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
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
``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.''
Larkin's bat has produced a .300 average in five of the past six
seasons; his glove turned gold in 1994. ``I always wanted to win a
Gold Glove while Ozzie Smith was still around,'' he says of the
40-year-old St. Louis Cardinal, who was cited as the National
League's best-fielding shortstop from '80 through '92. The Wizard
of Oz was Larkin's boyhood idol and remains his greatest
influence. Larkin occasionally seeks Smith's counsel, follows his
martial-arts regimen and even requested Oz's uniform number when
he broke into the majors in '86. Alas, the Reds' number 1 had
already been retired -- in honor of the late manager Fred
Hutchinson -- so Larkin doubled the digit and took 11.
Larkin grew up in the Cincinnati suburbs, the third of five
children. His father, Bob, is a chemist; his mother, Shirley, a
community activist. (Coincidentally, Gant's father, George, is a
chemical processor; his mother, Alice, a teacher at a school for
the learning disabled.) On holidays Shirley would take her
children to homes for the elderly and to shelters for the
homeless. ``I can't say I enjoyed it much at the time,'' Barry
says, ``but it was something that really stuck with me.''
In 1992 he became a driving force behind the Caring Team of
Athletes, which consists of one player from each major league team
who, with every hit, raises money for needy children. ``That makes
batting slumps an enormous responsibility,'' he says. ``If I'm not
hitting, I think, Damn, I owe money to the program!''
Fortunately, Larkin's slumps tend to be as brief as was his stay
in the minors. After the Reds selected him fourth overall in the
1985 amateur draft, Larkin burst through the bushes despite the
prognostication of a Cincinnati executive who told Larkin he would
never make it to the majors as a shortstop. ``The guy said I
didn't have the work ethic,'' says Larkin. ``Or the hands. Or the
ability. I knew it was a crock.'' As if to prove him wrong, Larkin
was named the Triple A American Association's MVP in 1986 and was
summoned to the majors late that season.
Arriving before his equipment did, Larkin had to outfit himself in
other players' gear. As he crouched in the on-deck circle before
his first big league at bat, wearing Dave Concepcion's shorts, a
batboy handed him a note: ``Look back, Honey. Your mom and dad are
sitting with me in the owner's box -- Marge Schott.'' Larkin
turned, waved one of Eric Davis's batting gloves to his folks and
strode to the plate in Pete Rose's spikes. He swung Buddy Bell's
bat and drove in a run. ``Wearing everyone else's stuff,'' he
says, ``made me feel like I was part of the team.''
On road trips, Larkin, with rookie enthusiasm, lugged rightfielder
Dave Parker's satchel. When Larkin got his first big league
paycheck, Parker said, ``Put it in my bag and feel how light it
is.'' Then Parker put his own paycheck in the bag and yanked down
Larkin's arm. ``Kid,'' he advised, ``keep your eyes and ears open
and your mouth closed, and one day your bag will be this heavy.''
Heavy for Larkin turned out to be a five-year, $25.6 million
contract, which he signed in 1992. Still, he talks of getting his
degree in economics from Michigan, where he was the Big Ten's
first two-time MVP. Larkin is taking correspondence courses to
make up the 12 hours he lacks. Between the end of the 1990
playoffs and the beginning of the World Series, Larkin had to read
The Old Man and the Sea for a course requirement. ``As I recall,''
Larkin says, ``the old man tried to bring in a large fish -- orca
or something -- to mount on his wall. He overcame that fish
through a struggle. In baseball the struggle is to stay consistent
over a period of years.''
Which brings to mind Gant, who has consistently struggled over his
12-year pro career. After the Braves made him their fourth-round
draft pick in 1983 and signed him out of high school in Victoria,
Texas, he spent four seasons in the low minors before bouncing in
and out of the majors with alarming frequency. He became the
Braves' regular second baseman in '88, batting .259, belting 19
homers and committing a league-leading 26 errors at that position.
The following year he turned up at third and on Nixon's enemies
That was Russ Nixon, the Atlanta manager at the time. Gant was
benched after he was reported to be dancing in the team parking
lot following a bad game. ``I don't even dance!'' Gant protests to
this day. ``Ask anybody: I'm no dancer.'' But a .172 average and
16 errors in 60 games was cause enough for the Braves to send Gant
bugalooing down to Class A Sumter. Nixon wanted him to learn to
play the outfield. ``A lot of players buried in that situation
would never make it back,'' says Knight. ``But Ron would not stay
Gant rose from the grave in 1990, hitting 32 homers and swiping 33
bases as Atlanta's leftfielder. The next year he had another 30-30
season and drove in 105 runs. His numbers plummeted in '92, and he
sat out much of the World Series, with Deion Sanders taking his
place. ``Baseball is humbling, man,'' observes Larkin.
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.''
COLOR PHOTO:PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG Larkin (11) and Gant stage a mock tug-of-war, but nothing's fake about their deeds at the plate. [Barry Larkin and Ron Gant pulling on opposite ends of a baseball bat while seated in the locker room]
COLOR PHOTO:DAVID LIAM KYLELarkin hits for a high average (.354 through Sunday) and drives home a point with a flick of his wrist. [Barry Larkin batting]
COLOR PHOTO:PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG [see caption above--close-up of Barry Larkin's sweatband on his wrist, which feature a portrait of Larkin, his signature, and a "SAY NO TO DRUGS" message]THREE COLOR PHOTOS:PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERGNot known for his glovework, Gant reached back for something extra against the Cards last Saturday. [series of shots showing Ron Gant catching fly ball against the outfield wall]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS:PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG Their recent history of injuries hasn't slowed Larkin (11) and Gant in their dash back to excellence. [Barry Larkin in the field; Ron Gant sliding head-first into base]