The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

St. Louis blues: This Super Bowl is no party in the city left behind

Washington Post illustration/istock

ST. LOUIS — Their hell is freezing over. It’s Super Bowl week, which has meant very little the past three years in this NFL-abandoned Midwestern city, except this time the great, excessive American event features their old Rams — all Los Angeles and glinty now — against the team that ruined their potential dynasty 17 years ago. And so, naturally, a polar vortex has descended upon the region and threatened to drop temperatures well below zero.

A kind man named Tom Matthews pulled me into the door of a sports bar during a wind gust Monday afternoon. When I told him the reason for my visit — to talk about how St. Louis feels about this cruel Super Bowl LIII scenario — he laughed.

“Well, that’s fine as long as you’re not Stan Kroenke,” said Matthews, 52, referring to the Missouri-born owner who relocated the Rams to L.A. “If you were him, I would’ve pushed you back into that wind tunnel.”

To get to the anger, to get to the misery, you have to find a way beneath the social grace. On the surface, St. Louis is fine, polite, preparing for baseball season with its beloved Cardinals and watching the Blues attempt to recover from their slow first half of the NHL season. The Rams? They’ve tried to put them in a box, under boxes, in their closet. They’ve tried to ignore the past three lost NFL seasons. They’ve tried to manage their rage and their heartbreak and focus on the blessings in their lives.

Most of the time, it works. But now the Los Angeles Rams are playing the New England Patriots in the most unavoidable game in sports. All of a sudden, it feels like 2016 again, when Kroenke trashed the city in a 29-page relocation application that claimed St. Louis “lags, and will continue to lag, far behind in the economic drivers that are necessary for sustained success of an NFL franchise.”

The Rams’ $5 billion stadium complex is bigger than Disneyland. It might be perfect for L.A.

Later, in shooting down a local proposal for a $1.1 billion stadium to pursue a $5 billion privately funded project in Inglewood, Calif., the application declared, “Any NFL Club that signs on to this proposal in St. Louis will be well on the road to financial ruin, and the League will be harmed.”

That document is essentially one of the most stunning divorce petitions in American sports history. It serves as a reminder that, for as much as teams use civic pride to manipulate fan bases, the reality is that you are rooting for laundry. The sad tale of the Cleveland/Los Angeles/St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams represents the worst of this wickedly transient business and creates layers upon layers of conflict with every relocation. Cities don’t own teams, Green Bay excluded. Greedy owners ask cities to pay dowries to pretend they own teams, and those financial terms are always open for renegotiation. Sometimes, even when a city is willing to invest in retention, the owners would rather go elsewhere.

It happened in St. Louis, and the unforgivable part is that one of its own betrayed the city. Enos Stanley Kroenke is named after two St. Louis sports icons, Enos Slaughter and Stan Musial. But the billionaire still left, in pursuit of more billions, and he tore down the city to justify the departure.

It’s the second time that St. Louis has lost an NFL team. The Arizona Cardinals were here from 1960 to 1987 before the Bidwill family skipped town. The Rams lasted from 1995 to 2015 and won a Super Bowl 19 years ago with Kurt Warner leading the prolific “Greatest Show On Turf.”

“My contention is this: There’s no such thing ever as a bad NFL city,” said Frank Cusumano, the sports director at KSDK-TV 5 in St. Louis and a member of the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. “There are only bad owners. We won the lottery in NFL owner hell, back to back, with Bidwill and Kroenke. The Rams didn’t leave because the fans stopped caring. They left after an almost historic decade of futility and because of an owner that refused to communicate with the city. Under the conditions that the franchise created, there’s no way they could survive.”

Lesser of two evils

On air, Cusumano now covers the Rams in a clever and cathartic way. During their first season in Los Angeles, he used to run their highlights only if they lost. It was easy in 2016: They went 4-12. But over the past two regular seasons, with 33-year-old Coach Sean McVay captivating the NFL, the Rams have gone 24-8. Cusumano has had to be more creative.

Sometimes, he has shown the Rams’ score and then run old highlights of the “Greatest Show On Turf.” He makes sure to include some kind of dig at the Rams in every script he writes. This week, the station has put together graphics listing how much money Kroenke has lost in lawsuits over the team’s departure, including the $24 million settlement reached in December with fans who had purchased personal seat licenses at the Rams’ old stadium.

