contract with the then-Washington Redskins, insisting on a clause allowing him to miss training camp and the first part of the football season if he were playing baseball.
Except it didn't simply say "baseball." The contract clearly stated that Sanders must be on a major league roster July 29, otherwise he would have to report to training camp. At stake was up to $6.8 million of Sanders' signing bonus.
The Syracuse experiment was real to Sanders, whose effort, enthusiasm, and commitment endeared him to teammates. Sanders even had a sign that he flashed to the bullpen any time he hit a double.
"I don't think anyone was upset," Bowles said. "People were excited, like, 'Oh my God, this is Deion Sanders, this incredible Hall of Fame football player and two-sport athlete.' Everyone felt like it was legit."
The good deeds were on display during a road trip to Columbus, where former Ohio State cornerback Ahmed Plummer, a member of the San Francisco 49ers, went through a workout conducted by Sanders in the Cooper Stadium outfield grass.
A few days later, Sanders took the SkyChiefs to church and cooked a southern-style dinner.
"It was an example of how cool a teammate he was," Bowles said.
Mark Persails started the July 26 game for the Mud Hens, allowing seven runs in 3 2/3 innings in his Toledo debut.
"I remember him getting in the box and me thinking, 'That's Deion Sanders,'" said Persails, who still has vivid memories of that night. "It was unbelievable. Deion, Rickey Henderson, [Albert] Pujols, but Deion especially because of the clout that comes with a guy like Prime Time. There are once-in-a-generation-type guys, and he's one of them."
Heams, who won a gold medal on the 2000 Olympic baseball team, replaced Persails in the fourth inning. When Sanders' spot in the order came back around in the sixth, the stage was set for what Heams thought would be a one-sided battle.
As it turned out, he was right.
The winner just happened to be someone other than Heams, as the box score attests.
In the afterglow of Syracuse's 12-6 victory, Sanders signed autographs, cleaned out his locker, and said his goodbyes. P.F. Chang's was ordered for the home and visiting clubhouses.
In 25 games for Syracuse, Sanders hit .252 with seven doubles, one triple, one home run, six runs batted in, 15 runs scored, and five stolen bases.
"I want to prepare myself for whatever happens," Sanders told reporters after the game. "You never know."
He would never play another baseball game. Two days later, Sanders retired from football, returning for the 2004 and 2005 seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.
The highlight of Sanders' baseball career came in 1992 when, as a member of the Atlanta Braves, he batted .533 with two doubles, an RBI, and five stolen bases in the World Series.
Unless he counts that final home run in the twilight of a remarkable journey.
"I challenged him," Heams said, "and he won the battle."