NEW YORK, JULY 30 -- Deion Sanders became a defensive back again today, leaving the New York Yankees for the rest of the baseball season to begin preparing to play football with the Atlanta Falcons.

"I'm leaving. I'm going to football," Sanders said as he cleaned out his Yankee Stadium locker. "Maybe I'll be back next year with the Yankees."

Sanders, the Yankees and Falcons had been involved in a wrangle over contracts and service responsibilities, and "it all came apart last night and this morning," he said.

He had sought a $1 million contract for the 1991 baseball season, but principal owner George Steinbrenner rejected that today and broke off talks, the Yankees said in a statement. (Steinbrenner spent most of the day with Commissioner Fay Vincent, negotiating a settlement by which he must resign as general partner by Aug. 20.)

"Under no circumstances could we offer Deion that kind of salary for the 1991 season," Steinbrenner said in the statement. "Even so, we still would like Deion to continue with the Yankees."

The Falcons threatened Monday to sue the Yankees over Sanders, warning that it could cost Sanders more than $3 million to play baseball full time. Whether the matter will be pursued now that Sanders has turned to football wasn't clear.

In a letter to the Yankees, Marion "Chip" Allen III, the Falcons' legal adviser, said the NFL team would seek damages and relief against the Yankees and Sanders if the cornerback signed a contract with the baseball team. Sanders was hitting .158 for the Yankees, the lowest average of any major-leaguer with at least 125 at-bats.

"Aren't you supposed to be good at this game to make that kind of money?" pitcher Greg Cadaret said.

Sanders signed a four-year, $4.4 million contract with the Falcons last year after they made him the fifth pick in the NFL draft.

Copies of Allen's letter went to Sanders; his personal lawyer, Eugene Parker; and agent Steve Zucker.

"We just want to make it perfectly clear to Deion and the Yankees before they do the deal," Falcons President Taylor Smith said.

"I talked to Deion today to tell him the reasons {for the letter} and that it was nothing personal. We want him here. We feel like he can be one of the all-time greats at his position. Our main objective is to have him here playing football."

Smith said the Falcons paid Sanders a "premium" to be a full-time football player.

Falcons officials and Allen met with Parker at the Falcons training camp in Suwanee, Ga., Sunday to discuss Sanders's contract with the Falcons, which included a $2 million signing bonus.

"If Deion signs to play full time with the Yankees, our rights will have been violated," Smith said.

In the letter, Allen told the Yankees that under Sanders's contract with the Falcons he is restricted from playing baseball when Atlanta officially opens preseason camp. The Falcons opened camp July 26.

Sanders's "continuing failure to report since July 26 reduces the amount of monies the Falcons have contractually paid or are otherwise obligated to pay him," the letter said.

The Falcons have fined Sanders $10,000 for missing the minicamp and $1,500 per day for failing to report to camp.