Cusumano grew up in St. Louis, and he has worked at the local NBC affiliate for 25 years. Ask him about the pain, and he remembers the disappointed feeling he had after the Rams beat the New Orleans Saints during the NFC championship game with the help of a controversial no-call. Reality hit that, for the next two weeks, the Rams could not be ignored, and there might not be enough material to mock them, either. And then the Patriots — the Spygate-accused team that beat the Rams, 20-17, in Super Bowl XXXVI and denied St. Louis a second NFL title in three seasons — had to win, too.

The Redskins knew Sean McVay was good. What they didn’t know was just how good.

“I don’t know what was more painful: watching Adam Vinatieri kick that field goal 17 years ago or watching the Saints lose on that call in the NFC championship game,” Cusumano said. “We’re not particularly big Tom Brady and Bill Belichick fans in this town, but we will be behind them this week.”

The Rams’ old stadium, once known as the Edward Jones Dome, is now called the Dome at America’s Center. Visit on a Sunday afternoon, and it’s just another quiet, vacant day at the end of football season. Nearby parking lots look like construction pits. A Harley-Davidson convoy races on a parallel street. A couple makes out near an America’s Center entrance. A video marquee advertises an upcoming Monster Jam and Garth Brooks concert.

Some fans express apathy about this Super Bowl. Cusumano can’t. He cares about who wins. He cares deeply because, as much as an empty dome on Sunday illustrates the sadness, the possibility of Kroenke getting to celebrate should enrage St. Louis.

“Do you really want, on Feb. 3, for that man to be lifting the Super Bowl trophy?” Cusumano asked. “Do you really want that?”

'It certainly feels deliberate'

About 12 miles west of downtown, in the Ladue suburb, sits a cozy little jewel called Sportsman’s Park Restaurant and Bar. It’s a place where old men and women put their canes on the backs of their seats and sit at the bar for hours. It’s a place where every patron enters and recognizes someone worthy of a hug. It’s a place where the bartender charges a regular $3 for an afternoon of drinking, and when he asks why so low, she tells him, “Thanks for your service.”

Some would call it a dive bar, but it’s warm and simple and family-friendly. Photos and sports memorabilia cover the walls. Mostly, it’s Cardinals stuff, but there are plenty of Blues items, too. And in one corner, there is a framed photo of the Rams celebrating their Super Bowl win, with a signed Warner jersey draped over part of the picture.

“Look at who’s most prominent in that photo,” one patron says. “Remember her, right?”

It’s Georgia Frontiere, who owned the Rams until her death in 2008. Born in St. Louis, she had pulled a reverse Kroenke, moving the team from Los Angeles to the Gateway City in 1995 and overseeing the franchise during its best years in the Midwest.

“St. Louis is my home,” Frontiere once said, “and I brought my team here to start a new dynasty.”

Atlanta was a nightlife ‘mecca.’ Then the Super Bowl murders involving Ray Lewis happened.

In 2010, Kroenke went from minority to majority owner of the franchise. It was in the middle of a run of 10 straight losing seasons for the Rams, the first nine of which came in St. Louis. The Rams didn’t leave because St. Louis didn’t want them. They were torn apart because of bad management and a little bad luck (frequent injuries to former No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford). And when L.A. became a viable option, Kroenke chose business over loyalty to his home state.

“It certainly seems like the plot of ‘Major League’ played out in real life,” said Jeff Jones, 31, a freelance writer and radio producer. “Locally, there was a sense of inevitability the last few years with how it all went down. And it came at such a hard time for the city. Our psyche, our self-image, was not high coming off the unrest in Ferguson in 2014.

“I hope people understand that the Rams were supported here. The easy thing is to say, ‘Well, the Rams didn’t sell tickets, and L.A. is a big market, and that’s why they left.’ We had nine straight losing seasons, and the franchise stopped being interested in connecting with the fan base. How many franchises would sell tickets under those circumstances? It certainly feels deliberate. The Rams would deny that. But there’s still a strong feeling in St. Louis that this game was rigged a long time before the votes were counted.”

Jones considered planning an anti-Super Bowl party for this game, but the expense was too much. So he’ll just try to ignore it. He figures it’s a good time to watch the Academy Award nominees for best picture. Certainly, they will be more enjoyable than the NFL horror film playing in Atlanta.