The ice bags pillowing Barry Larkin's feet are bigger than a free agent's contract. The one wrapped around his left foot holds down the swelling of a sprained ankle; the one around the right soothes a welt caused by a foul ball. "When I was six months old," says Larkin, the Cincinnati Reds' shortstop, "doctors gave me shoes with a steel rod between them to straighten out my feet."
"Is that so?" says the player two lockers down. He's leftfielder Ron Gant, who last year had a steel rod implanted in his broken right leg. Gant wonders aloud if maybe it's the same steel rod. "If it helps me play like Barry has," he says, deadpan, "then I sure hope so."
Cincinnati's Men of Steel have been lightning rods in one of the Reds' most electric starts. As of Sunday, Larkin, Cincy's de facto captain, ranked among the top six in the National League in hitting (.354), runs (27), triples (four), stolen bases (11), on-base percentage (.454) and exhortations. After the Reds lost eight of their first nine games this season, he delivered a clubhouse harangue that sent Cincinnati on a 19-3 tear and propelled it to the top of the Central Division, with a 22-13 record through last weekend. The Reds' de facto savior, Gant was among the National League's top five in RBIs (31), home runs (nine), runs (27) and assertions of divinity. His four game-winning hits—all in extra innings and three of them home runs—prompted Cincinnati general manager Jim Bowden to dub him Ron God.
Bowden is responsible for adding injury (the oft-hobbled Larkin) to insult (the oft-humbled Gant). For years Larkin has been called a model shortstop, but he spent so much time on the disabled list—missing a total of 123 games during the 1991, '92 and '93 seasons—that no one knew exactly what that model was. For years Gant was called one of the Atlanta Braves' most productive hitters, but he says he was demeaned, not to mention demoted and released, before the Reds picked him up last June. "Barry and Ron's leadership and determination have been contagious," gushes Bowden. "They're on different planets than the rest of us: the Planet Larkin and the Planet Gant."
Inside the gravitational field of the Reds' clubhouse, Larkin and Gant seem to be exceedingly mild fellows, modest and self-effacing, with wits as dry as infield dirt. (Larkin's is probably drier: He so loves to play in the New York Mets' stadium that he gave his daughter the middle name D'Shea.) Outside, on the playing field, they're fierce, mean, undaunted: They hang tough. "Barry and Ron don't succumb to pressure," says Cincinnati third base coach Ray Knight. "The tighter the situation, the better they become. In baseball, that's not unique, but very rare."
The difference between the 30-year-old Gant and 31-year-old Larkin is that one is a pro, the other a protozoan. "I consider myself an amoeba man," says Larkin. "I'll assume any shape to help the team. If the team needs someone to lead by example, I do that. If it needs someone to steal, I do that. If it needs someone to bunt or move a runner from second to third, I do that."
He'll do it even if the team wants him to do something else. Knight recalls a recent game in which Larkin came to bat in the first inning with no outs and runners on first and second. As Gant waited on deck, Larkin glanced at Knight, who gave him the hit sign. Larkin bunted. Strike one. Knight put on the hit sign. Larkin bunted. Strike two. Knight flashed yet another hit sign. Larkin bunted. Strike three.
On the dugout steps, Red manager Davey Johnson shook his head in disbelief. Later he told Knight, "Barry shouldn't have done that."
"Barry knew we were having trouble scoring, and he wanted to get runners in scoring position for Ron," says Knight. "The point is, Barry's thoughts are pure."
As is his talent. "I've seen a lot of good shortstops," says Gant. "But none of them had Barry's tools."