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The St. Louis Blues

What happened to the media the Rams left behind?

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

On August 6, grieving fans of the St. Louis Rams were offered a rare ray of sunshine. Orlando Pace, the team’s former left tackle, was inducted into the Hall of Fame. But then St. Louisans flipped on their radios and learned about Pacegate. On August 7, a writer named Patrick Karraker discovered that when the NFL had posted Pace’s acceptance speech to YouTube, part of the speech had been excised. It happened to be the part during which Pace thanked the fans of St. Louis.

These days, St. Louis sports radio crackles with talk of conspiracy. If there was a contest to see which city’s press corps knows more alleged NFL plots — and the previously anonymous functionaries who carry them out — St. Louis would be a half game behind Boston in the standings.

As it happens, Karraker’s father, Randy, hosts a talk show on 101 ESPN, the former home of the Rams. Randy Karraker hadn’t taken the move well. "The way I describe it is there are five stages of grief," he told me. "Number two is anger. I’m stuck on that." When he learned about Pacegate, he accused the league of hating St. Louis and called the edit "vicious," "vile," and "depraved."

Karraker, a big man with close-cropped gray hair, is a sports-radio host verging on a civic mascot. "I’m kind of St. Louis’s little brother," he said. St. Louisans first heard his voice on the legendary station KMOX when he was 25 years old. Dave Peacock, the businessman who led the effort to keep the Rams in St. Louis, noted Karraker’s bottomless knowledge of trivia. Once, on his show, The Fast Lane, Karraker got to reminiscing about the Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf era. D’Marco Farr, one of his cohosts, looked over and noticed that Karraker had begun to cry.

When the Rams move was announced in January, Karraker, who was also a season-ticket holder, set out to purge any trace of the team from his life. He canceled his DirecTV service (DirecTV is an NFL partner); his new cable plan doesn’t include the NFL Network. He filled three trash bags with Rams gear and donated it to the homeless — the homeless in Los Angeles. On August 13, when the Rams played their first preseason game in L.A., Karraker didn’t watch. He was off seeing a production of Aida at the Muny.

It’s an ascetic life — but even that wasn’t ascetic enough for Karraker. Four decades ago, Stan Kroenke, the hated owner of the Rams, married into the Walton family. With the Rams gone, Karraker now refuses to shop at Wal-Mart. He canceled his Sam’s Club membership. "Stan Kroenke is — and this is sports and nonsports — the biggest villain in the history of our city," he said.

For its part, the NFL pleaded that Pacegate was the result of a mere "technical error." Karraker didn’t care. The NFL had screwed over St. Louis so many times — why take the league’s word about anything? Karraker went on 101 ESPN’s morning show with host Bernie Miklasz to fan the flames.

"I don’t understand the cruelty," Miklasz said. "They’ve got what they want. … You assume they can’t go any lower, and they do." A few days later, Miklasz told me, "It’s like The Godfather III — they pull you back in. This is so incredibly petty. Why do that? What’s the point?"

Roger Hensley, the sports editor of the Post-Dispatch, has compared watching the Rams from St. Louis to checking in on an ex who dumped you. Gee, how’d I wind up on her Facebook page again? When you listen to Karraker and his compatriots, you hear anger, hurt feelings, and more than a touch of schadenfreude. You also hear the St. Louis press corps asking a practical question: With a hole where the NFL team used to be, what do we talk about now?

Talk-radio hosts often cite something called the Rush Limbaugh Rule. It holds that Limbaugh is a better listen when a Democrat is in the White House. The St. Louis corollary might go like this: Randy Karraker is better when the Rams are in Los Angeles.

Karraker would have roasted the Rams for extending coach Jeff Fisher’s contract even if they were still in town. But when bungling is underlain by betrayal — when every misfire is less an affront to a team than a whole city — normal sports radio can suddenly become profound. "It’s great material," Karraker said.

Consider Foodgate. In June, Rams COO Kevin Demoff told a Southern California group that his staff couldn’t eat the food delivered to the team’s Earth City, Missouri, headquarters. Demoff told The Ringer in an email that he was trying to make a joke about food poisoning (aggrieved Rams fans and all), not taking a shot at St. Louis cuisine. But 101 ESPN hosts went crazy.

