Skip to content

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

Feb 10, 2013, 12:00 PM EDT

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.

Latest Posts
  1. Report: Manny Machado to undergo season-ending knee surgery

    Aug 22, 2014, 6:33 PM EDT

    manny machado o's getty Getty Images

    Manny Machado’s season is likely over, as he is expected to undergo season-ending knee surgery within a week, according to a report.

  2. The Angels may have trouble getting starting pitching on waivers

    Aug 22, 2014, 6:20 PM EDT

    Bartolo Colon Bartolo Colon

    According to Peter Gammons, the Orioles and Yankees are “claiming everyone” on waivers, which will make it difficult for the Angels to improve their starting rotation after losing Garrett Richards.

  3. Javier Baez hit the ball really far again, trails only … Mandy Brooks?

    Aug 22, 2014, 5:28 PM EDT

    Javier Baez Getty Getty Images

    His latest, a solo shot off Orioles right-hander Kevin Gausman.

  4. A’s send Dan Otero back to Triple-A with 7-1 record, 2.28 ERA

    Aug 22, 2014, 3:45 PM EDT

    Dan Otero A's AP

    Sometimes the life of a player with a minor-league option remaining just isn’t fair.

  5. Albuquerque Isotopes to give away Joc Pederson’s 1994 Buick Century

    Aug 22, 2014, 3:36 PM EDT

    Buick Century

    One window doesn’t work and there is no air conditioning. It has 166,000 miles on it. Which, actually, isn’t that bad. Hmmm . . .

  6. A’s activate Craig Gentry from the disabled list

    Aug 22, 2014, 3:19 PM EDT

    Craig Gentry A's AP

    Oakland’s outfield depth just got a little stronger with Craig Gentry coming off the disabled list after missing the past month with a broken hand.

  7. HBT Daily: it’s showdown time for the Angels and A’s

    Aug 22, 2014, 2:57 PM EDT

    HBT Daily Logo

    Seven games in ten days for the AL West leaders

  8. No timetable for Manny Machado’s return to the Orioles

    Aug 22, 2014, 1:50 PM EDT

    manny machado o's getty Getty Images

    Machado suffered a sprained right knee on August 11 and the Orioles have mostly been using Chris Davis at third base in his absence.

  9. The Cubs grounds crew was short staffed because the Cubs were trying to avoid Obamacare

    Aug 22, 2014, 12:49 PM EDT

    cubs logo

    This has been such a fun story so far. So why NOT throw politics into it?

  10. Robinson Cano: “I don’t have any regrets” about leaving Yankees

    Aug 22, 2014, 11:50 AM EDT

    Robinson Cano AP

    Robinson Cano has a $240 million contract, his new team has a better record than his old team, and he’s hitting .329 with an .865 OPS that’s slightly above his career mark.

  11. Adam Loewen is a pitcher again

    Aug 22, 2014, 11:33 AM EDT

    New York Mets Photo Day Getty Images

    Can he make it to the bigs on a new path for a third time?

  12. Twins GM on manager Ron Gardenhire: “He’ll be back”

    Aug 22, 2014, 11:19 AM EDT

    ron-gardenhire-twins AP

    If any team is going to keep a manager after four straight 90-loss seasons the Twins are the one to do it.

  13. Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo to sign with the Red Sox for $72 million

    Aug 22, 2014, 11:01 AM EDT

    Rusney Castillo Getty Getty Images

    The Red Sox paid a lot of money to get this guy. Expect him in the Sox’ outfield early next season.

  14. Position player pitching alert: Skip Schumaker, again

    Aug 22, 2014, 10:47 AM EDT

    Skip Schumaker Reds AP

    With the Reds down 8-0 to the Braves last night manager Bryan Price decided to save the bullpen and turned to utility man Skip Schumaker to work the ninth inning.

  15. An important note on nostalgia

    Aug 22, 2014, 10:30 AM EDT

    yaz

    It’s cool to love what you loved when you were 20. It’s not cool to claim that what you loved when you were 20 is the only thing worth loving.

  16. Aroldis Chapman returns from “achy” shoulder

    Aug 22, 2014, 10:15 AM EDT

    aroldis chapman getty Getty Images

    Aroldis Chapman gave the Reds a big scare when he walked all four batters he faced Sunday and then was unavailable for several days with an “achy” left shoulder, but the flame-throwing closer was back in action Thursday night.

  17. FYI: The “Homer at the Bat” episode will air this morning at 11:30AM Eastern

    Aug 22, 2014, 8:55 AM EDT

    Sideburns

    Wade Boggs: Pitt the Elder!
    Barney: Lord Palmerston!
    Wade Boggs: Pitt the Elder!
    Barney: Okay, you asked for it, Boggs!

Featured video

Can Angels recoup loss of Richards?
Top 10 MLB Player Searches
  1. R. Castillo (4835)
  2. M. Cuddyer (2865)
  3. K. Bryant (2468)
  4. G. Richards (2314)
  5. A. Garcia (2160)
  1. A. McCutchen (2110)
  2. W. Myers (2092)
  3. J. Werth (2046)
  4. H. Ramirez (2031)
  5. D. Ortiz (1954)