The Year We Stopped Missing the Rams

Time flies whether you're having fun or not. Tempus fuckit, that's called, and it's as true now as when slackers spoke Latin. Consider the Rams, who almost never have any fun. Can you believe it has already been three seasons since the NFL team abandoned California? For Missouri? Or, conversely, that it's been only three seasons since they split? Either way, has any 49-year tradition-that's how long the Rams played in Southern California, where a half-century is the historical equivalent of a nuclear half-life-ever expired less dramatically? More pathetically? Okay, besides Laguna Beach's reputation as an art colony.

The Rams are gone, and 1998 was the year we stopped missing them-and when it became hard to remember they were ever here. The place where the Rams used to play, Anaheim Stadium, has been remodeled and renamed. Re-nicknamed, even. A polling stroll through the University Village apartments in Fullerton doesn't turn up any students who realize Rams players used to live there during summer-training camp across the street at Cal State Fullerton. A drive past an abandoned elementary school in Anaheim offers no outward evidence that the little campus used to be the team headquarters, that it was then known as Rams Park. A tour of the Orange County Sports Hall of Fame includes a few pictures and plaques relating to the Rams, but good luck getting a tour-the troubled museum is pretty much closed to the public. A phone call to Leigh Steinberg, the feel-good sports attorney from Newport Beach who led a campaign called "Save the Rams," reveals that even he does not miss the Rams.

"Do I miss the Rams owned by Georgia Frontiere, penurious in their administration, troubled in their football philosophy, not very productive in their level of play?" responds Steinberg, re-framing the question exactly the way we really meant it. "Um . . . no! No, I do not."

It still sounds kind of funny to hear TV announcers refer to the St. Louis Rams, but you really don't hear it very often around here anymore. Network programmers who three seasons ago beamed a weekly stream of Rams games back to Southern California have learned through low ratings that the team's old fans don't want to watch. Partly, that's because the old fans still hold some animosity. Mostly, it's because the new Rams are as crappy as the old ones. Orange County fans have been vindicated for letting the Rams leave after the 1995 season with little more than a shrug-the little more, in many cases, being their extended middle fingers. The Rams, who used to complain about poor fan support and poorer financial resources when they were in Anaheim, were lavished with lots of love and even more money when they arrived in St. Louis. The local fans and/or taxpayers built them a $300 million stadium, the Trans World Dome. They coughed up $70 million in personal-seat licenses just for the right to purchase season tickets. They fork over $22 million per year in luxury-box and ticket receipts. Thousands of people turn out to cheer them as they jog through drills at training camp. But after starting their first season by winning their first four games, the Rams lost nine of their last 12 games to finish with a 7-9 record. They have gotten worse every season since. In fact, the Rams have the worst record of any team in the NFL during the 1990s. The St. Louis Rams doesn't sound so funny anymore-not if you live in Missouri.

"It's clear the honeymoon is over," says Jim Thomas, a reporter who covers the Rams for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Every game has been sold-out, but that's a little deceiving. The team has had to buy up thousands of unsold tickets to keep that streak alive, and the no-show count has been rising. During the past three games, an average of 15,000 seats have gone unoccupied. And the discontent is expressed everywhere-on the street, in letters and on radio talk shows. The fans are speaking volumes."

Indicative of what they are saying is the nickname they have given the huge stadium they'll be paying off for years: the Trans World Tomb.

How bad is it? Workers selling Rams-licensed merchandise outside the dome were doused with beer and soda after a recent loss to Atlanta.

Frankly, this is a little surprising. It runs contrary to a long story that appeared on the front page of The Orange County Register's Sports section on Oct. 26, when reporter Todd Harmonson visited St. Louis and described the Rams' situation there as "something special." He wrote of fans "willing to deal with the flaws in the Rams character, look past the ugly blemishes in their history and remain hopeful that things will improve. It's about more than money or performance on the field."

Thomas senses something else: "'Betrayed' may be too strong a word, but it's clear that the fans who have spent all this money and come out so faithfully just don't see the Rams showing any commitment to winning or even improving. They don't feel they are getting a good return on their investment."

Of course, this is where the Rams left off when they left Orange County, where Frontiere was dismissed as a dim-bulb status-seeker concerned only with her social calendar and president John Shaw was regarded as a razor-sharp numbers slicer focused on the financial ledger. In St. Louis, there have been calls for Frontiere to sell the team-perhaps to her minority partner, businessman Stan Kroenke-and for Shaw to be replaced with someone who knows something about football. And naturally, there are demands to fire the head coach-these days, Dick Vermeil, the fourth man to hold the job this decade. But as when the Rams were in Orange County, there is an underlying, demoralizing feeling that none of it would make any difference.

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