Sorry to hear that Alex Steen is retiring at age 35 because of chronic back problems — specifically degenerative herniated discs on his lumbar spine. And no wonder. It’s not that Steen was an undersized guy; at 210 pounds, he wasn’t. But he was physical, and tough, and wasn’t afraid to take a battering if it meant making a play. In 12 seasons with the Blues, Steen played 765 games with 14,020 minutes of ice time …and another 1,669 minutes in 91 postseason games. 

Time and time again, Steen rebounded from injuries to return to action with the usual edge to his game.

“He always did the work in the trenches,” Blues GM Doug Armstrong said in a phone interview. “He wasn’t out on the perimeter where there’s more space, where it’s safer. “He did all of the little thing, the tough things, that help your team win.”

But there was depth in Steen’s overall game. When the Blues acquired Steen and defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo from Toronto in Nov. 2008, they gave up winger Lee Stempniak. This move prompted full-throated mewling from many Blues fans and STL media that believed it was asinine to trade an established “sniper” to the Maple Leafs at a time when the Blues were short on firepower. 

Yeah, well, OK. 

The acquisition of Steen was one of the best trades made by the Blues over the last quarter-century (at least.)

As a Blue, Steen had a slightly higher average in goals per game than Stempniak after Stempniak took his sniper skills to eight other other teams after his time in Toronto. 

Steen stayed here, a Blue to the end. 

Steen had more assists and points per game than Stempniak. Steen took more than 2,000 faceoffs for the Blues, and applied 500-plus hits, and blocked nearly 500 shots, and logged an intense count of hard minutes on the penalty kill than any Blues forward. 

Steen played 1,018 regular-season NHL games including 765 for the Blues. Steen’s longevity carried him into the top 10 in numerous categories in Blues history: Fourth in games played, fifth in points (496), sixth in assists (301), and No. 9 in goals (195.) 

Steen scored 15 or more goals in a season eight times as a Blue, but he was much more than that. The blood, the sweat, the stitches, the surgeries. The quintessential two-way player, Steen was comfortable operating in all three zones. He was capable of playing on any line, or taking on special-teams duty.  

And his leadership was always on display, be it on the ice or in the locker room, a team flight, or players-only gathering.

The Blues had drifted to the bottom of the NHL, missing the playoffs for three consecutive seasons before Steen’s arrival at age 24.He immediately became a prime assist in a new-era revamping of the roster. A block for the rebuild.

The Blues returned to the playoffs five months after importing Steen. And beginning in 2012, they competed in the postseason eight times in Steen’s final nine seasons as a Blue.

But Steen’s longtime presence in the lineup also drew scrutiny; he was part of a maturing nucleus that repeatedly collapsed in the playoffs. I lost patience with that group, and wondered if it was time to make sweeping changes. At times I suspected Steen was a coach-killer type of player, but looking back I’m sure I was wrong about that. He wasn’t shy about challenging his coaches.

Leaders do that. And leaders stay on young players to keep their focus and discipline and team-first commitment. 

“His character off the ice was invaluable,’ Armstrong said. “He obviously was a character player on the ice. But he had a major impact in the maturation of our young guys like Jaden Schwartz and Robert Thomas.”

I didn’t appreciate Steen as much as I should have.

When coach Craig Berube asked Steen to move down to the fourth line late during the 2018-2019 regular season, Steen reacted the way a team leader should:

Sure. Let’s go. Anything you need. Anything for the team. 

The Blues became deeper in all four lines. Steen gave the fourth line a strong identity, and he played his tail off to set the tone and the example. Without Steen’s unselfishness, without his grit, without the four-line advantage, the Blues wouldn’t have completed the exhausting push that brought the coveted Stanley Cup to St. Louis.

Steen’s place in franchise history is secure. Alex Steen did everything for the Blues, and that’s why his name is on the Stanley Cup. 

THE RAMS ARE GONE, AND I’M GOOD

As you probably have heard by now, the Rams played their final game in St. Louis five years ago today, defeating the visiting Tampa Bay Bucs 31-23 on a bizarre Thursday night inside the Dome. My friend Jim Thomas wrote about it on STLtoday, and his entertaining piece brought back some memories — especially after JT turned on the Chris Long quote machine. 

I have my own memories.  

I was numb to it all. I didn’t even go to the game. I didn’t want to write about it. By then there was a sense of gloom and doom that Rams ownership was playing dirty, and that the NFL was up to no good. Sure, I held out some hope that the league would do the right thing, and insist on following its franchise-relocation rules. (I was a fool.) Even though they were playing their final home game in STL, the Rams were well on the way to Los Angeles. 

Oh, and the garish uniforms worn by the teams that night … 

Day Glo Heinz ketchup (Tampa Bay), Day Glo French’s mustard (Rams.) 

Send in the clowns for one last time.  

Truth is, I had already checked out … but in a different way. I didn’t care about this team, I wanted to avoid the Dome, and I was just tired of the whole damn mess. Tired of being lied to by league executives, tired of being lied to by Rams executives and the team owner. 

