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Commentary: Chasing Rams in the Year of the Snake

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 14, 2013 - For me, New Year’s is yesterday’s news. The champagne glasses are back in the hutch, hangovers have been nursed and well-intentioned resolutions are duly forgotten. The Chinese New Year, however, has only just begun.

Based on the lunar — rather than the solar — cycle, it started Feb. 10 and is the Year of the Snake, which is not a particularly propitious sign.

The last Snake year, 2001, is best remembered for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The one before that, 1989, featured the Tiananmen Square massacre. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that brought America into World War II (1941) and the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression (1929) both occurred during years of the serpent.

Of course, good things happened during these cycles as well. In 1989, for instance, the Berlin Wall fell, which is generally regarded as a positive development. The fundamental characteristic of periods dominated by the twisting, skin-shedding reptile is unpredictable change — and as the foregoing would indicate; such change is not always favorable for those undergoing it.

The appeal of superstition lies in its putative ability to divine that which we cannot control. When a task is easily managed, the influence of the occult is correspondingly diminished.

Most of us, for instance, don’t wait until the omens are right before taking out the trash. We simply bag it up and throw it into the Dumpster. But when trying to penetrate the veiled mists of the future, we tend to look for guideposts, however dubious. Superstition can be thus understood as an effort to harness the blind fates that shape our destiny.

Quite a start

I might have dismissed the Chinese Zodiac as an ancient curiosity had not the new year gotten off to such a strange start. It had just begun when the pope quit. This is not a common occurrence. In fact, the last time a sitting pontiff abdicated his throne was in 1415 — about 77 years before Columbus stumbled across the New World while searching for a passage to India. At the time, much of Europe still thought the Earth was flat.

Hours after the pope’s thunderous announcement, lightning struck St. Peter’s Basilica  — an event dramatically captured on video. The next day, North Korea conducted a successful underground test of a thermonuclear device. As the prophesy for the coming year predicted contretemps in May between China and Japan — two regional adversaries on opposite sides of the Korean Peninsula — events seemed to be taking a turn for the ominous.

Rather than ignore Chinese astrology, I decided to suspend disbelief and use it to lend perspective to the precarious status of professional football in St. Louis. After all, if ever people were in need of superstition because they were powerless to control their fate, the paying patrons of the National Football League would seem to meet the description.

Cleveland to LA to St. Louis

The local NFL franchise began play in Cleveland in 1936. During its tenure in that city, the team recorded exactly one winning season. Anxious to cash in on the post-war boom in southern California, the Rams relocated to Los Angeles in 1946.

Cleveland fans would re-enter the NFL a few years later when the Browns, formerly of the moribund All American Conference, joined the older league. Under the tutelage of the legendary Paul Brown, the team prospered and soon became one of the pro football’s premier franchises.

Known for its fiercely loyal fan base, Cleveland would remain an NFL staple until 1996 when then-owner Art Modell moved the team over a stadium dispute and rechristened it the Baltimore Ravens.

The story of how Baltimore became an open city goes back to 1972 when Robert Irsay purchased the Los Angeles Rams for $19 million. He then traded the Rams to Carroll Rosenbloom for the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Colts. The deal had no immediate impact on either city as the respective teams stayed put and the owners moved. It was essentially a matter of two rich guys swapping toys.

The Colts’ fortunes declined under Irsay’s ownership, however, and by the end of the 1983 season, he found himself locked in his own stadium dispute with Maryland authorities. With the locals threatening to seize the team via eminent domain, Irsay left town in the middle of the night on March 28, 1984, and began operations as the Indianapolis Colts.

Hall of Fame legends like Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry and Alan Amache thus became so much road kill along the highway to greener financial coffers for the owner. Critical to Irsay’s decision was the issue of luxury boxes in the new stadium. Under league rules, the home team has to split the gate 60 percent – 40 percent with the visiting team, but the luxury box income is the owner’s to keep.

One person who toured the new stadium in Indianapolis and came away much impressed was Bill Bidwill, owner of the then-St. Louis football Cardinals. He subsequently demanded similar facilities here and ultimately left town after the 1987 season to search for better digs in Arizona. During the team’s 28-year tenure in St. Louis, the Cards managed 10 winning seasons and never hosted, or won, a playoff game.

While Irsay was busy alienating the fan base in Baltimore, Carroll Rosenbloom drowned under somewhat murky circumstances while swimming in the Pacific Ocean.  He left a 70 percent controlling interest in the Rams to his second wife, the late Georgia Frontiere.

Ms. Frontiere eventually became dissatisfied with her stadium situation in LA and agreed to move her team to St. Louis in 1995. As a way to sweeten the deal, she sold a minority interest in the franchise to a local billionaire, Stan Kroenke. This arrangement gave her a windfall of cash without loss of control.

Kroenke at quarterback

After Frontiere’s death, Kroenke exercised his right of first refusal and purchased the majority ownership of the team. He is currently involved in a stadium dispute because an arbitrator has ruled that the now 18-year-old Edward Jones Dome no longer qualifies as a “first tier” facility as specified in the original lease. To date, the Rams have posted a winning record in four of their 18 seasons in St. Louis, qualified for the playoffs five times (once with a .500 record) and appeared in two Super Bowls, winning one.

As of this writing, Cleveland supports its third entry into the NFL, the resurrected Browns. It’s an expansion franchise that inherited the old team’s name and uniforms but little of its talent. The Baltimore Ravens are the defending Super Bowl champs. The Cardinals have yet to win a Super Bowl, but did make it to the big game once. The Indianapolis Colts now play in their second new stadium since relocating to the Hoosier state 28 years ago. LA has been without a team for 18 years.

In St. Louis, officials have agreed to pay Goldman Sachs $20,000 a month to try to keep the Rams somewhere in the metro area. For his part, Kroenke figures to see the value of his investment skyrocket once he escapes his lease because that will expand the pool of potential buyers from rich people who want to own an NFL team in St. Louis to rich people who just want to own an NFL team.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit brought on behalf of hundreds of brain-damaged former players threatens to shut the entire enterprise down, or alter play so severely that the game would become unrecognizable. Try to imagine the Pro Bowl without the usual excitement …

The practical history of the NFL is a saga of dark intrigue featuring unpredictable twists and turns wherein innocents are often bitten. In short, it’s a fitting tale for the Year of the Snake.

M.W. Guzy is a regular contributor to the Beacon.