December 23, 1995: Cardinals sign Ron Gant and Andy Benes

When the ownership group led by Bill DeWitt Jr., Andrew Baur, and Frederick O. Hanser announced just before Christmas 1995 that they had purchased the St. Louis Cardinals for $150 million, they were under no illusions – the Redbirds weren’t very good.

The team had just completed a 62-81 strike-shortened season in which Joe Torre was fired after 47 games and Mike Jorgensen managed the club the remainder of the season.

“We want to win now,” new Cardinals chairman Frederick O. Hanswer said. “The fans deserve to see some more World Series and some championships.”[1]

Of course, the new owners recognized that a lot of work remained before the Cardinals would be ready to compete for such prizes.

“I’d have to say that last year’s Cardinals team was the worst I’d ever seen,” Baur said.[2]

“I second that,” agreed Hanser. “We went to fewer games than we had in a long time.”[3]

The new owners didn’t wait long to attempt to rectify the situation. On December 23, 1995, the same day that many Cardinals fans were reading about the new ownership group in the local paper, the Cardinals spent $33 million to sign outfielder Ron Gant and starting pitcher Andy Benes.

Gant, who signed a five-year deal worth an estimated $25 million,[4] was coming off an all-star season with the Reds in which he hit 29 homers, drove in 88 runs, and stole 23 bases with a .276 batting average, .386 on-base percentage, and .554 slugging percentage.

Gant had played his first seven seasons with the Braves, totaling 147 homers, 480 RBIs, and 157 stolen bases. After he broke his left leg in a dirt bike accident that forced him to miss the 1994 season, the Braves released Gant and he played his 1995 campaign with the Reds.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Gant said of his contract with the Cardinals. “I’ve put up a lot of good numbers in the major leagues. I’ve always heard good things about playing St. Louis and the new ownership is ready to do something. They’re ready to win.”

Reds general manager Jim Bowden had talked to Gant’s agents after Gant declined arbitration, but said that with the team’s salary commitments and their unwillingness to increase payroll, bringing the National League Comeback Player of the Year back to Cincinnati would be impossible.

“Obviously it’s a shame, but there’s no economic way we could have kept Ron Gant,” Bowden said. “Even if we were to move a couple of starting pitchers, it wouldn’t have freed up enough money to sign Ron. It would have taken a miracle.”[5]

Reds manager Ray Knight said, “That’s 25-plus home runs per year that will be hard to make up.”[6]

Before signing Gant, the Cardinals pursued Astros second baseman Craig Biggio, who returned to the Astros on a four-year, $22.6 million contract. Gant said his talks with the Cardinals only became serious after Biggio was taken off the board.[7]

The Padres and White Sox had also been in the hunt for Gant’s services. The Padres initially offered Gant a three-year, $15 million contract, then upped the proposal to four years and approximately $20 million.[8] Instead, after talking to the Cardinals’ new manager, Tony La Russa, and former Cardinal Terry Pendleton, Gant opted for St. Louis’s offer.[9]

“St. Louis and Walt Jocketty were more aggressive than other ballclubs were toward me,” Gant said.[10]

Padres general manager Kevin Towers said that five years was a longer contract than he was comfortable with.

“A lot of things could happen to a guy in that time,” he said. “To me, locking up a guy that long is too long.”[11]

Just as the Cardinals were looking to slot Gant into the cleanup spot in the order, they looked to Benes to serve as the new ace of the staff. Benes, whose brother Alan had pitched his first three major-league games for the Cardinals in 1995, signed a two-year contract worth $8.1 million with a $3.4 million club option for the 1998 season.[12]

“St. Louis is the place I wanted to play,” Benes said. “I have a lot of admiration for the Cardinals. I grew up watching the Cardinals play and having my brother there makes it really special. I couldn’t be more happy.”[13]

Benes grew up in Lake Forest, Illinois, and Evansville, Indiana, and pitched for the University of Evansville before the Padres made him the No. 1 choice in the 1988 draft.

“I was excited when the Cardinals began to show interest, but when it was getting closer and closer, I began to think something was going to happen to not get this done,” Benes said. “My brothers are excited and my parents are very proud. To play for a team that has someone with the respect of a Dave Duncan and Tony La Russa … any pitcher would be excited. I think by the Cardinals getting La Russa to be manager shows a commitment to getting things turned around. This team will be very good and have the opportunity to go to the playoffs every year.”[14]

In seven seasons with the Padres, Benes went 69-75 with a 3.57 ERA and an all-star appearance in 1993. At the previous trade deadline, the Padres dealt Benes to Seattle, where he went 7-2 with a 5.86 ERA to help the Mariners reach the ALCS.

