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St. Louis Is Game--but Are the Rams? : Sports: Officials in the much-maligned football town are pulling together to entice team away from O.C.

November 01, 1994|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. LOUIS — There's a sports renaissance in St. Louis with the recent opening of the Kiel Center, a palatial, 19,260-seat arena for the National Hockey League's Blues, and construction of a luxurious, 70,000-seat domed football stadium for . . . for . . .

Whom?

It's amazing, really. Laughable to some. Seven years ago, when St. Louis had a National Football League team and its owner wanted a new stadium, bickering among politicians and apathy among fans resulted in no new facility and the team moving to Phoenix.

Seven years later, the city has no NFL team and is building a stadium many believe will be one of the nation's finest--just another bizarre twist in the history of America's most maligned football town.

St. Louis nearly blew its chance to lure the Los Angeles Rams this year because, until September, city and county officials couldn't wrest control of the new stadium lease from a stubborn beer distributor who had the desire, but not the money, to buy an NFL team.

The city was considered a lock for an NFL expansion team in 1993, but conflicting ownership groups and financial problems doomed that bid. Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla., were awarded teams.

Then there were the St. Louis Cardinals. The Big Red, they were called. Or was it The Big Dread? They had only 10 winning seasons in 28 years (1960-87), never played host to a playoff game and had one of the most despised owners in professional sports.

Not much for the city's NFL archives.

But strange things have been happening lately under The Arch. Politicians and business leaders are cooperating on the football issue. The beer distributor put his ego aside for the good of the city. Elected officials and community leaders have helped revive the spirit of St. Louis.

In short, the city has emerged from its football Dark Ages to become an extremely attractive alternative for the Rams, who are expected to decide soon whether they'll remain in Anaheim or move to St. Louis or Baltimore.

"Will we get the Rams? Who knows?" said Al Kerth, spokesman for Civic Progress, a coalition of executives from the area's 26 largest companies that has been extremely active in negotiations with the Rams. "Could we have done it any better? I don't think so.

"Whether we're successful or not, I've gone from thinking we'd never get an NFL team to being really confident we'll get a team."

But to grasp how far St. Louis has come in its quest for an NFL team, one must fathom the depths from which the city has risen.

The Futile Franchise

During the mid-1970s, when they enjoyed three consecutive winning seasons under Coach Don Coryell and made two of St. Louis' only three playoff appearances, they were known as the Cardiac Cardinals because of a penchant for winning close, tension-filled games.

But for most of their St. Louis tenure, the Cardinals barely had a pulse. They went through nine head coaches in 28 years. Their play usually ranged from average--they hovered at or near the .500 mark for eight years--to mediocre. Remarkably, they went 4-9-1 for three consecutive seasons (1971-73).

Fans also perceived that the front office, headed by owner Bill Bidwill, was unwilling--and unable--to improve the team.

The Cardinals were notorious for their draft-day gaffes, which included wasting first-round picks on the likes of Tim Gray, a defensive back who was traded to Kansas City after one season; Steve Pisarkiewicz, a quarterback who was cut after three seasons; Steve Little, a kicker who was cut after two seasons, and Clyde Duncan, a receiver who caught only four passes in two seasons.

When asked about St. Louis' picks, former Cardinal tight end Jackie Smith, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last summer, chuckled. "Elmer Fudd was picking them out," said Smith, 54, who now works in the marketing department of a St. Louis-area riverboat casino. "It always seemed like they picked some guy no one had ever heard of to prove they had some mysterious way of judging talent, but so many never panned out."

In a 1986 series examining the Cardinals' woes, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asked former Cardinal linebacker Tim Kearney whether Joe Sullivan, team general manager from 1972-82, knew anything about football. "To tell you the truth, I don't think he knew if it was blown up or stuffed," Kearney said.

Bidwill, who still owns the Arizona Cardinals, has been described as aloof and lacking in public relations skills. Though he made many charitable contributions in St. Louis, he is not remembered fondly.

"With any kind of marketing, this is a wonderful area," Smith said. "But Mr. Bidwill abused these people so bad, and they still showed up. I don't think he did it intentionally, but he almost insulted the fans on a regular basis by the way he did things. I don't remember any fan appreciation days, and there were never any days to honor the great players."

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