• Sal Maiorana

The night Prime Time and Pudge squared off

NEW YORK (May 22, 1990) – The first time Deion Sanders stepped into the batters’ box at Yankee Stadium on this day 30 years ago, Carlton Fisk could not believe what he saw. Sanders, who to this point had done absolutely zero in a major-league career that began in 1989 and spanned all of 61 plate appearances and a .210 batting average, drew a dollar sign in the dirt. So began a weird night, a game Sanders’ Yankees would defeat Fisk’s White Sox 5-2, though it is remembered more for a clash of two personalities that could not have been more polar opposite, the ultimate confrontation between old school vs. new school, respected 42-year-old future Hall of Famer vs. 22-year-old brash rookie, Pudge vs. Prime Time. Sanders wasn’t exactly your run of the mill rookie, of course. He was trying to follow in the footsteps of Bo Jackson and become the next prolific two-sport star as an outfielder for the Yankees and as a cornerback/kick returner for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. Fisk could certainly respect that, but the sports were about as different as Fisk and Sanders themselves. And Fisk’s contention was that there was no place in baseball for the type of flashy, showboating style Sanders exhibited on the football field, especially when Sanders hadn’t yet earned an ounce of credibility as a major leaguer. Fisk was taken aback by the drawing of the dollar sign, but he let it pass with nothing more than a quizzical look from behind his mask and then likely smiled when White Sox starter Melido Perez whiffed him on five pitches. But when Sanders came up to bat again in the bottom of the third, Fisk could not contain his appall. With a Yankee runner on third and one out, Sanders drew his dollar sign, then swung at a 1-0 pitch and popped it up to shortstop. He trotted about 20 feet down the baseline and seeing that the ball was going to be caught, he took a right turn and headed straight for the New York dugout. Fisk wasn’t only old school, he was the principal of the old school, and Sanders had, in Fisk’s eyes, disrespected the game.

“Run the fucking ball out, you piece of shit,” Fisk yelled to Sanders, who looked back, asked what Fisk had said, then listened to Fisk repeat himself. Sanders scoffed and continued on his way to the dugout. When he came up to bat to lead off the fifth and drew another dollar sign in the dirt, Fisk glared at him and Fisk later recounted that Sanders said, “Hey, man, the days of slavery are over.” Now it was on. Race had nothing to do with this, and Fisk took off his mask, got face-to-face with Sanders and roared back in response, “I don’t care whether you’re black or blue or pink or red. If you don’t start playing this game right, I’m going to kick your ass right here.” That’s when both benches emptied, though no one was quite sure what was going on. No punches were thrown, the game resumed, and Sanders again popped to short, this time making the effort to run to first, though not as fast as he ran later in the seventh when he singled and motored home on Steve Sax’s double which completed the scoring. The next day, Fisk was asked to comment further on what happened and he obliged. “I made a point to make eye contact,” Fisk said of the fifth-inning at-bat. “I said there’s a right way and a wrong way to play this game. Yankee pinstripes, Yankee pride; some of those guys are rolling over in the graves looking at this. It offended me. I’m playing for the other team, and it offended me. He comes up and wants to make it a racial issue. There’s no racial issue involved. It’s professional etiquette. I’m either old and cynical or old and sentimental. Either way, I know what’s right and what’s wrong.” Sanders denied drawing dollar signs in the dirt. “Who the hell is going to come up in the majors and do that?” he said to reporters. “I called home and my mother told me the paper in my hometown said I drew $ 4.5 million (the value of his Falcons contract) in the dirt. That’s ridiculous.”