The bleeding has lessened

So last week the Blues dropped out of the playoffs with a loss to the Sharks. It was an ugly final score, 5-2, in a conference finals that had a lot of ugly final scores. It was the end of a chance for the Blues to go to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1970. The Blues did win a couple of games, which is nice, but as any number of teams will tell you, sometimes you only get that one season where everything truly comes together, and then you never quite recapture the magic.

It hurts. But it doesn’t hurt as much as it might. You see, the Blues lost because they were outplayed. They lost because Brian Elliott came back to earth, because the offense laid some eggs. And those zeroes in Games 2 and 3 are embarrassing. Giving up 11 goals in the last two games is embarrassing.

But that’s hockey. That’s hockey that can happen to any team.

I grew up during the ’90s listening to the Cardinals and Blues on the radio and watching them on TV. As a child living in that naive bubble where of course your favorite team is supposed to be winning all the time, the Cardinals were frustrating. They had all these good/great players (some of which doubtless seemed “good” only because of the familiarity of their names) and yet they spent much of the decade struggling to get away from the .500 mark. Adults who had followed baseball for longer probably had more realistic expectations than I did.

The Blues, though, they were supposed to be contenders in legitimate pursuit of the Cup, putting up good records back when .500 meant you were just mediocre and not abysmal.

But something would always happen. Either the Blues would shoot themselves in the foot, or some ridiculous event would hit them. The Blues poached Mike Keenan away from the Rangers, and the NHL came down on them harshly. So many hopeful playoff runs stopped early by the Red Wings (who were generally the best team in either conference), or occasionally the Avalanche. One playoff run that was cut short when Nick Kyprieos ran over Grant Fuhr right there in the crease. The year that the Blues won the President’s Cup with the best regular season record, and St. Louisans, normally intelligent about sports, took a first-round win for granted, only for the Sharks to exploit Chris Pronger’s youth and win in seven games. The year I’m pretty sure we were leading the series against Vancouver, only for half the Blues to suddenly come down with the flu. Always, always, a feeling that we weren’t being allowed to see our full potential.

About this time the Blues started running a series of clever ad campaigns. One year it was a ’50s theme with a man with a “#1” foam hand. But the one that’s stuck was “Do you bleed blue?” (which has transformed into “We all bleed blue” or the like). To which the correct answer is: Yes, I proudly bleed blue, but I would like for the bleeding to stop already, and also that mosquito billboard needs to go away.

But this year something was different. The NHL again rigged things so that we had to start the playoffs against the Blackhawks again this year. Instead of rolling over, or folding in the pinch, the Blues responded, taking out Chicago and showing the rest of the league up in the process. Next the Dallas Stars. The Blues struggled a bit, never quite shaking the Blues tendency to choke, but they won out in the end. And then the Sharks. The Blues won a couple of games, but were unable to prevent the Sharks from winning four. As I said at the start, I’m not happy about the loss. But it’s a breath of fresh air to lose because the Blues happened to meet a team who simply outplayed them, rather than because “Oh, we always lose to them” or because of some freak injury or illness or because the NHL docked them five goals and a draft pick for skating the wrong way around the ice during warmups.

It gives me hope for the future. And that may turn out to be some long-term cruelty as we win the President’s Cup the next five years running and the NHL just matches us up with whoever has a hot streak at the moment. But for now, the sense that some sort of curse has lifted feels good.

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On Kroenke not getting it

So Stan Kroenke has, as part of his machinations to get the Rams back in Los Angeles, made some acerbic remarks about the fan support here in St. Louis. And I can believe we’ve had shoddy attendance since 2010, fair enough. But then he basically said that any other team who moved to St. Louis would be doomed to failure.

Now, I don’t know when he took over the Rams, but the reason that fan support has been declining — and make no mistake, there are a lot of Rams rooters still around — has been not that St. Louis just isn’t a “football city”, or that we’re so obsessed with the Cardinals that we aren’t aware that other sports exist (what a stupid thing to say). It’s that, approximately since losing to the Patriots in the Super Bowl, the Rams teams have been consistently boring and bad. And maybe, just maybe, St. Louis has enough self-worth and intelligence to not just blindly follow anything with N-F-L stamped on it.

We’ve had a few good individual players since the Greatest Show on Turf disbanded — and I’m sure there are still people sore about the team letting Warner go, justified or not — but mostly it’s been continuous, unexciting submediocrity since then. And here’s the thing: this is St. Louis. We like flashy superstars just like everyone else, but what we value is effort. We love the scrappy guys, the David Ecksteins and Tony Twists and others, who come in and give it all their heart and play above their level, because they’re excited to be here, because they’re fighting to keep their spot in the major leagues, because they want that championship bad. If the ownership is clearly trying their best to win, if the players are giving it their all on the field every single week, we might disagree with the moves, there might be little hope for a winning season, but we’ll probably stay engaged.

Well, from my point of view, the damage was done during the ’00s. The Lawrence Phillips draft pick and others suggested the ownership was just flailing around, hoping to guess brilliantly and win the lottery rather than build a solid team. The offense was always unexciting and inconsistent at best. And oh, the defense. I’m sure there were a few individuals I’m forgetting, but it was like nobody wanted to actually tackle anybody. The greatest moment in Rams history was Mike Jones in the Super Bowl, one-on-one with the Titans receiver, grabbing on tight and hauling him down short of the goal line as time expired. If Jones had played for the Rams about five or ten years later, he wouldn’t have bothered to close his fingers. He could have been squarely in front of the receiver, and he would have just stuck his arms out and hoped the guy would be nice enough to fall over and then nobody would have to get hurt. I am not exaggerating. I watched the Rams often, back when I still watched sports with any frequency, and I saw the same thing from the defense again and again, down after down, series after series, game after game.

That is not how you win my affection, and that is not how you win the hearts of . . . well, any city, really.

No effort. No heart, no excitement, no desire to be there from half of the team. And if the players, who are paid millions to show up, don’t want to be there, why should the fans pay to show up, or even bother to tune in?

Oh, but we had a punter and field goal kicker who was pretty good. That’s gotta count for something, right?

I want to see the Rams stick around. I’d like to see the team improve, find a way to win games. I still root for them to win, I probably will even if they leave town. But fandom is a two-way street. If you want me to be a fan, to the point that I’m paying you money or tuning in so that networks and advertisers will pay you money, then you have to show me something to be a fan of. That goes for any city, any audience with the slightest bit of discernment. If you just keep phoning it in, eventually people will tune you out.