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The Comebacks Kid : Ron Gant Has Already Won the Award Once, but a Year After Motorcycle Accident, Reds' All-Star Is Almost a Lock

July 09, 1995|BOB NIGHTENGALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CINCINNATI — Ron Gant lay alone in his hospital room, staring at the ceiling.

He wanted to feel rage and malice, but all he felt was helplessness and sorrow.

He wanted no visitors. No phone calls. No pity.

Gant simply wanted to be left alone to punish himself, allowing the memories of the accident to gather and assault his senses.

It was so stupid, he kept telling himself. So damn stupid.

He had always lived for the moment, and acted as he felt, with disregard for the cord between action and consequence.

This is why he never hesitated when his buddies called him that rainy afternoon on Feb. 3, 1994 and asked if he wanted to go motorcycle riding in the hills near his Smyrna, Ga., home.

He had just signed a $5.5-million contract with the Atlanta Braves, and besides, spring training was starting in two weeks. This would be his last excursion before the 1994 season.

They gathered together in the foothills, and Gant, riding his 250cc motorcycle, took all the precautions. He not only wore his safety helmet, but even put on sturdy motorcycle boots.

He began riding through the hills feeling on top of the world and certainly didn't resist the fearless feeling that surged through his body. He opened the throttle to nearly full tilt and soared over a jump.

It was something he had done countless times, and he momentarily had a feeling of euphoria knowing he had engineered another successful landing. Then, something went awry.

The moment he landed, the ground moved beneath him, his motorcycle sliding in mud. He lost control. The motorcycle veered one way, then another, and smacked into a large tree.

Gant, 30, first worried about the damage he had caused to his motorcycle, and then the searing pain in his right leg halted all other thoughts. He lay motionless as his friends rushed to help. He yelled for no one to touch him.

Gant knew he had at least sprained his ankle. Maybe even messed up his knee. It was only after he was taken on a stretcher to the hospital that he fully realized the damage.

He had a compound fracture of the right leg. The break was so severe that a metal rod had to be inserted into his leg.

"The first thing we heard was that he may never play again," Atlanta first baseman Fred McGriff said. "They were making it sound like his career was over. You just don't come back from things like that.

"All you could do was feel sorry for him and remind yourself that's why we're not allowed to do those things like ride a motorcycle or ski when you're under contract."

In a few days, after the surgery, the Braves announced that Gant could be back in three months. They also said they would still pay his entire contract.

One month later, Gant received a phone call. The Braves were releasing him. He would receive $833,000 as part of his termination pay, but despite hitting a career-high 36 homers and driving in 117 runs in 1993, the Braves no longer wanted him.

Gant had taken perhaps the most costly motorcycle ride in U.S. history.

"It took me a long time before I could sleep throughout the night," he said. "The day haunted me for a long time. I'd close my eyes, and I'd replay that incident over and over again.

"It's still something that I don't think I'll ever forget.

"I'll take it to my grave with me.

"The only difference is now I've proven I can play baseball again with it. I think I've fooled a lot of people."

On Tuesday, the entire nation will be able to see the comeback for themselves.

Ron Gant of the Cincinnati Reds will be playing left field in the 1995 All-Star game.

*

The 1990 comeback-player-of-the-year plaque hangs proudly on the wall in Gant's home in Georgia.

It was the year he returned to the major leagues after spending most of 1989 learning how to play the outfield in Class-A Sumpter, S.C.

Call it Comeback I.

It provided the motivation and courage for Gant to overcome his latest traumatic ordeal.

Comeback I was a rude awakening for Gant. He had finished fourth in the rookie-of-the-year balloting in 1988, leading all rookies with 19 homers and 60 RBIs. Yet, after opening the season as the Braves' starting third baseman in 1989, he was batting .177 when the Braves recommended that his future was in the outfield.

It was up to Gant. Go learn to play the outfield for the first time in his life, taking 12-hour bus rides, and having no idea whether it would work. Or bounce back and forth between the majors and triple A, still hoping to become an everyday infielder.

Gant took the gamble, and when he returned in 1990, he went on to become one of the most feared offensive players in the league, averaging 29 homers, 97 RBIs and 31 stolen bases over the next four years.

"Let's face it, Ronnie was one of the greatest players in the league," Atlanta right fielder David Justice said. "He did an awful lot for this organization. Whatever they asked, like when he went back to the minors, he did it.

"But when he got hurt, it was like, 'See ya.'

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