Tuesday, March 15, 2016

TOT: 1994 Ends Prematurely for Gant

Transaction of Today...March 15, 1994 - The Atlanta Braves released Ron Gant.

Bernstein Associates/Getty Images
It was the end of a too-short but formidable partnership between Ronnie Gant and the Braves.

About six weeks after the news that Gant suffered a catastrophic injury to his right leg after losing control of his dirt bike, Atlanta made the right business decision and paid Gant just $906,593.40 of his $5.5M contract. It was all that was required for termination pay, something that is pretty unique for arbitration deals. They had been, according to then-Team President Stan Kastan, advised to not pay Gant at all and instead argue that he violated the terms of his contract and the Braves owed him nothing. Also remember that $906,000 in 1994 was worth a bit more than it is now. Gant was one of the highest paid players in baseball - a distinction that was well deserved. But after his dirt bike crash, he would become a free agent as he rehabbed the injury.

A fourth-round selection of the 1983 draft out of Victoria, Texas, he would become Atlanta's top selection value from that draft in overall value, though 27th-rounder Mark Lemke turned out okay, too. Gant's first few years in the minors brought little attention until the then-21 year-old arrived with Durham in 1986. He slashed .277/.372/.529 that season with 31 doubles, 10 triples, 26 homeruns, and 35 stolen bases. The next season was spent mostly at Greenville, though he received a cameo in Atlanta. In 1988, he got a chance to stay in the majors and responded with an impressive 19 homeruns in 618 PA. He only on-based .317, but it was a nice rookie campaign.

He was an infielder then, but not a particularly good one and despite having the athleticism to play the position, Gant lacked the feel. A woeful 1989 followed in which Gant hit just .177 and was banished for half of the year to Richmond. However, Atlanta started to see that they needed to take away the pressure of playing defense in the infield away from him and sent Gant to the outfield as they sought a return to form.

Experience plus a position switch (and other tinkering) is what led to 1990's breakthrough campaign. With the Braves of today in rebuilding mode, fans might want to know what should give them hope despite all the losses. If you flash back to 1990, it was the beginning of Ron Gant: Professional Superstar. Sure, the Braves were not good at all in 1990, but when you have someone who performs like Gant did, it gives you hope for the future. The Texan hit .303/.357/.539 with 32 homeruns and 33 steals. Only two other players had ever gone 30/30 for the Braves and their names are steeped with greatness (Hank Aaron in 1963, Dale Murphy in 1983). Despite playing for one of baseball's worst teams, Gant finished 14th in the MVP balloting in 1990. He was just getting started.

He went 30/30 again in 1991 as the Braves went from worst-to-first. He won his only Silver Slugger, finished sixth in the MVP balloting, and stole seven bases in the NLCS against the Pirates (three more than the rest of the team managed). He also got pulled off a bag by Kent Hrbck, but the ump was too busy counting his money to see that. I kid, I kid. Returning in 1992, Ron Gant had an interesting thing happened to him as he got into a bar fight with Connie Mack IV. The fight occurred right before spring training and yes, this is Connie Mack's great-grandson who also represented Florida's 14th district from 2005 until 2013 in Congress. Mack was drunk and tried to provoke Gant into a fight. When he succeeded, he somehow broke his ankle in the fray. I don't know if that created a distraction, but Gant's numbers fell off in 1992 despite making his first All-Star Game. He homered twice against the Pirates in the NLCS, but was a non-factor in the World Series and only started two games.

In 1993, Gant rounded back in form with a .274/.345/.510 season with a career-high 36 homeruns. He finished fifth in the NL MVP balloting and was one of the league's most fearsome players. His four-year run heading into the 1993-94 offseason stood at .272/.340/.491 with 117 HR and 125 steals. He was a star and the Braves paid him as such, signing him to a $5.5M contract in the offseason as part of his final year of arbitration. To put that total into perspective, Atlanta was paying Greg Maddux $4.975M for 1994 and Tom Glavine $4.75M. Fred McGriff was their highest paid offensive player at $3.755M.

But before spring training, disaster struck. According to Gant, he was "doing jumps and lost control" of his dirt bike and his "leg just wrapped around a tree." It was a rough few weeks for Gant, who also was under investigation after teenage girls named Gant and his cousin Stephen Gaskin in a complaint that the two men sought sex from them. The case went nowhere, but it added to the stack of bad news. Briefly, there was thought that the dirt bike accident wouldn't end his 1994 with team physician Joe Chandler suggesting it would only be three months, but apparently the Braves came to a different conclusion later. The release of Gant opened up left field for a trio of hot prospects - Ryan Klesko, Tony Tarasco, and an infielder by the name of Chipper Jones. The latter would tear his ACL and Klesko settled into the job.

Gant would sign with the Reds a few months later and continued to rehab, but would not play again until after the Strike ended in 1995. As a member of the Reds, he was a success story, hitting .276 with a career-best .940 OPS. He even stole 23 bases, the final year he would steal more than 15. He led a great Reds offense that was second in the NL in runs scored. Gant was even given a chance to get the best revenge on the Braves as the Reds met the Braves in the NLCS. Gant, who only OPS'd .694 in the postseason during his career, was a non-factor in Atlanta's sweep of Cincinnati and managed just three singles.

Leaving the Reds for St. Louis, Gant saw his 1996 end in a similar result to his 1995 - with his team losing in the NLCS against the Braves. He did smack 30 homers, his fourth and final 30-HR campaign. He had some good years left in him, though he bounced around. After the Cards came the Phillies and then the Angels and the Rockies, A's, and Padres. He returned to Oakland in 2003, but struggled terribly and retired.

Since his career came to a close, Gant has became a fixture on Atlanta television as a co-host of Good Day Atlanta and formerly an analyst for the Braves. You have to believe that 22 years ago today when his time with the Braves came to a close, he had no idea if he would ever play again, let alone be as good as he was. But that's a testament of Gant's will and determination. Fortunately, he held no ill will against the Braves and understood it was the right move.

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