Baseball: Atlanta battles over Sanders

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AND after Bo . . . there was Deion. Athletes who play two sports at the highest level are a rare breed, and in the US Deion Sanders is in a class of two with Bo Jackson as someone who has made his mark on American football and baseball.

In the winter Sanders - nicknamed Neon Deion for his garish dress sense - hits wide receivers as a cornerback for the Atlanta Falcons. In the summer he hits at the plate for the Atlanta Braves. 'There's nothing like running back a punt return or interception for a touchdown,' he said. 'But stealing a base or hitting a home run is special, too.'

Up to now Sanders has been happy to juggle both sports, but as his Braves contract ran out on Friday, decision time has crowded in on him. In previous years Sanders put away his baseball bat on 31 July and donned pads at the Falcons' pre-season training camp the following day.

Jackson did the opposite, seeing out the baseball season in left field for the Kansas City Royals before slotting in behind the Los Angeles Raiders quarterback in mid-season - until a devastating injury in January 1991 ended his football career (and probably his baseball one too) and forced him under the knife for an artificial hip.

The blow to Bo made Sanders rethink his sporting future, as did a fan's banner at Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium last autumn on the night Sanders left his World Series-bound team-mates to hook up with the Falcons. The spray- painted message read: 'THIS IS YOUR BRAIN (picture of a baseball); THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON DRUGS (picture of a football)'. 'Best banner I ever saw,' Sanders said. 'I took it to heart.'

This season Sanders has talked about making baseball his full- time pastime, reasoning that he has achieved his goals in football and now needs a fresh challenge. Even as a negotiating ploy, it worked a treat.

So concerned were the Falcons that they offered him dollars 1m ( pounds 531,000) just to report to training camp by 1 August. He left the money on the table. The Braves want him just as badly: despite sharing centre-field duties this season with his best friend Otis Nixon, Sanders leads the majors in triples and has 18 stolen bases with a batting average of .319.

This week Sanders' agent Eugene Parker will be seeking a deal with the Braves' general manager John Schuerholz. Schuerholz even intimated he would not be averse to agreeing a two-sport deal, provided the Braves saw enough of Sanders' services.

After missing one World Series, Sanders is fired up by the thought of another. 'If we were six places out of first, he would probably have gone,' Jim Schultz, a Braves spokesman, said. 'But he's having fun being part of the pennant race.' Atlanta may yet be bathed in Neon come October.