"If Kevin Demoff walked in this studio right now," Miklasz said on the air, "you would have to prevent me from strangling him. I would actually have my hands around his throat. If you didn’t pull me off, I’d actually be facing life imprisonment."

"No disrespect," Kevin Wheeler, another 101 ESPN host, said. "But I’d get there first."

The media are still licking their wounds from the relocation wars. Kroenke dodged their requests for interviews. "The last time he talked to me or anybody in St. Louis was January 2012," said Jim Thomas, the former Rams beat writer for the Post-Dispatch. Of course, the day after the move to Los Angeles was announced, Kroenke granted an interview to the L.A. Times as soon as he stepped off his private plane.

On the airwaves, Demoff is nearly as big a villain as Kroenke. Kroenke hid from the press, the media say, while Demoff was pushed out to peddle the official line. "He’s a slimeball," Karraker told me. Just as Democrats enjoy unearthing old Donald Trump tweets, St. Louisans make a sport of finding Demoff’s two-year-old odes to St. Louis fans. Dan McLaughlin, the Cardinals play-by-play man, went on a big run a few months back.

The St. Louis media know this may sound funny, even conspiratorial. But some days it feels like they’re being trolled by the Rams from afar. Like when Jerry Jones’s backroom support for the move became part of his Hall of Fame résumé. (Jones is a Kroenkesque villain in St. Louis now.) Or when Karraker got an automated email asking if he’d like to buy a new Rams hat.

Or when the Rams — who last year dared the media to spend weeks talking about Case Keenum — went all in on Jared Goff in April. "A lot of people chimed in that the Rams would have made the trade even if they were still in St. Louis," said Howard Balzer, a longtime local NFL writer. "We’re going, ‘Yeah, right, sure they would have.’"

There were moments when the media felt like it was being used by the pro-relocation forces. In December, Roger Goodell wrote a chastising letter about St. Louis’s proposed stadium plan to Dave Peacock and Jay Nixon, the governor of Missouri. Peacock had the surreal experience of reading Goodell’s letter in the Post-Dispatch before it had even been delivered to him.

In the post-Rams era, a question hangs over St. Louis: Does the city want to talk about the team at all? 101 ESPN, like a lot of sports-talk stations, doesn’t take listener phone calls. But if a host dares to mention the Rams, the text lines fill up: Say the R-word again and I’m switching to classic rock!

Roger Hensley noted that, for all the bluster, his site’s traffic metrics show a "silent majority" is still curious. They want to see what happens in Todd Gurley’s sophomore season and whether Pharoh Cooper can help a sagging group of wideouts. If Rams talk is mandatory, then, the question is how to approach it.

"The tone is going to be tricky," said Martin Kilcoyne, the sports anchor on St. Louis’s Fox affiliate, KTVI. "If they fumble and lose the game on the goal line, is it, ‘Oh no, they lost’ or ‘Oh cool, they lost’?" Karraker chose the latter approach. "I think anybody associated with the Rams is dead to him," D’Marco Farr said.

Farr is about the only media member who can call himself a neutral party. Farr knows the weirdness of relocation first-hand: He played one season with the Rams in Southern California before they moved to St. Louis in 1995. After he retired, he cohosted The Fast Lane and did color analysis for the radio broadcasts. When the Rams moved to L.A., Farr and his wife had already decided to move back west themselves. When the Rams offered him their sideline job, Farr took it — and then carefully explained to listeners why he wasn’t a traitor.

Farr’s final episodes of The Fast Lane were delicate. When Karraker took his shots — calling Demoff a Kroenke "henchman," say — Farr assumed a sphinxlike silence. On August 13, Farr stood on the field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, ready to start his new job. There was one problem: The Rams were still working out some technical kinks, and he never got on the air.

