But Gant's most serious setback occurred on Feb. 3, 1994, a week after he had agreed to a $5.5 million contract with the Braves—the largest single-season deal in baseball history and his reward for having had a 36-homer, 117-RBI season in '93. While dirt biking with some buddies, Gant attempted a jump. "I missed the jump," he says, "and skidded into a tree."
What kind of tree?
"One that wouldn't move."
Neither would his right leg, which went numb. "Luckily," he says, "we had three or four cellular phones."
Somebody called 911. An ambulance arrived. A paramedic said, "He's got a compound fracture." The number 5.5 million flashed through Gant's head.
The next thing he remembers seeing was the ceiling of a hospital room. "My leg was in a cast," says Gant. "And I was wondering what was happening." Within six weeks he knew. The Braves gave him the chop, paying him $906,593 in termination pay. "At the time, I was more disappointed than bitter," he says. "But after the morphine wore off, I got angry."
He worked off his rage three hours a day in the gym. "It hurt, believe me, it hurt," he says. After six months he tried a leg extension. "Even with no weights," he reports, "my leg felt like it was being cut without anesthesia." Another month passed before he attempted to run. "There was only one way to get back at the Braves," he says, "and that was to show them they'd lost a helluva ballplayer."
"Gant can't," said the critics. "Ron can," said Bowden. He signed Gant for the major league minimum, $108,000, last June with this proviso: If Gant made the Opening Day roster in 1995, he would be paid $3.5 million; if he didn't make it, he would get $500,000. Bowden's logic was impeccable. "I'd much rather negotiate a contract with an unhealthy Ron Gant," he says, "than a healthy one."
The question of Gant's health became moot on May 12 and 14 when, playing without a knee brace for the first time, he beat the Braves twice with extra-inning dingers. "I saw tremendous focus in Ron, tremendous elation," says Larkin. "It was as if he was saying, 'See, take that!' " Larkin was equally assertive in the series: three doubles, a triple, two homers and three stolen bases.
Though the Larkin-Gant combination accounts for much of Cincinnati's turnaround from that horrendous start, at least part of the credit belongs to owner Schott's dead St. Bernard, Schottzie. With the Reds in their free fall, Schott rubbed the fur of her late pooch on the chests of her players. "It sounds like voodoo," Gant allows, "but it worked." As for side effects, he says, "I haven't had any cravings for dog food."