The narrative of the 1993 National League West pennant race is that the Atlanta Braves were toiling along in second place behind the San Francisco Giants, before catching fire after acquiring Fred McGriff in mid-July and dominating down the stretch.
That’s true, to an extent. The Braves were nine games back in the NL West when the McGriff trade with the San Diego Padres went down on July 19. They went 51-17 the rest of the way to finish 104-58, and won the division by one game.
McGriff was outstanding for the Braves in 1993, batting .310/.392/.612 with 19 home runs, 18 doubles and 55 RBIs in just 68 games. He hit seven home runs in his first 12 games with Atlanta, though the Braves still trailed by 7 ½ games at the end of July.
McGriff was merely very good in August and September that season, batting .286/.381/.524 with 12 homers and 43 RBIs in 56 games. Excellent numbers no doubt, but not the one-man wrecking crew some of us might remember being in 1993.
No, the true star of the stretch drive for the Braves in 1993 was the man who typically batted just before McGriff — left fielder Ron Gant. The wiry slugger showed such a penchant for big hits late in the season that he wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated 26 years ago this month as the subject of a story entitled “Mister Clutch.”
• On Sept. 9, Gant homered off Padres closer Trevor Hoffman in the top of the 10th inning for the only run in a 1-0 Braves victory. Three Braves pitchers — Kent Mercker, Mark Wohlers and Greg McMichael — combined on a one-hitter in that game, which trimmed San Francisco’s NL West lead to one game after the Giants lost 9-4 to St. Louis.
• On Sept. 11, Gant drove in six runs — including a three-run homer — in a 13-1 win over the Padres. The Cardinals beat the Giants again 3-1, and the Braves moved into first place for the first time since April.
• On Sept. 15, Gant hit a three-run walk-off homer against Cincinnati’s Rob Dibble in a 7-6 victory that put the Braves up 3 ½ games. The homer ricocheted off the top of the left-field wall at Fulton County Stadium, and has become one of the iconic moments of that era of Atlanta baseball.
• On Sept. 17, Gant provided a walk-off RBI double in a 2-1 victory over the Mets in 10 innings. That win extended Atlanta’s lead in the NL West to four games.
”He’s got half the club on his shoulders and is carrying them,” Braves manager Bobby Cox told Sports Illustrated. “Fact is, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone do that. That’s Mister Clutch.”
Gant had other big moments for the Braves that season, including a two-run homer in the top of the 10th inning of a 5-4 win over the Chicago Cubs on April 7; a 4-for-4 day with a homer and two doubles in a 7-4 win over the Giants on May 28; an eighth-inning homer to provide the winning margin in a 4-3 victory over the Montreal Expos on June 19; and a lead-off double in the ninth inning (he later scored on a sacrifice fly) in a 3-2 victory over the Colorado Rockies on June 30.
Gant also hit a home run as part of a three-run eighth inning in a 9-7 victory over Philadelphia on Sept. 25, and a two-run triple in the fourth inning of a 5-3 victory over the Rockies on Oct. 3, the final day of the regular season. If Gant had failed to come through in any of those situations, the Braves might have lost that game — and they won the division by a single game, remember.
”I’m not going to settle just for good. I want to be the best,” Gant said in that SI story. “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 ended the year with a .274/.345/.510 batting line, with 36 home runs, 117 RBIs, 26 steals and a 127 OPS+. He was worth a team-best 6.5 bWAR in 1993, including 1.4 WAR on defense.
He did not have a good postseason, batting .185/.241/.296 with just three RBIs in the Braves’ six-game loss to the Phillies in the NLCS. Gant grounded out back to the mound to end the bottom of the seventh inning of Game 6, which wound up being the last time anyone would see him at the plate in an Atlanta uniform.
Gant and the club agreed in the following January on a one-year, $5.5 million contract for 1994, his final season before he would be eligible for free agency. A week later, Gant’s Braves career ended abruptly.
While riding a dirt bike in rural Cherokee County north of Atlanta, Gant suffered a severely broken right leg that prematurely ended his 1994 season. Braves team orthopedist Dr. Joe Chandler performed a nearly three-hour surgery to place a steel rod in Gant’s tibia.
Braves executives decided that Gant violated his contract by “putting himself at risk,” and released him in mid-March. They owed him only 30 days’ termination pay, which amounted to around $906,000.
“Since he is unavailable to perform as a result of this accident, and, according to our doctors, will be rehabilitating for an extended period of time, we have decided to take this action,” Braves general manager John Schuerholz told the Associated Press on March 15. “This is an unfortunate and sad day for us, but nonetheless, this is our decision.”
Gant took the news of his release pretty hard. After all, he’d been drafted by Atlanta as an 18-year-old in 1983 out of Victoria (Texas) High School, was the Braves’ Minor League Player of the Year in 1986, and had made his debut with the big club the following year.
He was a mainstay of some terrible Atlanta clubs in 1988 and 1990 (he spent much of the 1989 season in the minor leagues learning to play the outfield after coming up as a second baseman), and began to come into his own just as the Braves turned the corner as a franchise in 1991. Batting fifth and playing center field every day, Gant hit 32 homers and drove in 105 — posting a 127 OPS+ — for the NL pennant winners.
Gant struggled in 1992 — batting .259/.321/.459 with just 17 homers. That led to a benching in after Game 1 of the World Series in favor of Deion Sanders (who, in fairness, had an excellent series despite Atlanta losing in six games to Toronto), as well as some offseason trade rumors that never came to fruition.
It’s a good thing Gant stayed in Atlanta, because the Braves probably wouldn’t have won the 1993 division title without him. And yet a few months later, he quickly became a former Brave.
“I’m bitter about it,” Gant said regarding his release in a 1994 interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “I know it was a financial decision. The thing I don’t like is I devoted myself so much to that team, that’s what I got in return. … I do miss Atlanta. I will always be a Brave in my heart.”
Without Gant, the Braves at first planned to use super prospect Chipper Jones in left field that season, but Jones blew out his knee during spring training and was lost for the year (when he returned in 1995, he was back in the infield at third base). Converted first baseman Ryan Klesko started much of that season in left field, posting a .907 OPS with 17 homers for a Braves team that was 67-46 and in second place in the NL East when the MLB strike began in August and eventually wiped out the remainder of the season.
In late June of 1994, Gant signed with the Cincinnati Reds, and even made rumblings of trying to play in August or September of that year (the strike put to rest any hopes of that). But he returned fully healthy in 1995, batting .276/.386/.554 with 29 homers and 88 RBIs in 119 games for a Reds team that reached the playoffs (losing to the Braves in the NLCS).
Gant went on to play eight more seasons in the majors, three in St. Louis — he hit two homers in the Cardinals’ 7-game loss to the Braves in the 1996 NLCS — and two in Philadelphia before a journeyman end of his career that took him to Anaheim, Colorado, Oakland and San Diego before finishing up back with the Athletics in 2003. His leg injury robbed him of some of his speed and defensive ability, but he finished his career with a .256/.336/.468 batting line, 321 homers, 1,008 RBIs and 243 steals in 1,832 games across 16 years.
Gant and the Braves appear to have patched up whatever differences existed over their acrimonious end. He served as a pre- and post-game commentator on Fox Sports’ Braves broadcasts for several seasons, before taking over in 2012 as co-host of the Good Day Atlanta morning show on the city’s Fox 5 station.
But 26 years ago this month, Gant was “Mister Clutch” and a major cog in one of the greatest in-season comebacks by any team in MLB history.
Sources: Baseball-Reference.com; Newspapers.com; SI Vault