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JIM MURRAY

Gant Could Say I Told You So

October 04, 1995|JIM MURRAY

I don't know who's going to win the Heisman Trophy this year, or the Cy Young Award, or the MVP, or the Lady Byng Trophy, or the Oscar. But Comeback Player of the Year in baseball?

The polls are closed. It's a landslide. Ron Gant by acclamation.

Who? you may ask. Exactly. Where'd he come back from? And what was he doing there? Ron Gant is not your everyday household name player.

Oh, he had his years in Atlanta. More than 30 homers three years, more than 100 RBIs in two years. Also stole 30-plus bases a lot.

The question is: What he's doing in a Cincinnati uniform? Or, rather, what he's doing in a baseball uniform at all?

On Feb. 3, 1994, Ron Gant was whiling away the off-season on something called a dirt bike. This, presumably, is called that because, sooner or later, you end up in dirt when you get on one.

You have to understand about ballplayers. They don't spend their vacation or off-season time like the rest of us. What I mean to say is, they don't golf, do crossword puzzles, play bridge, or even, maybe, read. Ballplayers have to do something where there's a chance they might get killed. You know. Hunt grizzlies, ride sharks--or race trail bikes.

So, Ron Gant, a solid ballplayer then in his years at Atlanta, was on this dirt bike jumping over rocks and streams in Georgia. He hit a tree, bounced and flew through the air. When he came down, he had a leg broken in three places. The question was not whether he could play ball or not, but could he walk. If he asked the doctor if he could play ball, the doctor might have cleared his throat and inquired whether he could do it on a cane. Or a crutch.

The Atlanta Braves were betting no. They didn't deal in wheelchair sport. They didn't need a ballplayer with a limp.

As a matter of fact, the Braves had made even a healthy Gant problematical. A year sooner, they had almost made him redundant when they traded for Fred McGriff. With McGriff and Dave Justice in their lineup, they thought they had all the power they would need. Gant was superfluous.

They cut Gant adrift after the accident because, that way, they got out of paying him 5/6ths of his salary, a saving of $4,167,667 right there. The Braves had to pay him "only" $833,167 if they released him.

So they threw him on the open market. The Reds took a chance on him, outbid the Red Sox and one or two other gambling clubs.

Only Gant is not a gamble. Gant is a guy who once bought and built his own gym so he could have a chance at major league baseball. Gant was a fleet, but hardly sure-handed, infielder who persuaded himself he had to become a power hitter to hit the big time. He bulked up, swung hard and became the pitchers' nightmare, the four-base game breaker. He moved to the outfield, made his living with his bat, not his glove.

Gant approached his rehabilitation after the bike accident with the same determination. He got the leg so he could walk on it, then run on it, then hit with it. He worked all of '94 to restore it. He came to camp in 1995 in a brace and Manager Davey Johnson remembers: "You could see it hurt in the knee and the ankle from time to time but he never gave in to it. When we showed up to play Atlanta, he took the brace off and threw it away. Then, he went out and hit two home runs in one overtime game."

Gant had had some headline years at Atlanta. He hit .303 one year with 32 homers. He hit 36 homers and drove in 117 runs another.

So, what he's doing in a Cincinnati uniform is something for the front office at Atlanta to answer. Because a two-legged Gant showed up on the Red roster this year, passed the physical--and proceeded to hit 29 home runs, drive in 88 runs, walk 74 times and score 79 times.

Sound like a comeback to you?

If the Reds win the pennant this year--and they got off to a good start Tuesday night--they probably should get that dirt bike and make a team icon out of it--put it on display at Riverfront Stadium with a light on it and the pennant alongside. They may owe the pennant to that bike before these playoffs are over.

A fully healed Gant stood by the batting cage at Dodger Stadium Tuesday before the game and laughed at the suggestion he was baseball's comeback kid. "You want me to win that award a second time?"he grinned. (He got the Sports Illustrated comeback award in 1990.)

"No," he added. "I just tried to stay positive all last year." He wasn't about to be tripped up by his own leg. Was it then as good as ever? "I stole 23 bases this year," he noted impishly.

In the game that followed, the name "Ron Gant" wasn't exactly the marquee one. Catcher Benito Santiago and first baseman Hal Morris hit the taller print.

But his contribution was in the fine print. In the first inning, after the leadoff batter struck out, the Reds' Barry Larkin singled to center. Gant was at bat with one out. The count ran to 3 and 1 and Gant ripped a hit to left.

A small contribution? Well, consider this: The batter after Gant, Reggie Sanders, popped out to the catcher. Then, with two out, the roof fell in on the Dodgers. Morris doubled and Santiago homered.

That was the old ball game. But, if Gant had popped out or grounded out, Sanders would have been the third out. That 4-0 lead would not have taken place.

Gant is more than a Comeback Player of the Year. He's one of the league's most valuable players.

In fact, if the Reds meet the Braves in the pennant series, Atlanta may wish it hadn't been so interested in saving a lousy $4 million. Gant should send them a souvenir of the occasion--his cane. It's just hanging in the closet anyway.

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