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My annual confusion at Buster Olney’s annual telling of his Deion Sanders story

Feb 10, 2013, 12:00 PM EST

Deion Sanders

Every year, when pitchers and catchers report, Buster Olney leads off a column with a re-telling of his story about the time he thought Deion Sanders wanted to beat him up.  It’s over at ESPN today, but it’s an Insider thing. For those of you who aren’t insiders, here’s the gist:

  • Olney was a rookie reporter covering minor league baseball in Nashville. Deion Sanders was the bonus baby/superstar for the Columbus Clippers;
  • Olney did a feature on Sanders who, at the time, was the flashiest, money-loving, me-first player around. Olney says it was “harsh — probably too harsh.” But he never says he got anything wrong in it either.  What’s more, he gave Sanders a chance to comment before the story ran. Sanders blew Olney off in the clubhouse without a word;
  • The next day Olney gets a message that Sanders wants to talk to him and “he’s pissed.” Olney tells the messenger that if Sanders wants to see him, he knows where to find him. Sanders never comes.  Later that day he gets an autographed baseball from Sanders with the message “Keep writing like that your whole life and you’ll always be a loser.”

As a story, it’s a good one. Though I’ve never been a Deion Sanders fan, I’ve always found him to be an interesting subject of study and I like hearing about young reporters learning the ropes.

But Olney always tells it as something more than a story. More like a life lesson. The tone and several comments in it seem to say “oh man, I was young and foolish and boy have I grown up and learned my lesson since then.”  He ends it by saying “Words to live by.”

I read this story every year and every year I’m at a loss to understand what the real lesson of this story is. I’ve never seen Olney’s column about Sanders — it’s from a defunct paper in the 80s — but I’m struggling to get what lessons young Olney was supposed to be learning.

OK, it was harsh. Nowhere, however, does Olney suggest he got his facts wrong. Or even that it was unfair (harsh is not the same thing as unfair, no matter what some people would have you believe). Sanders, the older among you will remember, was quite a character back in those days. If anyone was owed some criticism it was a young Deion Sanders. And Olney gave Sanders the opportunity to give his side before the story ran. To rebut the quotes from Olney’s other sources painting Sanders in a bad light. So it doesn’t seem like there’s a lesson about the actual process of reporting. Maybe someone who is a trained reporter can tell me if I’m missing it, but it seems like he dotted what needed to be dotted and crossed what needed to be crossed.

So, tone: Maybe it’s not a story Olney would write in the same way today, but Olney is quite capable of being critical when he wants to be. And I’ve never seen any suggestion from him that he thinks a story about a player’s persona or deportment is off limits. Certainly a lot of things get written about players’ attitudes by established journalists now, so it’s not like Olney learned some important lesson about that either. At least not one with universal application as his overall tone suggests.

There is an element to Olney having to steel himself when he heard that Sanders was angry. He wondered if Sanders was going to beat him up and what he’d do about it if he tried. He made the decision not to run to Sanders’ locker with his tail between his legs when Sanders summoned him, and that bravery played well with the people who witnessed it.  Is the lesson to not be afraid to stand up to the rich and famous people he covers? Possibly. But then why all the apparent self-flagellation earlier? Worth noting that Olney, who hails from a family of Vermont-farmers, has almost zero apparent ego as a writer and never pounds his chest, so it’s hard to feature this as a “I learned to be a big man” kind of thing that you might expect from a lot of the smaller men who cover baseball for a living.

I dunno. I really don’t know what the lesson here was supposed to be. To me it sounds like Olney, in 1989, wrote a tough but ultimately fair story and offended someone who probably needed some offending back then. Maybe I’m just missing something, but I miss it every year.

  1. cowboysoldiertx - Feb 10, 2013 at 12:08 PM

    I guess me and you are in the same boat, Craig, because I never got it either. Maybe Old Gator has an idea or two. Old Gator we bow before your wisdom sir!

    • rayfeathers - Feb 10, 2013 at 12:33 PM

      please don’t encourage the internet’s biggest assclown.

      • cowboysoldiertx - Feb 10, 2013 at 12:57 PM

        LOL what the fuck ever! OG is fucking awesome!

