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Dierdorf sad to see St. Louis jilted again

Dan Dierdorf wanted to make it clear from the start that the ground didn’t suddenly open and swallow the town, in which he has lived for 45 years, after last Tuesday’s announcement that the Rams were leaving St. Louis to return to Los Angeles.

“As I have understood things so far, I don’t believe anyone in St. Louis has committed suicide,” he said by phone the other day. “The sun did come up this morning.”

Dierdorf has been a proud St. Louis resident since his days as a Hall-of-Fame-bound offensive lineman for the Cardinals, the first NFL franchise to bolt the city when it moved to Arizona in 1988. He and former Cardinals quarterback Jim Hart owned a popular steakhouse there, Dierdorf & Hart’s, for 30 years. Dierdorf also owns a piece of a St. Louis radio station.

Make no mistake. Dierdorf is saddened by the fact his community no longer has a pro football franchise. He doesn’t enjoy facing the harsh reality that it probably won’t see another in his lifetime.

But he wants to dispel the notion that the Rams’ departure was some sort of crushing blow to the citizens of St. Louis. He especially wants nothing to do with the presumption that the city should feel any sort of shame over losing two NFL clubs.

“It’s unfortunate for St. Louis, because people who don’t know what’s going on will just say, ‘Well, this isn’t a really good football town,’” Dierdorf said with the booming voice that once was heard when he was an NFL analyst on network television. “I think that’s crap. I think that’s complete crap. There’s nothing we could have done to keep the Rams. I don’t care what anyone at the NFL says. St. Louis couldn’t have done a thing to keep the Rams here.”

And that’s as good a summary as any of the relationship between the team and the town.

This marriage, which began with the Rams’ move from L.A. to St. Louis in 1995, might have lasted 21 years. But there was doom written all over it from the very start.

At the time, St. Louis was like the proverbial desperate lover that had been jilted. The Edward Jones Dome was built in anticipation of the city landing one of two expansion franchises that the NFL would be adding in ’95. Instead, they went to Carolina and Jacksonville.

So when the Rams came calling, St. Louis bent over backwards to entice them to make the move. Just how far did its political leaders bend? They agreed to an incredibly punitive, for the landlords, 30-year lease that gave the Rams outs at the 10- and 20-year marks based on a clause that required St. Louis to provide them one of the NFL’s top-tier facilities.

It was that virtually impossible-to-meet clause – which wasn’t satisfied in 2015, despite renovations in 2009 and 2010 – that led to the Rams’ ability to escape a building for which as of a year ago taxpayers still owed $129 million in bonds floated to get it built.

“Keep in mind, our stadium here opened in 1995,” Dierdorf said. “I mean, when did a football stadium become like a disposable cigarette lighter? You just discard it after 20 years? That’s insane.”

The climate was very different in the late 1980s, when Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill no longer wanted to share a baseball stadium with St. Louis’ baseball Cardinals and insisted on having a football stadium for his football team. The political leaders at the time refused, calling his bluff to take his team elsewhere.

“The people here, they almost mocked him,” Dierdorf recalled. “They did everything but laugh in his face. And it was with great reluctance that the Bidwills went to Arizona. They didn’t want to go, but they did.”

Determined not to make the same mistake twice, the politicians agreed to what, from St. Louis’ perspective, was a horrendous lease. And that fit perfectly into the grand scheme of the Rams’ owner, Stan Kroenke, despite the fact that he’s from Missouri and had acquired a minority share of the team to actually help pay for its move to St. Louis.

Before he became involved in the business of professional sports, Kroenke, like most billionaire owners of NFL franchises, made his mark in another business. His was, and still is, a hugely successful real-estate developer.

Kroenke’s goal was to build something that would serve as his lasting legacy. He had the land to do it in Inglewood, Calif., which is where the Rams’ state-of-the-art stadium is scheduled to open in 2019. Once he bought the rest of the Rams in 2010, he had the team that would play there. And he had the support of the NFL, which was long salivating at the opportunity to get a team back in the country’s second-largest TV market.

Even Terry and Kim Pegula, recognized as champions of small-market sports towns everywhere for buying the Bills and Sabres for the primary purpose of keeping them in Buffalo, voted in favor of the Rams’ move because they also recognized the importance of the league’s presence in L.A. That is, as long as it was someone else’s team providing it.

“The reality is, there were a lot of people in this town who thought, ‘Boy, this is nice, but we’re really watching the Los Angeles Rams play football in St. Louis,’” Dierdorf said. “They always kept an office in Los Angeles. They never lost that California connection. And I think some people, for a long time, thought that what happened the other day was inevitable.”

Perhaps that wasn’t so obvious from 1999 to 2001, when the Rams played in a couple of Super Bowls (winning the first) largely on the strength of Kurt Warner and the exciting “Greatest Show on Turf” offense. They were the talk of the NFL, with Warner providing one of the all-time great zero-to-hero stories in sports. They were fun to watch.

However, for most of their 21 seasons in St. Louis, they were a colossal disappointment, with a record of 142-192. In the last six seasons under Kroenke’s watch, the Rams have gone 36-59 and they haven’t made the playoffs since 2004.

Bills guard Richie Incognito began his NFL career with the Rams in 2005, when they made him a third-round draft pick from Nebraska, and played for them through 2009. In a phone conversation after Tuesday’s announcement, he acknowledged that if he were still on the Rams, he would have been excited about the prospect of leaving St. Louis for the sunshine and glitz of Southern California.

“We weren’t a very good football team when I was there and we didn’t have a ton of support,” Incognito said. “I made some bonehead comments when I was young that the Rams fans don’t know how to cheer, when to cheer. Looking back on it, they had nothing to cheer about.

“And, to me, it always felt like a baseball town. The Cardinals were a great organization, they were winning World Series, and they had a ton of support. The Dome wasn’t a very fun place to play. We didn’t have music down on the field for a long time. To me, it just didn’t feel like a football town.”

Baseball also ruled when the football Cardinals were around, yet St. Louis embraced Dierdorf and his teammates as its own. Consequently, many of those former players never left the city after retirement.

The Rams didn’t make the former Cardinal football players feel all that welcome, however. They didn’t consider them a part of their history, and maybe they were right not to. After all, that franchise belonged to Arizona.

Ironically, it took the Cardinals and Rams becoming rivals in the NFC West to allow for former Cardinal players to have something resembling an annual reunion. The Bidwills would always rent a large suite at the Edward Jones Dome and invite Dierdorf and his fellow ex-Cardinals living in St. Louis to attend their game against the Rams as their guests.

“Now even that’s gone,” Dierdorf said.

He paused, reflecting on the lasting impact of what happened last Tuesday. His booming voice wasn’t booming so much anymore. You could detect a tinge of pain as he spoke.

“I’m sorry,” Dierdorf said. “I don’t think St. Louis has any culpability here. And it’s grossly unfair for someone on the outside looking in to just say, ‘Well, this is just a bad football town, because you’ve lost two NFL franchises.’

“I just completely disagree with that.”