Last month, Tom Bateman buckled a familiar face into the back seat of his Dodge Charger for the drive from Anaheim to Oxnard to watch the St. Louis Rams practice.
The passenger had the same mustache, tousled hair and toothy grin as Rams owner Stan Kroenke. He didn’t make a sound, in keeping with the owner’s well-known reluctance to draw attention to himself.
But no one could miss the passenger’s big head.
Four feet tall and a half-inch thick, the reinforced foamboard cutout of Kroenke’s face has become an unusual rallying point for Rams supporters hoping the owner moves his team to Los Angeles.
“I wanted something that was going to stand out,” said Bateman, director of the Bring Back the Los Angeles Rams booster group that has more than 52,000 Facebook followers since its founding in 2009.
The NFL’s possible return to L.A. has been one giant head fake. Now it’s one giant fake head.
After Kroenke announced plans in January to build a $1.86-billion NFL stadium in Inglewood, the 44-year-old Bateman searched for a way to connect L.A. football fans with the owner. Inspired by cartoon-sized heads on the ESPN show “Pardon the Interruption,” Bateman needed about $300 and a week to turn the larger-than-life vision into reality.
“Fans are sending a message that they can kind of relate to Stan,” said Paul Maleno, a graphic designer and longtime Rams fan who helped with the project. “Stan is with us. Stan is among us, in a way. They see him and he’s right here.”
Through a spokesman, Kroenke and his representatives declined to comment.
While Kroenke is tight-lipped and rarely appears in public, Giant Stan loves a crowd. Bateman chauffeurs him to rallies, viewing parties for games, events connected to the proposed stadium, television appearances and NFL meetings.
Giant Stan in hand, Bateman did several shows on radio row in January before the Super Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., helped by the head-turning prop.
During the Inglewood City Council meeting in February that approved a ballot initiative to fast-track the stadium, Bateman posed for pictures with Giant Stan’s head covering his own after the unanimous vote.
When the league’s owners met in March at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, Giant Stan, Bateman and dozens of other Rams supporters congregated outside the sprawling complex.
The booster group is on a first-name basis with Giant Stan, discussing him like another member. Can you bring Stan? How’s Stan doing? Is Stan going to be there?
“We basically consider him another person,” said Andrew Hogan, an IT professional who founded the group’s Facebook page that serves as a clearinghouse for stadium information.
When the flesh and blood Kroenke comes up in conversation, however, they usually retreat to the more reverential “Mr. Kroenke.”
The head is more than an amusing photo opportunity or good-natured subplot to the Inglewood project that pledges to break ground on a stadium in December. Bateman, who worked 10 years in film and television marketing before moving into the telecommunications industry, sees it as an entry point to proselytize about the Rams’ potential return.
To Bateman, the sting of the team’s move from L.A. to St. Louis following the 1994 season hasn’t faded. He rattles off Rams memories with an evangelist’s zeal — old attendance figures, quarterback Jim Everett’s kindness to an autograph-seeking kid, how big the players seemed during training camp at Cal State Fullerton in 1980.
“It’s almost like watching your kids grow up without you,” Bateman said. “You’re happy for them. You’re excited for them. But you cannot share in their joy as much as you would have if they’d been living with you.”
The goal in the public appearances — he estimates travel to events this year has cost $2,000 to $3,000 — is to remind the NFL that a sizable population of Rams fans remain in L.A.
Their hopes rest on Kroenke, a Missouri native named after St. Louis Cardinals legends Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter. After years of failed stadium proposals in L.A., they see this plan as different.
The Rams, they believe, are the rightful heirs to the L.A. market, not the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders, who back a rival stadium concept in Carson.
Members of the booster group have never met the owner nor does he support them financially. But they’ve heard persistent rumors that he is aware of his foamboard alter ego. After one public stadium meeting, an associate of Kroenke mentioned to Bateman that the owner got a kick out of Giant Stan.
But an enormous cutout of a sports mogul’s head can present problems. Take the wind. Giant Stan is light enough to be held up with one hand. But a gust can transform it into a something akin to a sail.
There is a positive, which might not come as good news to St. Louis-based Rams supporters, where Kroenke isn’t popular after his flirtation with L.A.
“It’s basically indestructible unless you have a truck run over it,” Maleno said.
When Giant Stan ventured to Oxnard last month, Kroenke — the real one — watched practice from an observation tower. But Giant Stan towered over practice. About the length of a football field away, Bateman thrust the foamboard into the air in the midst of thousands of fans. He stood directly in the owner’s line of sight. The crowd roared and chanted Kroenke’s name.
He didn’t say a word.
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