      • cur68 - Feb 10, 2013 at 1:15 PM

        Hey rasfeath: s’upwitchoo? Too nice a day for you or something? You have a minimum amount of being humiliated and outclassed in arguments on the internet that you MUST get in before the sun sets? Well, on your pointy head be it. Hope you have a thesaurus and dictionary handy: you gonna be called an “asshole” in a lot of different ways if you keep this up.

      • ltzep75 - Feb 10, 2013 at 1:24 PM

        I hope Awesome consented. Otherwise it may get a bit awkward.

    • purnellmeagrejr - Feb 11, 2013 at 6:38 AM

      The lessson to be learned here is never to post a story complaining about another writer’s story unlesss the readership is enabled to read same.

    • purnellmeagrejr - Feb 11, 2013 at 6:40 AM

      The lessson to be learned here is never to post a story complaining about another writer’s story unless the readership is enabled to read same.

  2. diehardcubbiefan4life - Feb 10, 2013 at 12:14 PM

    Deon Sandcastle

  3. gabeguterres - Feb 10, 2013 at 12:22 PM

    I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve seen or heard the word “deportment” since my third grade report card. Nicely done.

  4. jaygott87 - Feb 10, 2013 at 12:25 PM

    The life lesson is be careful what you write because it could get your ass kicked.

  5. beefytrout - Feb 10, 2013 at 12:28 PM

    I bet this article is longer than Olney’s original article.

  6. jdh1016j - Feb 10, 2013 at 1:10 PM

    An athlete mad at a reporter, that is confusing.

  7. vikinganswer - Feb 10, 2013 at 1:22 PM

    And someday you might be in the same county as a writer/reporter as Buster. Its always easier to bring those above down to you then raising your performance. Thats the reason you will always be a lousy blogger.

    • mrfloydpink - Feb 10, 2013 at 1:41 PM

      Boy! By visiting the blog, reading this specific post, then taking the time to log in and comment, you sure showed him a thing or two!

    • bigmeechy74 - Feb 13, 2013 at 3:11 PM

      I can’t believe you got 14 thumbs up for that lousy comment. I guess there are 13 other losers out there besides yourself.

    • youngblood35 - Oct 15, 2013 at 1:37 AM

      I’m not a huge fan of Craig’s by any means. Many days I really like what he has to say. Others I think he’s a whiny, smug douche. However, none of this changes the fact that Buster Olney is the fucking worst.

  8. randygnyc - Feb 10, 2013 at 1:22 PM

    It’s about the golden rule and benefit of the doubt. Remember, there’s a person on the other end of every story.

    • purnellmeagrejr - Feb 11, 2013 at 6:42 AM

      TRue, true true.THere’s another person at the other end of almost alll our actions. ANd the same lessson about the benefit of the doubt appplies.

  9. hushbrother - Feb 10, 2013 at 1:30 PM

    Buster’s point may be that sportswriters shouldn’t be critical of their subjects if they’re going to demonstrate fear of confronting them later – Deion’s reference to Buster as a “loser” may have been for Buster bailing on facing him in the clubhouse. But I simply choose to view the story as an affirmation of my belief that Deion is the biggest assclown to ever play major league baseball.

  10. Detroit Michael - Feb 10, 2013 at 1:43 PM

    In that photo, why is Deion Sanders wearing Wonder Woman’s medallion?

    • historiophiliac - Feb 10, 2013 at 8:02 PM

      I do NOT wear a medallion!

      • bigdicktater - Feb 10, 2013 at 8:52 PM

        Maybe not now………..but……………..

  11. shzastl - Feb 10, 2013 at 2:53 PM

    Two possible interpretations from reading the insider article. 1) the “lesson” is not to take an athlete’s rudeness personally so that it affects your writing. He says that he wrote the article after Deion blew him off in the clubhouse, the inference being that he wrote a harsh article about Deion because Olney didn’t like being blown off. That is an immature, unprofessional approach that only a loser would take. Or 2) he is saying “words to live by” sarcastically, while telling the story because it was his “welcome to the big leagues” moment.

  12. rwpsych16 - Feb 10, 2013 at 2:57 PM

    Just more confirmation that Sanders is a huge d bag.

  13. hojo20 - Feb 10, 2013 at 2:57 PM

    Can someone post the link to the column to bypass the Insider?

  14. newpairofsox - Feb 10, 2013 at 3:13 PM

    Deion who?