Benes admitted that he may have worn out his welcome in San Diego, where he wasn’t afraid to criticize the team.

“I took it personally when they traded guys,” Benes said. “I kind of tried to carry too much of the burden, and then I was the player rep.

“This has renewed my enthusiasm and love for the game that I had kind of lost. I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say that St. Louis was my first choice. When the Cardinals drafted Alan, I was a bit envious.”[15]

 The new signings were just the latest moves for a Cardinals team that had already traded for shortstop Royce Clayton and pitcher Rick Honeycutt and signed third baseman Gary Gaetti.

“I think the St. Louis fans should be excited about the type of team we’re going to put out there,” Gant said. “I think we’ve got just as good a chance to win as any team I’ve played for.”[16]

Gant pointed to the presence of both Benes brothers, Clayton, Ozzie Smith, and Ray Lankford as key factors in his decision to come to St. Louis.

“I see the possibility of this team making a total 180 right away and that played probably the biggest role in my decision,” he said.[17]

Gant’s prediction proved accurate. Behind 18 wins from Andy Benes and 30 home runs from Gant, the Cardinals won the National League Central Division in 1996 with an 88-74 record.

Benes finished the regular season 18-10 with a 3.83 ERA over 230 1/3 innings. Gant hit .246/.359/.504 and drove in 82 runs. Facing the Padres in Game 2 of the NLDS, Benes struck out nine batters in seven innings. He received a no-decision as the Cardinals won, 5-4. In the NLCS against the Braves, he appeared in three games, including two starts. He posted a 5.28 ERA across 15 1/3 innings and did not receive a decision.

Gant played an equally important role in the postseason, batting .400 in the NLDS against the Padres with one home run and four RBIs. Against the Braves, he hit .240 and hit two home runs in Game 3, lifting the Cardinals to a 3-2 win.

Benes had another strong season in 1997, lowering his ERA to 3.10 and finishing the year with a 10-7 record. Gant, however, took a step back that season, hitting .229/.310/.388 with 17 homers and 62 RBIs. The Cardinals fell to fourth place in the division.

That offseason, Benes signed with the Mariners, though he would return to St. Louis in 2000 and pitched the final three years of his career with the Cardinals.

Gant got his power stroke back in 1998, batting .240/.331/.493 with 26 homers and 67 RBIs. After the season, the Cardinals traded him, alongside Jeff Brantley and Cliff Politte, to the Phillies for Garrett Stephenson and Ricky Bottalico.


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[1] Rick Hummel, “New Cards Owners Ready to Play,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 24, 1995: Page A1.

[2] Rick Hummel, “New Cards Owners Ready to Play,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 24, 1995: Page A1.

[3] Rick Hummel, “New Cards Owners Ready to Play,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 24, 1995: Page A1.

[4] Rick Hummel, “Cardinals Sign Gant And Benes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 24, 1995: Page F1.

[5] Tom Groeschen, “Gant gets $25M,” Cincinnati Enquirer, December 24, 1995: Page C1.

[6] Tom Groeschen, “Gant gets $25M,” Cincinnati Enquirer, December 24, 1995: Page C1.

[7] Rick Hummel, “Cardinals Sign Gant And Benes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 24, 1995: Page F7.

[8] John Schlegel, “Frustrated Padres lose Gant to the Cardinals,” North County (Calif.) Times, December 24, 1995: Page C7.

[9] Rick Hummel, “Cardinals Sign Gant And Benes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 24, 1995: Page F7.

[10] Rick Hummel, “Cardinals Sign Gant And Benes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 24, 1995: Page F7.

[11] John Schlegel, “Frustrated Padres lose Gant to the Cardinals,” North County (Calif.) Times, December 24, 1995: Page C7.

[12] Rick Hummel, “Cardinals Sign Gant And Benes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 24, 1995: Page F1.

[13] Rick Hummel, “Cardinals Sign Gant And Benes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 24, 1995: Page F7.

[14] Rick Hummel, “Cardinals Sign Gant And Benes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 24, 1995: Page F7.

[15] Rick Hummel, “Cardinals Sign Gant And Benes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 24, 1995: Page F7.

[16] Rick Hummel, “Cardinals Sign Gant And Benes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 24, 1995: Page F1.

[17] Rick Hummel, “Cardinals Sign Gant And Benes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 24, 1995: Page F7.

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