I admit I was punchy from a hectic weekend in Missouri, but were my eyes deceiving me? A bizarre dream sequence, perhaps?
It was 6 o'clock last Sunday evening, and I had just finished pumping gas at a Conoco station in Marthasville, Mo., a scenic, rustic community of several hundred people about 50 miles west of St. Louis.
The town lends itself to daydreaming: It sits in the rolling farmland and wine country of east-central Missouri, and suffers not a bit in comparison to the charm of any New England village. And since I'd just shared some wine with relatives, maybe, just maybe, my mind was playing tricks on me.
Because I saw the darndest sight. . . .
I went inside to pay for the gas. Two guys followed me in. When I turned around, one of them took a few jogging steps past the counter, and the other threw him a pass with a toy rubber football, and it settled against his chest. The clerk admonished them about throwing the ball in the store, but she didn't seem to care.
But it wasn't just any toy football. That wouldn't have caught my eye. No, this was a blue and yellow football. The same coloration that once was seen in Orange County playgrounds and back yards. The kind seen on the parking lot at Anaheim Stadium on Sundays in the fall. The ball that is unmistakably associated with Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen and Jack Youngblood.
The coloration that could only belong to the Los Angeles Rams!
But there was no getting around it. What Los Angeles and Orange County lost now is firmly in possession of Missourians not only in St. Louis but in tucked-away havens like Marthasville.
And they are having a ball with their new toy.
The two guys in the store with the football were Kurt Schwoeppe, 22, and Bill Wessel, 30. Both were dressed in Ram get-up, with Schwoeppe wearing the more familiar blue and yellow sweat shirt long identified with the team.
I mentioned my Orange County connection, and I sensed both bemusement and gratitude that Southern California had given them a football team. The game had ended about two hours earlier, and they were just getting home from the game, in which the Rams beat the Bears to go 4-0 on the season.
"We waited eight years for this team," Wessel said, referring to the departure in 1988 of the St. Louis Cardinals football team to Arizona.
"It's our team now," Schwoeppe added. "Everybody is getting used to it. They've started to know the players by their numbers."
Schwoeppe noted that although the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team played in two World Series in the 1980s, the two Rams home games this fall have been "the two biggest sporting events to go on in St. Louis." The tailgate party at Busch Stadium on this day had begun early, Schwoeppe said. They got there about 9 a.m., and the parking lot was packed. "Busch holds about 54,000 for baseball, and we packed 59,000 in today," he said.
"The Ram players have said that this is nothing like L.A.," Wessel said, referring to fan support. "They've said on TV that it's like having a 12th player on the field. I just can't believe with that many people out there, that you can't sell out a football game. It's just weird that there's no football in Los Angeles."
The men said the city of St. Louis and surrounding area have embraced the Rams with fervor. Part of the reason, they noted, is that there's no other competing football interest. Other than local high school teams, the only team nearby is the University of Missouri, which has been decidedly lousy for years.
The newly minted Rams fans of Missouri may be more exultant because they had a team and lost it. "We really didn't care what team we got," Wessel said. "We just wanted to have one."
About now, I can picture all you local Orange County fans shaking your heads and thinking what a couple of rubes I came upon, blindly loyal to anything that smacked of pro football.
Not so. As serious football fans, Schwoeppe and Wessel remember how sour relations got between fans and Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill. Schwoeppe even noted that the Rams may be in a honeymoon phase, and that eternal fan support isn't guaranteed.
But for now, it is. For now, the city of St. Louis and many residents of small, out-of-the-way places like Marthasville have a rekindled passion.
I don't know for sure if other patrons at the convenience store heard that I was from Orange County, but as one car pulled away while I was talking to Schwoeppe and Wessel, a young woman yelled to me out the window: "Go, Rams!"
Funny how things work out. That's exactly what we said to the Rams just a few months ago.
Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.