  15. dcfan4life - Feb 10, 2013 at 3:21 PM

    I hate it when anyone ever wants to talk Deion Sanders. But the biggest me guy of all time sure loves it…

  16. shzastl - Feb 10, 2013 at 3:29 PM

    Get an espn mag subscription, 2 yrs for $20 bucks gets you espn.com insider access. http://www.magazinebargains.com/magazine/subscription/espn-magazine-magazine.jsp?affid=google&gclid=CPTDsffJrLUCFeZFMgoduC0AqA

  17. shzastl - Feb 10, 2013 at 3:32 PM

    In keeping with blog tradition at the outset of spring training, we revisit the day when a future All-Pro sent me a baseball, and he wasn’t happy about it.

    I don’t collect autographs, and the one souvenir baseball I have on my desk contains a full sentence rather than a signature. The black print is all but faded now; however, the message remains indelible, 23 years later.

    Deion Sanders wanted to kick my ass.

    In 1989, I was just out of college and working for the Nashville Banner, covering the Nashville Sounds, the Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. I loved the job and jumped at any chance I could to write. So when I heard some griping about the Columbus Clippers’ new center fielder — “Neon Deion,” as he was known back then — it had all the makings of a perfect feature. Sanders was known mostly for his football exploits at Florida State, and when writing for papers in the South, you find any way to make a football connection, even during baseball season.

    The Clippers came to Nashville for a two-game series, and before the first game, I walked up to Sanders’ locker in the visiting clubhouse, which, in the middle of summer in Nashville, smelled like rotting garbage.

    It was hot and damp, without air conditioning.

    “Deion,” I asked, “do you have a second?”

    He glanced up at me, and within the quarter-second that we made eye contact, he might have calculated that I was a very young-looking writer from a college paper. Or maybe a high school paper. Or maybe he just saw my notepad and realized I was a reporter. Or maybe he quickly sized me up as someone he didn’t need. Or maybe he was having a bad day. Maybe he was having a good day.

    Sanders stood, reached into his locker, collected his glove and cap, and walked away wordlessly.

    Being relatively new to the business, I was not familiar with the technical definition of what he had done. But later, after experiences with the likes of Albert Belle, I would learn: It’s called being blown off.

    I returned to the press box and wrote my column, which lacked Deion’s perspective on Deion. There were details about how he had managed to draw a distinction between himself and his teammates; he was the only Columbus player who traveled with a girlfriend and the only player who didn’t carry his own luggage. He drew a dollar symbol each time he stepped into the batter’s box, which tended to annoy opponents, and also his teammates, who were reminded with each illustration that he had a lot of cash and they didn’t. About five years ago, I found a copy of the column, and it was poorly executed and harsh — probably too harsh. Actually, it was enough to make me cringe. I could understand a little better why Sanders apparently was not pleased with what I wrote.

    The members of the Sounds who saw the column loved it; they too were put off by the dollar signs and by the special treatment that was fueling his rapid ascent through the minor leagues. Many of the Nashville players were career minor leaguers, guys who might have had a few days in the big leagues but were destined to ride buses through small towns for the rest of their careers. Some of them would never get a break, and now this football player with an awkward swing was being hand-delivered to the big leagues.

    I didn’t understand at that time that some of them probably were just jealous of Sanders.

    A couple of them chortled about the column, and I was feeling good about myself, when a bat boy walked out of the visiting dugout. “Hey, Deion wants to see you in the clubhouse,” he said.

    His words were flat, but the kid raised his eyebrows the way someone might while informing you a falling manhole cover is about to part your hair. “And he’s really pissed.”

    This was one of those crossroad moments each of us has in our lives.

    Sportswriters come in all sizes, all heights, all widths. But they tend to be vertically challenged, and I fit the trend; throw in a pair of well-heeled work boots, and I’m still not flirting with 5-foot-10. Buster versus Deion equals total physical mismatch, so I wasn’t enamored by the idea of he and I having a chat in that cramped visitors clubhouse, in front of 20 other players.

    I also thought that personally delivering myself to him — especially after he had ignored me the day before — would be something of a surrender.

    I wanted a more neutral site than the visitors clubhouse, but I had to stand behind the words I’d written.

    Some of the Nashville players heard all this going on and listened in; my rep was at stake. So I took stock of the situation and told the bat boy, loud enough for all the players around to hear:

    “Tell Deion,” I said, with far more bravado than I felt, “that if he wants to talk to me, I’m out here.”