And I was burned out (like many of you) by the hideously bad football. The Rams were in the process of completing their 11th consecutive losing season. That was part of a 12-season non-winning streak that ended the St. Louis years. The team went 8-8 in 2004.) 

In their final 11 seasons the Rams went 56-119-1 for a .321 winning percentage. That ranked 31st among the 32 teams over that time. They had the league’s 31st-ranked offense. They didn’t score much. There was little entertainment value. Just a lot of horrendous draft picks, bonehead personnel moves, and (mostly) incoherent quarterback play. 

The stretch from 2007-2011 produced a 15-65 record, the worst five-season showing by a team in NFL history. That’s a .188 winning percentage, my friends. The list of quarterbacks who started games for the 2007-2011 Rams consisted of a beat-up Marc Bulger, a soon-to-be-beaten down Sam Bradford, Kyle Boller, Keith Null, Gus Frerotte, A.J. Feeley, Kellen Clemens, the retirement-bound Trent Green, and Brock Berlin

Those arms combined for 67 touchdowns, 92 interceptions and an ugly 68.8 passer rating. Those quarterbacks were punished for a combined 225 sacks in 80 games. No surprise there considering all of the wasted draft picks on offensive linemen who couldn’t block you or me. 

Sure, I’d prefer to have an NFL team in our town. But if the choice is between dead-men-walking football or no football team at all … I’m fine without one.

If you miss the Rams, there is no criticism from me. I’m just speaking for myself, as a fan. 

Actually, I’ll take the Battlehawks. They provided more fun in and joy in a month than the Rams did for those final 11 seasons.

Sure the Rams are good now, but I wouldn’t trust them here in St. Louis, not after all of that tanking to lose and alienate fans. And there would have been more scheming and plotting. 

I’ll always love the 1999-2001 “Greatest Show” Rams. But that was another time, a special time. That team lives in our hearts. That team has nothing to do with the joke of a team that the Rams put on the field for more than 10 years before bolting.

My football Sundays are fun now. I can watch any game that I want to see. I can keep close watch on the best games of the week, swoop in for a tense drama in the final two minutes, and track my favorite players. Not to turn this into an Eagles song, but watching football gives me a peaceful easy feeling. Watching the Rams from 2005 through 2015 usually gave me an urge to assault my own head. 

The Rams are gone. 

I’m good. 

READING TIME 5 MINUTES: 

I’m not trying to annoy you but … Harrison Bader has started 247 games for the Cardinals during his career. And when he starts, Bader has a .330 onbase percentage, .424 slugging percentage, and a .754 OPS. In 942 plate appearances and 825 at-bats as a starter Bader has 43 doubles, seven triples, 27 stolen bases in 34 attempts (79.4%). He’s homered 30 times (once every 27 at-bats) , drove in 91 runs, and scored 126 runs. 

I’m not trying to annoy you, but … it’s kind of weird to see the Kansas City Royals spending money at a time when your St. Louis Cardinals are trimming payroll and NOT spending money. (At least not yet.) That must make Mike Matheny a happy KC manager. The Royals already have signed starting pitcher Mike Minor, closer Greg Holland, first baseman Carlos Santana and outfielder Michael Taylor to short-term deals for a combined $40 million. Minor received two years and $18 million and Santana agreed to two years, $17.5 million. As ESPN noted: “It’s just nice to see a team make moves to try to contend before reaching its proverbial window, for a change.” 

Happy Birthday to Blues chairman Tom Stillman (age 68) and  Coach Berube, 55. During Stillman’s eight seasons as the team’s owner, the Blues rank 5th overall in the NHL in wins, points and winning percentage and are 7th with 40 postseason wins. The highlight of highlights was the Blues’ run to the Stanley Cup championship in 2019. Berube has a regular-season record of 80-36-16 for St. Louis, and his points percentage of .657 is the best in franchise history among Blues coaches who coached 100-plus games. Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour, Red Berenson, Jacques Demers, Brian Sutter, Mike Keenan, Joel Quenneville and Ken Hitchcock couldn’t win the Stanley Cup during their time behind the Blues’ bench — but Hail to the Chief for getting it done. Given the Blues’ extensive history of postseason torment, winning the Stanley Cup may have been the most monumental achievement by a STL professional sports franchise. The reward came in the Blues’ 51st season on ice. 

The Washington Nationals may be eyeing a move to sign Cardinals’ free-agent catcher Yadier Molina. This tweet from Washington baseball writer Robert Murray: “The Nationals are a possibility for Molina. The 38-year-old is drawing interest from multiple teams and Washington is among the teams with a need at catcher.

It’s a little early, but God bless Joe Lunardi at ESPN. His NCAA Tournament bracketology updates are always fun to look at. This week (as of Dec. 15) Joe has Illinois as a No. 3 seed, Mizzou as a No. 7 seed, and Saint Louis U as a No. 8 seed.