In his final days on the Rams beat, the Post-Dispatch’s Jim Thomas took to roaming the halls of the team’s headquarters at night. It was March, and Thomas was the last media member still reporting to the facility in Earth City. Offices were being disassembled around him; boxes were stacked on the indoor practice field. Thomas felt — and this is a media room joke; don’t get offended — like the last man in the American Embassy in Saigon.

Over 21 years, Thomas covered all 431 games the Rams played as a St. Louis team. Thomas is 62 years old, meaning he spent more than one-third of his life on the beat. Answering his phone from the Post-Dispatch’s downtown office, which he now calls his headquarters, Thomas said, "This may sound weird, but I’m going to really miss watching practice."

On his nocturnal rounds, Thomas would peek into abandoned meeting rooms. Mike Martz, the coach who was the architect of the Greatest Show on Turf, once made a deal with him. As soon as the players left, Thomas could go into the wide receivers’ room and watch the game film. Some nights, around nine, Martz would abandon whatever he was doing and watch with Thomas. One night, as the tape rolled, Martz got agitated. The tape rolled some more, and Martz got more agitated. Martz was almost yelling at the screen. Thomas had to remind him he had won the game 36–0.

Thomas was such a fixture in Earth City that, for a time, D’Marco Farr assumed he worked for the Rams. "He was a part of the building," Farr said, "just like a blocking sled or a helmet or a hot tub." The Rams’ schedule was Thomas’s own. Friday was the day to file stuff for the weekend. Saturday was for travel. Monday was rehashing the games with the coaches. This year, Thomas had no OTAs to cover in June. He took the first early-summer vacation he can remember.

Thomas’s seniority earned him a corner desk in the media room. He stuck pictures on the wall above the desk. On one side of the wall, there were pictures of Thomas, barely 40, standing with a smattering of Rams employees. On the other side, there was Thomas, thicker and grayer now, and the same employees — the ones who survived the various purges, anyway — aged similarly. It was like when Facebook offers to let you celebrate a friendship "anniversary," except Facebook doesn’t go back 21 years.

Thomas’s friends joke that the Rams leaving is like Thomas getting his prison sentence commuted. In Thomas’s 21 years on the beat, the Rams had four winning seasons. They haven’t finished above .500 in 13 years. They had a 15–65 record from 2007 to 2011, which is the worst five-year run in the history of the NFL.

Thomas, well, he didn’t mind all that much. "Even a couple of those 1–15s and 2–14s were interesting," he said. "People love a train wreck."

A team skipping town can be as wrenching for its writers as its fans. After the Oilers left Houston in 1997, John McClain, an 18-year veteran of the beat, kept writing a weekly Oilers column as a salve. In 2008, the Seattle Times reassigned its two SuperSonics writers to cover other sports, explaining that readers were "sick of and sick from the NBA." Bernie Miklasz was covering the football Cardinals for the Post-Dispatch when they left for Phoenix in 1988. He moved to Dallas to cover the Cowboys.

The Post-Dispatch has Thomas covering the whole NFL now. He even flew to California to cover a couple of Rams practices. He found himself watching with a beat writer’s eyes, noting Goff’s struggles and the mediocrity of the Janoris Jenkins–less secondary. But that institutional knowledge doesn’t really have an outlet anymore.

That Thomas should travel to California was fitting. In 1994, he and Miklasz had covered the Rams’ final six games in L.A. alongside the team’s outgoing press corps — as "vultures," Miklasz said. Now, it was as if a new vulture — Gary Klein of the L.A. Times — was dragging the carcass away.

In between moments of genuine sadness, the St. Louis media has allowed itself to indulge in a little schadenfreude. Everyone got a nice laugh when Jeff Fisher said on Hard Knocks that a player’s antics were "7–9 bullshit." As Karraker asked a guest on The Fast Lane, "Is there a more 7–9 coach in football than Jeff Fisher?"

Kroenke’s business empire has furnished more material. When Patrick Roy resigned as coach of the Kroenke-owned Colorado Avalanche, the news made the rounds on sports radio. So did the news that Kroenke bought a Texas mega-ranch and forced several residents to leave homes they’d leased on the property. One woman, whose story was recounted in the Post-Dispatch, was given this heartbreaking descriptor: a "dog groomer who suffers from arthritis." (101 ESPN is now raising money for the displaced residents.)