    I glanced around the batting cage. A couple of players smiled and nodded. Yeah, that’s right, don’t give in to that guy. Make him come to you. Way to stand up behind your words, man.

    Yeah, what a tough guy.

    What a joke.

    So I leaned against the cage, waited and considered all the possible resolutions to the confrontation that now was inevitable. In later years, the NFL rap on Sanders was that he didn’t like physical contact, he wasn’t a great tackler and you could run right at him. But at that time, he still was larger than most baseball players and I didn’t think my 150 pounds would intimidate him. (I’ve put on 20 poorly placed pounds since then, but I don’t think they would change the basic dynamic of any Buster versus Deion confrontation.)

    I knew the possibilities of what was to come, generally:

    1. Sanders would rush out of the clubhouse and clothesline me like I was a receiver catching a pass over the middle.
    2. Sanders would rush out of the clubhouse brandishing a bat and give me the Juan Marichal treatment.
    3. Sanders would rush out of the clubhouse and come nose to nose with me and get so far in my face that I might accidentally nudge him, therefore giving him the opening to slap my notepad and my head over the left-field wall.

    If he did come after me, my options for self-defense were limited. I wasn’t going to run, so my only shot was one later popularized by an NBA coach about my size: Dive at his legs, hang on and wait for everybody else to break up the fight. The Jeff Van Gundy Rope-A-Dope.

    I was new to the business, so I never considered the possibility that Sanders — who was much more experienced in the athlete-writer give-and-take than I was — would simply verbally challenge what I wrote. I prepared only for the worst-case scenario.

    I kept waiting behind the batting cage as Nashville finished hitting. No Sanders. No Columbus Clippers, in fact; it turned out they were having a team meeting. If Sanders actually wanted a piece of me, well, he would miss his chance, because the Clippers were getting an earful of inspiration in their clubhouse, probably inspired by a George Steinbrenner dictum.

    So I returned to the press box before game time, not knowing about the Clippers’ team meeting, wondering whether Sanders’ anger had subsided and he thought it a waste of time to complain about a column written in a small afternoon paper (which would fold a decade later).

    In fact, Sanders was still quite perturbed.

    In the fourth inning of the game, the same bat boy who had summoned me on Sanders’ behalf walked into the press box, holding a baseball.

    “Deion told me to give this to you,” he said.

    The baseball was dirty, probably a leftover from batting practice. In the sweet spot, Sanders had scrawled a message. He didn’t include his signature.

    “Keep writing like that your whole life,” he wrote, “and you’ll always be a loser.”

    Words to live by.

    • indaburg - Feb 10, 2013 at 3:57 PM

      Not cool, shzastl. Not cool.

      • shzastl - Feb 10, 2013 at 6:57 PM

        Why, because people might actually read it instead of what Craig claims it says?

      • historiophiliac - Feb 10, 2013 at 8:47 PM

        No, because you stole it, thiever.

      • indaburg - Feb 10, 2013 at 8:56 PM

        Exactly.

      • mrwillie - Feb 10, 2013 at 10:00 PM

        I bet you all still read it.

      • shzastl - Feb 10, 2013 at 10:08 PM

        Wrong, like I said, ESPN has IT AVAILABLE FOR FREE from when he posted the same story verbatim previously: http://insider.espn.go.com/mlb/blog?name=olney_buster&id=6118029&action=login&appRedirect=http%3a%2f%2finsider.espn.go.com%2fmlb%2fblog%3fname%3dolney_buster%26id%3d6118029.

        But actually investigating facts is more difficult than talking anonymous Internet trash… Besides it’s a story that he’s told to countless people for years, not like a work of fiction or fresh analysis that has commercial value that he’s trying to sell. Use some common sense.

      • historiophiliac - Feb 10, 2013 at 10:29 PM

        The proper thing to do then, shzastl, is to indicate that it is available free from a previous post and give the link to that. Cutting and pasting it is a no-no (especially w/out saying where you got it). With intellectual property, the onus is always on the user to cite the source — not on readers to track it down.

        BTW, I did not read it actually.

