Deion gives Reds fans what Junior can't

Wednesday, May 2nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CINCINNATI (AP) _ If Deion Sanders keeps this up, Cincinnati Reds fans won't miss Junior at all.

While vendors hawked Ken Griffey Jr. jerseys in the stands, Sanders returned to the majors and gave Reds fans the star performance they've missed all season.

The storied NFL cornerback with a middling baseball career went 3-for-3 with a homer and a stolen base Tuesday night, setting up a 7-6 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers.

It was as remarkable as anything Sanders has done with a football.

``I'll tell you what: He's special,'' Reds manager Bob Boone said.

Facing major league pitching for the first time since 1997, Sanders lined a single on the first pitch, then hit a three-run homer on the next. That feat was so unexpected that Sanders flung his arm in the air in celebration, then felt his eyes well up as the 30,000 fans demanded a curtain call.

``That's the first time that's ever happened to me,'' Sanders said. ``I can't remember that happening before. I've received a lot of accolades, but that one really touched me.

``I wish my vocabulary was equipped enough to explain it. I was moved _ teary moved.''

When the Reds agreed to let the Washington Redskins cornerback dabble in his other sport once again, a lot of folks wondered what they were doing. Sanders' sensational homecoming answered all questions but one: How long will he stay?

The town's best cornerback doesn't play for the Cincinnati Bengals. He's under contract with the Redskins, but won't say whether he wants to play for them or any other NFL team.

Three times Tuesday, Sanders was asked about his football career. Three times, he dodged the question.

``Trust me, I know what I'm going to do,'' he said. ``But I'm going to keep you guessing.''

Reds general manager Jim Bowden is guessing that Sanders finishes the baseball season. Sanders chose football over a chance to play for the Reds in 1997 and again last year.

``We signed Deion with the expectations that if he made the big league club, that he'd be here throughout and help us win until the last out is made in our season,'' general manager Jim Bowden said.

When Griffey went on the disabled list Sunday with a torn hamstring, Sanders had his chance to make it back to the majors for the first time in 1,364 days.

Sanders, who earned the promotion by hitting .459 for Triple-A Louisville, got the loudest ovation in pregame introductions. A buzz went through the crowd when he dug in for his first at-bat against Eric Gagne in the first inning.

He lined the first pitch to center for a single.

An inning later, he dug in with two runners aboard and once again took a swing at Gagne's first pitch. Sanders timed the up-and-in fastball perfectly, pulling it over the wall in right field for a three-run homer.

``Trust me, I wasn't trying to hit a home run,'' Sanders said. ``That's not part of my game.''

It was on this night.

``We had scouting reports on him,'' Gagne said. ``I knew how to pitch to him. I thought it was a good pitch. He just got it. It was up and way inside.''

Sanders also bunted to the right of the mound for a single in the fifth inning, stole a base and came around on Aaron Boone's single for a 6-1 lead.

At that point, they were marveling in the Dodgers dugout.

``That's a fairly incredible athlete you're talking about,'' manager Jim Tracy said. ``He takes time off of football and runs punts back, too.''

After Dave Hansen's bases-loaded double off Mark Wohlers (1-0) tied it at 6 in the top of the seventh, Barry Larkin led off the bottom of the inning with a single off Matt Herges (1-2) and Sanders moved him to second with a perfect sacrifice bunt. Dmitri Young's single made it 7-6.

``This night belongs to Deion,'' Young said. ``This is Day 1. We're 1-0 in Prime Time.''

Notes: A month into the season, Sanders has more homers than Griffey, who was 0-for-12 pinch-hitting. ... Sanders' homer was his first in the majors since Aug. 11, 1997, off San Francisco's Pat Rapp. ... It was difficult to gauge Sanders' impact on ticket sales because the Reds already had revived fan interest with a 5-1 road trip. Approximately 2,800 fans lined up for tickets before the game. In all, the Reds sold 21,473 tickets and had another 9,075 fans in the stands on complimentary Little League tickets. ... OF Gary Sheffield emerged from an 0-for-12 slump with four singles.