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MIKE PENNER

Ram Fans Are Not the Only Ones at Fault

May 15, 1994|MIKE PENNER

The five stages of L.A. Ram fandom, or so we have been told:

1950s: Royally entertained by Waterfield and Van Brocklin, Fears and Hirsch. Just happy to have the boys here.

1960s: In love with George Allen, Roman Gabriel and the Fearsome Foursome. Can't wait for Sunday afternoon at the Coliseum.

1970s: Tormented by Minnesota and Dallas. Cynicism setting in.

1980s: Re-invigorated by John Robinson and Eric Dickerson. At least until Dickerson is traded for a pocketful of sawdust.

1990s: Fickle.

Is anybody buying it?

Not the 1994 Rams season-ticket package; we already know how that's going.

Is anybody buying the claptrap, recently foisted by Georgia Frontiere and John Shaw upon the newspaper readers of Southern California, that the reason the Rams are contemplating a move out of town is because Ram fans are fickle, not true blue and too prone to bolt to the beach in the face of a measly little loss or two?

That's right, it's your fault.

Not Frontiere, who inherited a smart, smooth-running football operation from her late husband Carroll Rosenbloom, promptly fired the general manager and never really replaced him, allowing the franchise to waft rudderless and directionless for more than a decade.

Not Shaw, who placed the team under a strict salary cap 10 years before there was one, turning veteran Ram players bitter before their time and scaring off many other potential ones.

Not Robinson, who lost interest some time after the 1989 season and let the talent pool go to pot.

Not John Math, the former draft director who squandered first- and second-round selections on Mike Schad, Donald Evans, Gaston Green, Aaron Cox, Bill Hawkins, Frank Stams and Brian Smith.

Not Jim Everett.

Not Cleveland Gary.

Not Flipper Anderson.

Not Darryl Henley.

Not Shane Conlan.

You.

You are to blame for this mess that has engulfed the Ram franchise like quicksand.

You are ones personally responsible for dragging the organization so far down that the only way Frontiere and Shaw feel they can extricate themselves is by extricating themselves from Orange County.

Thanks a lot.

As the Rams were about to set the eastward-ho machinery motion by buying their way out of their Anaheim Stadium lease, I asked Shaw about the team's relationship with its fans and if he felt the Rams had any moral obligation to them, to keeping a 50-year-old Southern California institution in place.

I know--what a naive, outmoded, simplistic concept. Where have I been living--on a Tibetan mountaintop since 1962?

I asked anyway.

Shaw cleared his throat and said, "I think that because of that, because we have been here for 50 years, it makes our decision that much more difficult.

"But obligation is a two-way street. It's not like we're saying to the fans, 'We're not going to pay for players, we're going to take all the money we can take, screw you, we're going to lose every year.' . . . We'd like to provide the fans with a winner, we really would.

"But obligation lies on both sides. We were third from the bottom in home attendance last year. Our season-ticket base has dropped from 50,000 to 33,000 in the three years before this one. Even when we were winning, in '88, '89, we came to the realization that if we were not in the playoffs every year, we'd have a hard time keeping the fans' interest."

What is Frontiere supposed to do, Shaw wanted to know--keep the team in Anaheim, thereby remaining morally correct, even if the fans won't come and she starts losing money every year?

Well, obligation might be a two-way street, but it begins with the team. That's how it works. The team is the manufacturer--it assembles the product and puts it on the field. Nothing can happen before that.

The fan is the consumer. If the product is good, the consumer will buy it. But if the product sparks and smokes and sets the kitchen cupboard on fire, only a fool returns to the store to buy a dozen more.

If we're handing out medals for commitment to the cause, Ram fans beat the people running the Rams every time. They were the ones who demanded a winner, not Frontiere. Even during the good old days, 1985-1989, Ram management never played to win it all--just getting by was fine. The Rams always finished second to the 49ers because the 49ers always outspent them. San Francisco paid for the top coaches, the top scouts, the top players. The Rams settled for second best. Wild cards were enough. Go 10-6, average 57,000, buy Georgia another year of international sight-seeing.

Long before the wild cards stopped and the 10-6s became 6-10s, the fans saw through the ruse. The 6-10s merely confirmed their suspicions.

If management wasn't dedicated to winning, and if the fans had no say in personnel decisions, the fans felt their only course of action was to stay home on Sundays. Contrary to what Frontiere and Shaw want the rest of the country to believe, those empty seats at Anaheim Stadium last fall weren't a sign of fan indifference. They were a sign of fan activism. They were protest votes, each and every one of them.

If Frontiere ran a movie studio instead of a football team, and that studio kept churning out "Weekend At Bernie's" and "Last Action Hero," the public response would be the same. People would stay away until they were given something better.

But if Frontiere ran a movie studio the way she runs her football team, she wouldn't invest in better directors and script writers. She'd just stop showing her films in Orange County. If it doesn't play in Anaheim, maybe it will play in Peoria.

Some place where the audience is less discerning, less demanding, less quality-conscious.

Less fickle.

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