Opinions vary of Mizzou’s 2021 early-signing football recruiting class, but by any measure the talent haul must be considered a success. And, based on the recruiting analyst, coach Eli Drinkwitz and his staff are worthy of considerable praise. 

ESPN wasn’t as enthusiastic as others, placing Mizzou at No. 31 as of Thursday morning. But in the final 2020 rankings, ESPN had MU at 53rd. It wasn’t as bad in 2019 (33rd) but that was a one-time improvement after the Tigers had finished 40th in 2018, No. 54 in 2017, and 51st in 2016. The 247 analysts have Missouri at No. 26 for this signing period, after a No. 43 finish for the 2020 class. 

The best ranking comes from  Rivals, which had Mizzou 20th in the nation as of Thursday morning. That’s still 8th in the 14-team SEC, behind Alabama (1), LSU (3), Georgia (4), Florida (7), Texas A&M, (13), Tennessee (14), and Ole Miss (18.) But Mizzou is still rated ahead of many notable Power 5 programs including Iowa State, Penn State, Iowa, Auburn, Washington, Utah and Florida State. 

And for context consider this: in the previous 10 recruiting-class rankings at Rivals, Mizzou came in at 41st or worse five times, and cracked the top 30 only twice. (The 2014 class was 28th, and the ‘15 class was 27th. 

Nice job, Coach Drink. 

Given management’s obvious reluctance to spend money this winter, I’m not sure why Cardinals fans are still pining for a trade with Colorado for third baseman Nolan Arenado. He’s a terrific player, but … Arenado turns 30 in April. He has a career .609 slugging percentage at Coors Field, and a .471 slug away from Coors. And then there’s the money. Arenado’s contract will pay him $35 million in 2021. He can opt out after the coming season, but why would he? If Arenado declines to enter the free-agent market for 2022, his current contract will pay him $164 million through 2026. That’s an average of $32.8 million per season. Does that sound like something that chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and president of baseball ops John Mozeliak want to do? And Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt will be owed four years and $104 million as he enters 2021. 

ON THIS DAY IN ST. LOUIS PRO SPORTS HISTORY:

Future Pro Football Hall of Fame safety Larry Wilson played the final game of his career, a 24-23 home victory over Philadelphia. Wilson retired after 13 stellar seasons for the Big Red, achieving honors that included eight Pro Bowls, five All-NFL selections, 52 interceptions and countless safety blitzes. Wilson was named to the NFL’s Top 100 Players, All-Time. He passed away on Sept. 17 of this year at the age of 82 …in 1932, the Cardinals traded future Baseball Hall of Fame first baseman Sunny Jim Bottomley to Cincinnati. In 11 seasons in St. Louis, Bottomley batted .325, slugged .537, and had a .924 OPS. Sunny Jim won the National League MVP award in 1928, and played a key role for two World Series champions (1926 and 1931.) 

AS OTHERS SEE US: 

Writing for ESPN, Craig Edwards presented a list of “Over-30 MLB free agents teams shouldn’t be afraid to sign” and included two Cardinals. Starting pitcher Adam Wainwright, and Mr. Molina. 

Edwards on Waino: “Wainwright’s four-seam fastball averages just under 90 mph, and that might be why he doesn’t really throw it anymore. His sinker doesn’t get over 90 mph much either, but it is effective enough and plays off his cutter and curve. The curve is now his primary pitch, as he throws it close to 40% of the time, and it still fools batters, who hit just .191/.216/.245 off the pitch in 2020. Putting all of that together, the tall righty was a roughly average pitcher with a great performance in the playoffs in 2019, and he carried that over to 2020 with an above-average 4.11 FIP and very good 3.15 ERA. Wainwright will turn 40 near the end of next year, but he should have at least one more good season left in him, thanks to that excellent curveball.

Edwards on Molina: “:Wainwright’s long-time teammate seems like a good bet to return to St. Louis with him, but the veteran catcher is testing the market in case other teams value him more than the Cardinals do. Although his bat has slipped in recent seasons, it is worth noting that Molina’s season was pretty unusual, given the Cardinals’ extended in-season pause due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Molina caught 37 games in 39 days from Aug. 20 to the end of the season, which is a huge workload for any catcher, let alone one coming off a positive COVID-19 test at 38 years of age. Despite all of that, including the playoffs last season, Molina managed to put up a 92 wRC+, or 8% below league-average, which is average for the catching position. On defense, Molina is an above-average framer of pitches, and he controls the running game, drawing just 11 stolen base attempts all season, with only six successful steals. He isn’t likely to be a star player at this stage of his career, but as a solid full-time catcher, he should still be at least average.” 

Thanks for reading The Bits, my labor of love to you.

–Bernie 

You can listen to Bernie’s sports-talk show weekdays from 3-6 p.m. on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. Or listen online at 590thefan.com 

Bernie Miklasz
Bernie Miklasz

For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.