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Mister Clutch

Last week, Atlanta Brave games weren't decided until Ron Gant got the last swing

His Atlanta Brave teammates were already taking pre-game batting practice last Saturday when Ron Gant arrived at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, wishing the 3 p.m. contest with the New York Mets were a night game. "That way I'd still be sleeping right now," he said at 1:15 that afternoon. "I could use it." He was fatigued from a run of night games last week that had been tighter than his double knits, games that most often had ended in Atlanta victories because of what Gant had done well past prime time.

There was his grand slam in the second inning that broke open a game on Tuesday, followed by his one-out, three-run homer on the last swing the next night and his 10th-inning double that sent the winning run home on Friday. No one had a better late-night week, Letterman included. With a burst of 18 runs batted in during an eight-game span, Gant took the National League lead in RBIs, with a career-high 110, and almost single-handedly kept Atlanta ahead of the San Francisco Giants, who at week's end trailed the Braves by three games in the National League West with 14 to play. Still, Gant's greatest achievement over that exhausting stretch may have been that he moved Bobby Cox, his phlegmatic manager, to positively gush. "He's got half the club on his shoulders and is carrying them," says Cox, who had never seen Gant in such a streak. "Fact is, I don't know if I've ever seen anyone do that. That's Mister Clutch."

It turns out that Gant is on a mission, which should not be taken lightly, considering this is a man who collects guns and who would have pursued a career with a SWAT team or as a Navy SEAL had he not succeeded in baseball. "I like adventure," Gant says. "I feel like the special services are one of the most important things in the defense of this country."

Now his self-assigned mission is to end a gnawing hurt from the 1992 World Series, a hurt that made him wish he would never again have to play for Atlanta. It started with Game 2, when Cox benched Gant against Toronto Blue Jay righthander David Cone, choosing to play Deion Sanders in leftfield instead. Gant had gone 0 for 3, including two strikeouts, against righthander Jack Morris in the first game. Gant didn't start Games 3, 5 and 6, either. He started in the fourth game only because Toronto used Jimmy Key, a lefthander. Gant batted eight times in all, getting only one hit as the Braves lost the Series in six games.

Here he was, an All-Star who had averaged 32 home runs, 95 RBIs and 33 stolen bases over the previous two seasons—a guy who had batted .309 in the final 25 games of the 1992 regular season and had actually hit righthanders better over the course of the season—having to watch most of the World Series from the bench. Well, he couldn't do that. No, sir. He would watch it from the clubhouse.

"A lot of people don't know I spent a lot of time inside," he says. "There were games I didn't come out at all for batting practice. I didn't want to talk about it, to create a scene. I was upset and embarrassed. I was hurt. It still hurts. After that, I took the attitude that I was just going to work harder through the whole winter."

Soon after the Series ended, several clubs called Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz to ask about Gant, who they figured was available in a trade to clear a full-time spot for Sanders. "I listened," Schuerholz says, "but I was not overwhelmed. Not even underwhelmed. I did not want to trade Ron Gant."

Whenever Gant heard a trade rumor, he hoped it would come true. "I really did," he says. "I wanted to go somewhere where a team appreciated the things I can do." Then he would head for the weight-lifting room in his Smyrna, Ga., house, a room stocked with $20,000 worth of equipment, crank up the volume on the Van Halen tunes until the speakers quivered and, he says, "lift like an animal." If it was a Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday, he would work his leg muscles. If it was a Monday, Wednesday or Friday, he would concentrate on his arms and upper body, bench-pressing as many as 430 pounds, or more than twice his weight of 190 pounds.

Watching his muscles grow gave him confidence. Before he left for spring training this year, inspired by 10 more pounds of muscle and the insult of his World Series benching, Gant telephoned his father, George, in Victoria, Texas, and said, "Dad, I'm going to put the pressure on them. That way they can't deny me again." Says George, "I'm hoping that stays in the back of his mind and he carries it through the playoffs and World Series."

After a slow start last spring, Gant put together his most productive season. He was batting only .198 on May 5, but from that day through Sunday he had hit .294, including .346 with runners in scoring position. He was especially potent with first baseman Fred McGriff batting behind him, as evidenced by his 55 RBIs in 54 games after McGriff's arrival in July in a trade with the San Diego Padres.

"Ron's the man you want up there when you need a run," says Brave shortstop Jeff Blauser. "He'll do whatever it takes to get the run home. He's intense. In fact, he's probably too hard on himself at times when he doesn't get the job done."

Gant is likely to erupt in a fit of anger no matter how well he's doing. "He could be 3 for 3 in a game we're winning 10-0, and if he makes an out in his fourth at bat, he's mad," Atlanta pitcher Tom Glavine says. "Every time he goes to bat he expects to do some damage."

Says Gant, "I'm not going to settle just for good. I want to be the best. I've gone through some bad times this year, but they haven't lasted as long as they did in the past. Right now is probably the best I've felt in my career."

Gant's game-winner against the Cincinnati Reds on Sept. 15 was the most dramatic blow of the Braves' season. With Atlanta trailing 6-4 in the ninth, he swung one-handed at a low slider from Rob Dibble but still hit a wicked line drive that bounced off the top of the leftfield wall and continued on like a rock skipping across a pond. "The biggest one of my career," Gant said of the three-run shot.

Then, noting that barely half of the 48,825 people at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium had bothered to stay for the ninth inning, he threatened to start taking names. "The fans that left, they should never let them see a game again," he said. "They aren't true fans."

Most of the 49,115 fans who showed the next night stuck around until the 12th inning, when Blauser drove in the winning run against Cincinnati with an infield single. And nearly all of the 48,837 people on hand the night after that didn't dare leave a close game with the Mets, which ended in the 10th inning when Gant drove in Otis Nixon with a double off the centerfield wall. That hit put Gant two RBIs ahead of David Justice as they attempt to become the first National League teammates to finish first and second in runs batted in since 1976, when George Foster and Joe Morgan of the Reds hit the exacta.

However, knocking in the most runs in the league is not Gant's primary objective. "I've already told David, RBI title or not, I have one main goal," he says, "to get back to the World Series, and to play in the World Series this time, and to help us win it."



Gant, who has five game-winning hits in the Braves' final at bat this season, headed home last Wednesday night for another celebration.



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