Cardinals fans got a couple of early Christmas presents on this date 15 years ago from the franchise's new ownership group.
Worn down by several years of tightfistedness from Anheuser-Busch as the Brewery lost interest in the club following the death of August Busch Jr., the Cardinals hadn't seen a free agent more exciting than Bryn Smith in quite some time. So forgive us if we were pretty darn excited at the prospect of adding Ron Gant and Andy Benes on the same day.
Gant offered a rare blend of speed and power. In 1994, Gant hit 36 homers and stole 26 bases for the Reds. In 1995 he had 29 homers and 23 stolen bases. The Reds cut Gant loose, however, after a dirt biking accident in which he damaged a knee. So the Redbirds stepped up and snagged Gant off the free agent market, explaining that the malaise was over and that they understood that sometimes in business you had to spend money to make money.
He hit 30 homers in his first season with the Cardinals, although Gant's speed was largely gone and he only stole 13 bases in 17 tries. Of larger concern, Gant's batting average dropped from .263 before he signed with St. Louis to .246 in 1996, .240 in 1997 and .229 in 1998.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
Andy Benes, elder brother of Cardinals rotationmate Alan Benes, joined the team he rooted for as a kid and became the ace of the St. Louis pitching staff. Big Benes was 28-17 with a 3.51 ERA in 1996 and 1997 before an unfortunate play by his agent resulted in him being forced out of the door at Busch Stadium.
Benes' representative decided to hold out until the last minute for more money. By the time the hurler ordered him to strike a deal with St. Louis and the club and agent faxed the agreement to the MLB offices, the clock had already struck midnight on the time period for free agents to re-sign with their original team. The Cardinals now couldn't sign Benes until May. So, when the Diamondbacks came calling, the pitcher became their starter in Arizona's inaugural game.
The 6-foot-6 hurler returned to the Birds as a free agent from 2000-2002 but suffered from arm problems and retired at age 34.
Gant and Benes led the Cardinals to the doorstep of the World Series in 1996, losing to the Braves in seven National League Championship Series games. But their mark on the club was that they were the first two players to usher in a new competitive era for the Cardinals, helping to once again make St. Louis a preferred landing point for high quality major leaguers.