For nearly half a century, baseball has coexisted with football’s Super Bowl Era. Since that seminal moment of 1967, more than one man walked on the surface of the moon, a once impossible notion. But only one man has played Major League Baseball and celebrated beneath the confetti that rains down upon a Super Bowl victor.
And that one man, he’s done it twice.
And both times, he did it after wearing a Cincinnati Red uniform.
It was the May of 1994 when Deion Sanders first brought Prime Time to the outfield grass of Cincinnati. Playing through August, Sanders hit .277/.342/.359 while swiping 19 stolen bases with the speed that had fueled his football prominence. And before he left the diamond for the gridiron in ’94, his final road trip with the Reds that season foretold the future.
First, he struggled in San Diego against the Padres, hitting 2-13 in a four-game series. He’d get his revenge.
Last, he played two games in San Francisco, the Reds and Sanders swept, giving Bay Area fans a winless weekend. He’d get them a win.
Mere months later, Sanders, NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, helped the San Francisco 49ers defeat the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX. For the first time since 1990, a shiny new ring, a champion, reported to Spring Training for the Reds.
In 1995, Sanders wrote a second verse, same as the first. Only, in true Neon Deion style, it might have been a little louder.
Football Deion hit free-agency, commanding a high price tag as arguably the greatest defensive back in the game. Naturally, Jerry Jones wrote the check; America’s loudest player joined America’s team. He was a Cowboy. And less than a year later, he was a back-to-back champion. Dallas won Super Bowl XXX over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But thanks to the Reds, Sanders never had to leave his heart in San Francisco. After struggling through the early months of the ’95 season (hitting .240/.296/.326), Cincinnati shipped Sanders back to the Golden Gate in exchange for Dave Burba and change. San Francisco embraced their departed hero, and he embraced the Bay. Sanders surged the rest of the way, hitting .285/.346/.444 for the Giants. The rest is painful history.
Sanders won another Super Bowl, another ring.
Cincinnati flamed out in the playoffs, another disappointment.
In some ways, though, the fate of the Reds and Deion Sanders remained intertwined. 1995 became their respective beacons of glory. Sanders never returned to football’s biggest game, or its biggest stage. Other defensive backs took the helm, other returners found the endzone more frequently. He faded into a shadow of his former greatness.
Meanwhile, the Reds failed, season after season, to return to the playoffs. Stars of a bygone reign in the National League began to age. Barry Larkin‘s body began to falter. Paul O’Neill left. Two generations of Boones (Bob, Bret, and Aaron) failed to be a boon for a franchise with dreams of October.
15 forgettable years passed before Prime Time did something worth remembering.
15 forgettable years passed before the Reds let us remember what it meant to play prime time baseball.
In 2010, the Reds finally returned to postseason baseball for the first time since that ’95 season, that season when Sanders left centerfield. And a few months later, Sanders got the call; you were one of the best, it said; welcome to the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame.
Never before or since has the worlds of America’s pastime and America’s favorite game seemed so parallel.
So, on Sunday, if you find yourself celebrating the Super Bowl, or counting down to Opening Day in Cincinnati, remember that the Reds played a part in Super Bowl history that no other baseball franchise can claim. For two seasons, they brought Prime Time to Sunday afternoons in the sun. For two seasons, they filled the void in centerfield with a Super Bowl Champion.
And allow yourself that moment. Because, if any town understands that championships don’t come easy, that rings are rare, it’s Cincinnati. After all, the River City’s most recent champion had to find a different field.