Last month, ex-Ram Isaac Bruce presided over a "Legends of the Dome" old-timers’ game. It was a cathartic event for Rams fans; Karraker even conducted interviews on the sideline. This month, L.A.’s competing old-timers’ game was canceled due to lack of interest. Jim Thomas’s piece became one of the Post-Dispatch’s most popular sports stories.

But schadenfreude has a sell-by date. "Making fun of those guys is one thing," Bernie Miklasz said. "But that doesn’t fill five radio shows a week."

One theory is that the Rams’ content hole will be filled by another NFL team. Since January, every team within driving distance has tried to get a foothold in St. Louis. The CBS affiliate, KMOV, is showing Chiefs preseason games, while Fox’s KTVI is showing the Bears. Miklasz’s unscientific survey found that, if his listeners were forced to pick between the two, they’d overwhelmingly favor the Chiefs. Even the venerable KMOX now carries the radio rights to the Cardinals, Blues, and Chiefs, giving the Chiefs a semiofficial imprimatur.

Another theory is St. Louis will undergo the same transformation L.A. did two decades ago. Rams talk will morph into general NFL talk. Howard Balzer and Marc Lillibridge’s radio show, which runs on 590 The Fan, rebranded itself as an NFL show. As Post-Dispatch columnist Benjamin Hochman noted, every St. Louisan’s favorite football team is now his or her fantasy team. Or the team they made a bet on.

Hochman nearly always devoted his Monday column to the Rams. Now, he said, he’s searching for new material. Maybe he’d find a worthy Paralympian, or hang with the bocce players over in The Hill.

Some content holes are more easily filled. Fisher’s coach’s show aired at 6:30 on Monday nights on KTVI. According to Spencer Koch, the station’s president and general manager, this fall Fisher’s mustachioed mug will be replaced by an episode of Celebrity Name Game.

Randy Karraker, like a lot of St. Louis sports media types, was born and raised in the city. He read Kroenke’s relocation application in January and winced. "Compared to all other U.S. cities, St. Louis is struggling," the document said. It was the latest of many blows to the area, from the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson to St. Louis’s slow-motion rehabilitation of downtown.

That’s what really eats at the local media: the loss of status for the city itself. "I see Indianapolis, Cincinnati — cities that have passed us by," Fox’s Joe Buck, who grew up in St. Louis and still lives there, told me this spring. "If you really drill down, that’s what upset me."

Benjamin Hochman said: "I’m not sitting on top of the arch drinking a Bud Light and talking about how we have the greatest city. But we have an awesome city. Losing a franchise in the greatest sports league is very disheartening because it makes it look like we’re a second-level city now."

Even for an everyman host like Karraker, there has always been a distance between a sports-talk host and his listeners. A host can dish out populism, but he still stands on a pedestal above the mere mortal.

Back in October, the NFL convened a town hall meeting to let angry Rams fans vent to league executives. The media weren’t allowed to speak. But as a season-ticket-holder, Karraker found his way to a mic. At first, his voice cracked — he seemed near tears. But he recovered and held up pictures he’d printed of 31 other NFL owners who could be seen out and about in their cities. He defended the loyalty of Rams fans. "This is not a bad football market," Karraker thundered. "It’s a spectacular football town."

Rams fans gave him a standing ovation. Chants of "Ran-dy! Ran-dy!" filled the room. Just then, Karraker thought, something interesting happened. The Olympian distance between host and listener vanished. "Now, rather than me learning to speak to the audience, we’re all in the same boat," Karraker said. "We have the same feeling. We’re kindred spirits — kindred spirits against the team and the league."

It also solved a problem. Instead of talking about the Rams, Karraker could talk and talk and talk about the absence of the Rams. His worst nightmare became his greatest subject. When Karraker thought of the potholes that lay ahead for the team, his voice filled with glee. "I hope there is such a thing as karma," he said.

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