      • shzastl - Feb 10, 2013 at 10:52 PM

        It’s a “no-no”? According to you? Blogs cut and paste portions of articles all the time, which is exactly what I did. Granted it is customary to provide a source, (which I did if you would have read down a few comments), but here it wasnt really necessary because the source is evident–I obviously wasn’t claiming that I wrote it myself. And let’s not forget this is a comment section of a blog, not an academic paper. Just admit you jumped to an unjustified accusation before getting the facts that were (literally) right under your nose…

      • indaburg - Feb 10, 2013 at 11:06 PM

        Be fair, shzastl. The conclusion we made was a logical one because you didn’t state it was available for free or give the source link until several hours after your original copy/paste of Olney’s column.

      • historiophiliac - Feb 10, 2013 at 11:31 PM

        Quoting from an article with attribution and reposting the whole damn thing without it are very different — and you DIDN’T cite your source or indicate that you didn’t take it until AFTER we called you on it. Try doing that with some of your co-worker’s stuff and see how that goes over in the office. If you don’t want your ass jumped, do it right the first time. That’s on you. And, FYI, free or not, don’t ever take my writing and pass it on like that. I’m not cool with that.

      • shzastl - Feb 10, 2013 at 11:36 PM

        I don’t agree that it’s logical to accuse someone of being a thief simply because they made a mistake in following “Historiophiliac’s Rules of Citation for Blog Comments” (assuming a war story that someone has been repeating regularly for years to millions of people is even the type of intellectual property that can be ‘stolen’). It’s no more of a logical conclusion than assuming a ball player’s on steroids simply because they’re muscular. And hey, if you’re not sure you could always ask…

      • shzastl - Feb 11, 2013 at 12:17 AM

        Wrong again, Historio. 1) It’s not the whole damn article, it is one part of a much longer column. 2) I posted the links at 5:07; you ‘called me out’ at 8:47, even though you would have known better if you just read two comments further. But assuming I hadn’t cited anything, so what? Do you really go around ‘jumping everyone’s ass’ who makes a mistake or doesn’t follow ‘historio’s blog citation rules’? If so, to paraphrase Deion, you’ll be a loser all your life. Again, this is a blog comment section, not the office. And judging by your comments here, nothing you write would be worth stealing, so you can rest easy.

  18. ctony1216 - Feb 10, 2013 at 4:07 PM

    The message is “Don’t let the a**holes get you down.” I bet Olney writes it every year as a reminder to himself.

    The Toasters recorded a song along the same theme called “Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down.” Great song. [link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSo-_TavE1U ]

  19. shzastl - Feb 10, 2013 at 5:04 PM

    It’s cool dude, I verified you can google ‘buster Olney and Deion sanders’ and find a free version on espn, e.g., http://insider.espn.go.com/mlb/blog/_/name/olney_buster/id/3925756/recalling-favorite-tale?refresh=true http://thattomguy.com/ballgame/2011/02/13/the-time-buster-olney-pissed-off-neon-deion/

  20. Chris Fiorentino - Feb 10, 2013 at 5:37 PM

    Seems to me the lesson learned here is to not rip an athlete because he will call you a name and then REALLY not give you anymore interviews. What a severe douchenozzle Deion is, was, and always will be.

  21. contraryguy - Feb 10, 2013 at 6:44 PM

    Short version: Deion hated being in the minors and Buster had a lot to learn. yawn.

  22. Carl Hancock - Feb 10, 2013 at 8:08 PM

    Buster needs to put the baseball on eBay.

  23. historiophiliac - Feb 10, 2013 at 8:27 PM

    Seriously, how am I not supposed to troll Cur hard when you put THAT picture up?

    • cur68 - Feb 11, 2013 at 12:14 AM

      I like to think me and Deion are trolling YOU. Roger Bernadina & Jordany Valdespin say “howdy” too.

  24. 4cornersfan - Feb 10, 2013 at 11:36 PM

    The Lesson: Don’t try to lay no boogie woogie on the King of Rock and Roll.

  25. ezthinking - Feb 11, 2013 at 2:57 AM

    Craig is being coy, he knows the answer.

    The only conclusion is that the easiest way to succeed in sports writing is to kiss the athlete’s ass. Otherwise you will still be trying to write for defunct papers. Buster, ironic name there, kissed ass and now gets paid big time working for ESPN. His “criticisms” always ring hollow because he knows if he is truly writing what he believes, he won’t get player access. That’s a no-no for ESPN.

    To keep your job, kiss the ass.

    Clever message often missed. At least Buster reminds us why he’ll write what he writes this summer every year.

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