Week Three here at Home Field Advantage led us to explore some of the best in the Midwest, in St. Louis. Our city selection this week was originally revolving around the media frenzy surrounding Albert Pujols’ contract, but as the week progressed, our selection ended up being even more topical that we had originally intended. On Tuesday morning, news broke of Cardinals’ ace Adam Wainwright’s elbow injury, and as the week continued, suspicions of Tommy John surgery were confirmed. This big hit to the Cards’ bullpen, as well as the sports hernia that will leave utility infielder Nick Punto out for two to three months, was big news on the national level, and even more so within the lives of our interviewees. We had two interviews this week, one with writer Julie Adelsberger of CardsDiaspora.com, and the other with Doug Couch, a lifelong St. Louis sports fan and enthusiast. We would like to thank both Julie and Doug for their time and insight this week! Both interviews helped answer many questions regarding the teams, fans, and overall culture in St. Louis.
Cardinals news was obviously atop our interview agenda, as the approaching season in combination with the recent injuries within the roster makes it on the tip of every St. Louis fan’s tongue. Julie Adelsberger, when asked about the fans’ mentality going into the 2011 season, asserted that there were hesitations, both in the short term and in the long term. The short term concerns concern the loss of Wainwright for the season to Tommy John surgery, as he is the “linchpin” of the Cardinals’ offense, and his impending surgery leaves many questions regarding the capacity of the bullpen to fill the void. Long term concerns are heavily rooted in the Albert Pujols situation, as his hesitation to agree to a contract extension have caused a lot of “heartburn” for the Cards’ front office, media reps, and fans alike. With his extension deadline passing last week, Pujols won’t negotiate another contract until the end of the season, which will inevitably cause a lot of anxiety as St. Louis wonders whether or not he will return in the red and white come next season. However, we were surprised to hear from Adelsberger that although the Pujols situation has generated a ton of media hype, many people don’t think he truly wants to leave the Cardinals organization. Adelsberger also suspects that releasing Pujols at the end of the season to see what his value in the free agency market would be may be part of the Cards’ strategy. Although this could be seen as a risky move, a “hometown discount” is not in consideration either, as Adelsberger asserts that the Cardinals have enough money to outbid any other interested organizations looking to fill off-season gaps with Pujols. Although Pujols’ situation is on virtually every show on ESPN, she contends that it is mostly media hype, and that nobody is truly worried about Pujols’ future, but more so about the future of the rotation given the recent loss of Wainwright for the entire season.
Another issue contributing to the St. Louis Cardinals news in the city is the growing uncertainty about Tony LaRussa’s leadership. Adelsberger stresses that his presence in the dugout is a “love him or hate him” kind of relationship with Cards fans, with more fans recently deflecting to the latter mentality. Although he is a storied and successful manager in both the NL and AL, he primarily favors veteran players, and operates under a number of “quirks” that are not “cute anymore,” Adelsberger contends. As more uncertainties are unearthed regarding this season’s roster, fans are starting to fear the divisional competition and their rotations more, looking to avoid “ending up like the Cubs.” If this season ends on a downhearted and dismal note, just like it appears to be starting on, LaRussa’s future with the Cards could be one of the first relationships to be called into question.
In Rams news, as the NFC West competition was so drab last season, the Rams ended the season tied for first with a record of 7-9. Adelsberger stated in the interview that she is amazed at the “unfettered optimism” within fans, but is still skeptical regarding the turnaround of the recently subpar team. With the off-season addition of Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator, Adelsberger asserts that if he can naturally “click” with head coach Spagnuolo, it would benefit the team tremendously. And with many fans expecting a lot from the NFL draft and off-season trades, there is a large amount of enthusiasm regarding the Rams’ push to return to a level close to the “Greatest Show on Turf.”
With the absence of an NBA team in St. Louis, Blues hockey is paramount come wintertime. They have a fantastic and loyal fanbase, and most games in the Scottrade Center are sold out. Recent “gutsy” trades, including Eric Johnson to the Avalanche last week, have surprised the whole hockey following, but given recent challenges brought on by injuries and low payroll numbers due to recent financial crises within the front office, these moves are part of a long term plan to realistically “transform” the team over the next few seasons. Adelsberger called the Blues the “greatest tease” for fans, as the franchise made it to the playoffs every season from 1980-2004, the third longest streak in North American pro sports history, but have no Stanley Cups to their name. Regardless of the inevitable annual playoff disappointments, which Adelsberger asserts is “part of the allure,” Blue fans remain loyal regardless, holding on for change to come, hopefully bringing a Stanley Cup with it.
A big story in the St. Louis sports culture is the heavy presence of Missouri Tigers athletics, particularly the football culture. Gameday in Columbia is almost a religious affair, as Tigers football generally supersedes any other events happening that day. A big story in Mizzou recently is that of hometown talent Blaine Gabbert, the quarterback for the Tigers who is looking to position himself atop the NFL draft in April. Although he still has one more season of eligibility and Mizzou fans are questionable about second string QB James Franklin’s efficiency in the upcoming season, fans are still proud of their hometown boy asserting himself atop draft predictions.
This fan support is something that we have found as distinguishing of virtually all St. Louis sports franchises and college programs alike. St. Louis is a one newspaper town, making it much different and closer-knit of a market than the two cities we have covered prior to this week. As interviewee Doug Couch stated, “there are three seasons in St. Louis. Football season, hockey season, and baseball season.” Couch also testified to the fact that conversations almost always end up on the topic of sports, and if one is not knowledgeable, then they are inevitably left out. Sport is so engrained in the life of the people in this week’s city of the week, and it often dictates the emotion and mood of the people who follow it. Hence why the recent hits to the Cardinals’ roster were emulated as despair and disappointment in the perspectives of the two St. Louis residents we spoke to this week.
Another noticeable trend in St. Louis fanhood is the classiness of the fans in the city, as well as the actions of the franchises that operate there. The moves made by front offices, as well as the fan outreach to each situation show that the fan culture is so important, but is approached with refinement, politeness, and respect. History and personal affiliation with the teams in St. Louis is essentially a family affair, as going to games and following the teams is something that people do as children, and then continue with their own children. The high personal value of sport in St. Louis is reflected in the rich sports culture there, where the pride and tradition is so very evident.
Podcasts of the entire radio show, as well as our interviews will be available by the end of the weekend. Stay tuned next week as we cover the historical city of Chicago, and the sports culture there, from the historically successful Bulls to the recent Stanley Cup champ Blackhawks to the century long championship drought of the Cubs to the White Sox to the Bears! It’ll be a busy week, and we can’t wait! Thanks as always for your support!