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Great Moments in Baseball History: Bo Jackson vs. Deion Sanders

deion sanders inside the park

On July 17, 1990, the New York Yankees are hosting the Kansas City Royals at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees are flat-out terrible, which is a statement that doesn’t get to be made nearly often enough. The last remnants of New York’s late-70s dynasty are long gone, and the Derek Jeter/Mo Rivera/Jorge Posada glory years are still half a decade away. For now, the Yankees are stuck marinating in a cauldron of their own awful. They’re 31-55 coming into today’s tilt against the Royals, and they’ll finish the season with an ugly 67-95 record. The Royals are also on the downswing, though they still have much farther to fall after their improbable World Series victory in 1985. They’re 40-48 on July 17, and they’ll end the season at a stunningly mediocre 75-86.

andy hawkins yankees
Image courtesy of Steve Politi and NJ Advance Media.

Neither starting pitcher has any kind of game they’d want to remember. The Yankees trot out Andy Hawkins, who threw the strangest no-hitter in baseball history only two weeks prior to this day. The Royals counter with STORM DAVIS, whose name is STORM DAVIS. Neither of these pitchers are very good- Andy Hawkins will finish 1990 with a miserable 74 ERA+, while STORM DAVIS can only manage a slightly more palatable 81 ERA+. The Royals send Andy Hawkins to the showers before the fifth inning is over with a barrage of eight runs (including four homers).

STORM DAVIS has a slightly better outing- he BS’s his way through five innings of four-run baseball, despite giving up eight hits and two walks. Even though he’s only thrown 67 pitches (an insignificant amount by 1990 standards), the Royals decide they can’t trust him to stay in the game. KC manager John Wathan reaches into his bullpen and pulls out Mel Stottlemyre (no not that Mel Stottlemyre), who’ll face the Yankees’ 6-7-8 hitters in the bottom of the sixth inning. By the way, this is Stottlemyre’s major league debut. The 1990  season will be his only year in the big leagues and his last season in affiliated baseball.

Stottlemyre induces a groundout before giving up a walk to Kevin Maas, who’ll finish second in Rookie of the Year voting this year. Shortstop Alvaro Espinosa then busts a double over the head of Royals left fielder Jim Eisenreich. Espinosa will finish the 1990 season with a putrid .532 OPS, and his double tonight is one of only twelve two-baggers in his 472 plate appearances this season. Maas scores on a Roberto Kelly groundout, which puts Espinosa on third base with two out in an 8-5 ballgame. The Yankees’ leadoff hitter is coming to bat. Who is he?

The Moment

New York’s leadoff hitter is Deion Sanders. Yes, that Deion Sanders– the six-time All-Pro who will one day become one of the NFL’s most transcendent stars. For now though, Sanders is 22 years old. He’s only in his sophomore season, and it’s not going well at all; he’ll finish the year with an execrable .507 OPS. Sanders isn’t quite sure if he’ll leave the Yankees to report to training camp with the Atlanta Falcons. Things are tense between Sanders and Yankees executives, especially since Sanders has been playing so poorly.

Meanwhile, on the field, Sanders grinds out a seven-pitch at-bat. On that seventh pitch, Stottlemyre leaves a fastball up in the strike zone, and Sanders laces it to center field. The center fielder comes screaming out of the left side of the screen towards the ball. That center fielder is Bo Jackson.

Bo Jackson is on a very short list of the greatest athletes in history. He’s also a two-sport star, but unlike Deion Sanders, Jackson’s already hit his stride as a superstar in both MLB and the NFL. He was an All-Star in 1989, but 1990 will be Jackson’s best year in the big leagues- he’ll clock 28 home runs and finish the year with a spectacular 140 OPS+ in 456 plate appearances. In a couple of months, he’ll suit up as the running back for the Oakland Raiders.

Jackson starts the play shaded towards left field, which makes this play even more ridiculous than it already is. Jackson comes inches away from making one of the greatest defensive plays in baseball history- go back and watch how far his dives take him. It’s possible that no one in the history of baseball could have caught Sanders’s hit.

Jackson slams into the outfield grass as the ball skips past him and rolls to the wall. Deion Sanders’s 40-yard dash time at the NFL combine was 4.27 seconds. He has to sprint 120 yards to score on this play, which means the Royals’ outfielders have around thirteen seconds to get the baseball four hundred feet back to home plate.

They nearly make it! Kansas City right fielder Pat Tabler gets the ball to the cutoff man in shallow center field, whose relay to home pulls catcher Mike MacFarlane directly into Sanders’s path. MacFarlane can’t corral the throw and starts scrambling to his feet to collect the ball, which is a terrible idea since Deion Sanders is flying towards him at full steam. Sanders does the only thing he can do to avoid MacFarlane- he tries to vault over him. It almost works, but Sanders’s leg connects with MacFarlane’s head, which throws Sanders over the plate and into the left-handed batter’s box. Somewhere in the ensuing “pile of bodies at the plate!,” Sanders touches home and scores. He pumps his fist hard enough to dislocate something, high-fives his teammates and walks back to the Yankee dugout.

The play goes in the books as an inside-the-park home run. The score is now 8-7, Royals.

The Aftermath

Jackson came out of the game after the play- he landed very hard on his shoulder and was forced to miss a month of playing time. This was not the Jackson injury- that would come during the NFL season, when a dislocated hip would end his football career for good. Jackson had an even better night than Sanders- he popped three home runs before his injury forced him to leave the game. The Royals would end up winning 7-10.

Sanders went for broke and asked Yankees management for a $1 million salary for the 1991 season. The Yankees responded by cutting off salary negotiations and releasing Sanders at the end of the season. Prime Time would spend several productive years with some of the legendary 1990s Atlanta Braves teams- in 1992, he led MLB in triples and racked up 3.2 bWAR for a Braves team that won the National League pennant. After his tenure in Atlanta concluded, Sanders bounced from Cincinnati to San Francisco before leaving MLB to play football for some reason. He’d eventually try to come back with the Reds in 2001, but his .475 OPS was unplayable and he was released after only 83 plate appearances. He’d round out his career in the NFL by un-retiring to play two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens in 2004-5.

Sanders might not be remembered for too much in the world of baseball, but his mad dash against Bo Jackson and the Kansas City Royals cannot and should not be forgotten.

To watch the full game, click here.

To see Baseball Reference’s play-by-play account of this game, click here.

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