I'm going to put an idea out there, tell me if it's right or wrong. I believe the heart of a fan base isn't caught up in wins and losses: it's wrapped up in its young players. We fall in love more easily with youth, with potential, with anything that gives us hope for the future. Especially when that youth is pretty damn good, and shows us that our affections are deserved. If that's the case, then forget about the Cardinals ... move over Blues ... St Louis is about to become a football town in a big way.
Of course, this has as much to do with the foundering St Louis Cardinals, who appear to be giving away a division that they had essentially won in spirit with a three-game thrashing of the division rival Reds. They were supposed to follow that epochal series with a month-long tour of losing teams and the lessers of the NL Central ... but have instead dissolved into a largely disinterested and confused mess, while the Reds have retaken the lead and expanded it into the largest in the NL.
While Rome is burning, Cardinals manager is fiddling with the roster card, figuring out more and more inventive ways to keep the young and future star of the outfield, Colby Rasmus, out of the lineup.
Sports fans and veteran followers of the team alike are howling in dismay, filling up my Twitter feed.
I have no idea what's going on between La Russa and Rasmus, but this is very strange, and it must end.
I am going on record. 2010 Rasmus>2010 LaRussa. Same next year and beyond too.
The rasmus stuff with his dad - r the #stlcards so petty that they worry more about appearances than his performance. #gottobekiddingme
This kind of rift is not only demoralizing for the fans, it hits the team as well. Whether you're a highly-paid super star or a grunt, you want to hit the field with the best talent available. And you want that talent to stay on the field, giving you the best chance to win. But several notable Cards losses can be traced back to a young player mouldering on the bench.
I have to admit I wasn't paying close attention, beyond noticing that Rasmus appeared to be stinking up my fantasy team, then not playing for a good long time. So I missed it when this Joe Strauss article outlined the years-long rift between sensitive poppa's-boy player and old-school/new-school organization, a perfect storm of ego, talent and "baseball the way it oughta be" that centers around La Russa and Rasmus.
Most shocking, to me, in this article? This quote from the young player in question:
"We've been through some pretty tough times. I mean, last year I didn't even open my mouth. I can handle it when he gets on me. But he's old school. Sometimes I don't understand the way he's going about it. He's a real smart guy. I'm not that smart. I've just played baseball since I could walk, and some of those things he talks about I didn't understand."
I think you have to take some of the blame off La Russa, in this light. (Some, not all.) If Rasmus thinks he can just keep his mouth shut and let his play speak for him, he doesn't know much about how to earn his place on a veteran team, with a very veteran manager intent on making a playoff push each and every year. Much less how to go about learning how to make the transition from the minors to the bigs.
So in a case of a fan base being split between a knucklehead player and a hard-hearted manager (who might be on his way out of town anyway).... let's choose Option C: the new face(s) of a franchise who is (are) doing it right.
Obviously, the biggest case in point is the Rams' Sam Bradford. Read this extended profile by Bryan Burwell, and think of him as the anti-Rasmus.
He's speaking up, and earning respect at the same time.
Starting safety Oshiomogho Atogwe: "He asks questions. Whenever you have a young guy who goes out of his way to ask questions, that means it's coming from his heart, that he really wants to be better. No one is telling him to do it. ... He has something inside him that says, 'I need to want more, I need to know more.' He'll ask me during practice what the defense is trying to show out there. If we're showing this look, what does that mean? If the safety does this, what does that mean? It's like he's not waiting for it to happen before he learns. ... He takes the initiative and that's a very good thing."
Part of that initiative has been to take advantage of picking the brains of the men who have already walked the road he is just beginning. Bradford has talked to both future Hall of Famer Manning and present Hall of Famer Troy Aikman about the expected trials and tribulations he's about to experience.
The team knows how important he is, and has a plan in place for him...
"I think it's gone well. I'm happy with it," he says. "The coaches told me from Day One they do have a plan to get me ready to become a starting quarterback. They told me that it's going to be a process, and so far I think I have progressed every day. They have thrown a little more at me each week and I have been able to handle it. They've seen that I've been able to handle what they throw at me. I don't know what their plan is for the future, but if it continues like this, I'll be where I want to be."
And that plan includes reaching out to the community.
Shortly after mini-camps and organized off-season workouts had been completed and all the veterans had departed, Bradford and his other fellow rookies spent every morning for at least a week and a half at Rams Park religiously working out. Yet no sooner than he could get out of the shower, Bradford found himself being dragged off every afternoon or evening to some meet-and-greet event with corporate sponsors or ticket holders.
"It definitely was one of the first times I realized it wasn't college any more," he said one afternoon at Rams Park. "I think that week really showed me, 'Okay, this is a business. I am now part of this business.' Obviously playing football is my main job, but I am going to be used for other things than just that."
And the talent is firmly in place.
Spagnuolo was practically giddy as he remembered watching one of Bradford's best throws, a particular dart that he zinged into the thick of the Patriots defense that went between three New England defenders and right into the hands of a Rams receiver. "I remember Steven Jackson was (standing) on my right at the time and I asked him if he saw the same thing I did and he nodded his head," Spagnuolo said with delight.
But the hearts of Rams fans are reaching out to more than just Bradford. Danny Amendola is rising star who is about to get his chance as a starting WR. His counterpart, Mardy Gilyard, is an unbelievably engaging personality who lights up the field and the sidelines. James Laurinaitis and Chris Long are putting their stamp on the defense, while Jerome Murphy looks to put his stamp on opposing ball carriers.
Even those who get geeked up about the offensive line (@bpdouglass, I'm looking at you) have a young player to fall in love with -- Rodger Saffold -- and an intriguing young guy who could become a dominant force -- Jason Smith.
Of course, the baseball division/wildcard race is far from over. And we know that those die-hard Cardinal fans won't be able to turn away from the drama until it's over. But instead of sinking into your annual hibernation, check out these Rams. They could very easily have a winning record after their first five games. And October will end with the emotional retirement of Isaac Bruce's #80 ... a dutiful nod of the head towards the glory of the Greatest Show, while this new generation of Rams looks to start their own legacy. You'll want to be there.