Arch de Triumph: St. Louis comes back to NFL with win

September 11, 1995|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Sun Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS -- This could have been Baltimore.

Beer. Cheerleaders. Marching and jazz bands in the parking lots. Tailgate parties stretching for miles under bridges. The aroma of grilled Cajun chicken and barbecued beef in the air. Faces painted in blue and gold. Dancers on top of pickup trucks. Kids and grandfathers with footballs. Fox and NBC. Balloons. Cannons. Fireworks.

And finally, the game.

After seven years, eight months, 27 days, 17 hours and 49 minutes, the NFL returned to the Gateway City yesterday, as the St. Louis Rams defeated the New Orleans Saints, 17-13, before a record crowd of 58,186 at Busch Stadium.

The NFL had played here twice since the Cardinals' last game against the New York Giants on Dec. 13, 1987, but those were exhibition games.

Yesterday was the real deal, a significant date that will go down in the city's history along with the Cardinals in the World Series, the Blues' debut and the opening of Busch Stadium.

"I really, really feel bad for Baltimore," said Lenny Deshurley, 29, a St. Louis truck driver. "They had a lot of legends come out of that town, but they have been dogged like us, first by poor ownership, then by the expansion process. Jacksonville?

"But that's what makes this moment so sweet, so emotional," said Deshurley. "Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong, and we still prevailed. When the Rams step out for pre-game introductions, a lot of tears will be shed."

Maybe St. Louis can't match the tradition of Baltimore, but these fans have their legends, too. Dan Dierdorf, Conrad Dobler, Jim Hart and Larry Wilson, just to name a few.

And now they have a glimpse of the future. Rams quarterback Chris Miller threw for 188 yards and a touchdown, and Jerome Bettis rushed for 83. Linebacker Roman Phifer led the team in tackles with 10, and safety Keith Lyle rushed for 4 yards up the middle off a fake punt on fourth-and-one at the Saints' 48 with about 2 1/2 minutes left in the game and the Rams ahead by four.

"This is better than having an expansion team," Cory Spielberg, 19, a student at Saint Louis University, said of the Rams (2-0). "We have some established players and could be in contention soon. This was the final piece for us being recognized as a major-league sports town."

Baltimore has been trying to earn that reputation since the Colts left for Indianapolis in March 1984. The Cardinals moved from St. Louis to Tempe, Ariz., nearly four years later.

Baltimore and St. Louis were in the expansion race, only to lose out to Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla., during October and November 1993. Baltimore's chances were slim, but favorite St. Louis lost out because of ownership squabbles and a stadium lease dispute.

"We just kept making so many mistakes," said Joe Gilmartin, 45, a construction worker in St. Louis. "I was starting to lose confidence. I wasn't going to believe we had a football team until I saw the moving vans pull into the city."

The Rams got the approval from the league to move in April, ending a long journey that included a mammoth public relations campaign and taxpayers money for the $260 million, 70,000-seat Trans World Dome, which should open in late October.

"We weren't necessarily better than Baltimore; we just got some help from the Redskins, the league and outbidded them," said Greg Molina, 38, a St. Louis trashman. "All we had to do was get our act together to form the perfect marriage."

And so they have. Area residents bought up the 72,000 requests for personal seat licenses at prices of $250 to $4,500. Molina took a second job as a dishwasher to buy two season tickets. Skip Spielberg, 46, a handbag importer, took out an $18,000 loan for four.

"You only live once," said Spielberg, Cory's father. "I remember the fun we had from the old Cardinals' days. I wasn't going to pass this up, especially not this first game."

Eighty people worked around the clock Saturday night to convert the stadium from baseball to football, and the crews added 7,100 seats. Tailgating started at 8 a.m. Jugglers and stilt walkers performed under the statue of Stan Musial. ZZ Top was the choice of music, and almost everyone wore cheap sunglasses.

Two hours before the game, there was a pep rally at Kiener Plaza and another at Union Station. The Z Band sang old tunes from Sly and The Family Stone. Two clowns patrolled the street, one looking like Rod Stewart, the other calling himself Captain Ram. T-shirts were sold from $17 to $25, caps went for $24.99 and a ticket could be scalped for as high as $125.

Miller's No. 12 jersey was popular, and so were those of defensive ends Kevin Carter (93) and Brad Ottis (95), but Bettis' 36 was the biggest seller.

And the fans kept giving the Rams near-deafening ovations, and even gave one to Chuck Berry after his halftime performance.

Rams and former Towson State punter Sean Landeta said he could imagine only one better scenario.

"It would have been great, perfect, to have been running out that tunnel in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium," said Landeta, who attended Loch Raven High. "People in Baltimore just don't realize how close they came to getting a team."

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