It's always been the Cardinals who give St. Louis fans their oft-mocked title of Best Fans in Baseball, but once upon a time a list of the most popular athletes in town might have been dominated by the Greatest Show on Turf; everyone loved Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, and even, briefly, Mike Martz. Warner and Bruce's offseason retirements mark the nadir in Ram and Blues influence on this baseball town, and as SB Nation St. Louis launches one might be hard-pressed to come up with a list of most popular athletes that doesn't look like the Cardinals' batting order.
Of course, we've managed.
No. 1: Albert Pujols
Albert Pujols' performance is followed in St. Louis like Barack Obama's in Washington D.C.—Viva El Birdos may as well be his Politico. His recent slump, which has carried on for much of May and June, has been cause for more alarm than the Cardinals' battle for first place with the Reds, and if he failed to hit .300 with 30 home runs and 100 RBI for the first time in his career it would be worse for some psyches than a 100-loss season, or the Rams leaving town, or a bigger, more impressive monumental arch being built in Chicago.
All this worry, of course, comes out of what's going on ten years of outstanding and idiosyncratic play. Albert Pujols does everything well—he hits, he runs, he fields his position—and he does it while being a well-respected guy off the field, the rare power hitter who isn't tarred unfairly with the steroids brush. He turned down a nickname, El Hombre, because it was disrespectful to Stan Musial; he takes an active role in a foundation to help people with Down Syndrome. It doesn't hurt that he has a funny, easily imitated accent.
No. 2: Adam Wainwright
Wainwright came into town in the trade that sent J.D. Drew, a fellow Georgian whom St. Louis fans never loved, to the Braves, and after making the team as a reliever he earned a lifetime of internet animated GIF fame by striking Carlos Beltran out with the most beautiful curveball anybody had ever seen.
When Chris Carpenter's arm took a two year hiatus immediately following the Cardinals' unlikely World Series victory, Wainwright came out of the bullpen and emerged as the Cardinals ace-by-default—and then, finally, just an ace. As a young star emerging in the twilight of Walt Jocketty's prospect-trading dynasty, Wainwright has symbolized the Mozeliak-era Cardinals like no other player.
No. 3: Sam Bradford
That he hasn't played yet is irrelevant. Actually, I take that back—that he hasn't played yet is relevant in a good way. Sam Bradford has nothing to do with the Zombie-Marc-Bulger Rams; he hasn't yet disappointed a listless Edward Jones Dome crowd. He's a clean slate.
So no player on this list could move up or down faster than Sam Bradford, who represents this Rams squad's best chance in the post-Martz era to recapture St. Louis. As ownership questions and stadium complaints recede into the background, he (and his banged up offensive line) have a chance to create a few pleasant surprises, or continue the team's inauspicious start to the decade.
No. 4: Yadier Molina
Cardinals fans value catchers more than most—perhaps more than they should. Mike Matheny became a folk hero despite hitting .244/.304/.339 for five years because we liked to watch him block wild pitches with any handy body part and throw out baserunners so often that they stopped trying. Molina, his understudy in 2004 and his replacement ever after, has lately combined defensive brilliance with offensive adequacy, and there's no place that could go over better than Busch Stadium.
Molina plays defense like no other catcher—he's got nearly twice as many pick-offs as any other catcher since he was installed as a starter. He's got playoff heroics, hitting a crucial NLCS homer back in his banjo-hitting days, and he smiles a lot, seemingly without regard for what's actually going on. It's a recipe for a lot of T-shirt jersey sales.
No. 5: Steven Jackson
Steven Jackson and Rams fans have an uncomfortable relationship; I'd call it love-hate except it seems like neither ever actually gets all the way to loving or hating the other. So long as Jackson continues to blast off from behind the line and Rams fans continue to subsidize his salary the two sides are locked in an uneasy cease-fire.
Jackson has a weird relationship with football fans outside of St. Louis, too—when his name comes up the first or second round of fantasy drafts I am always surprised at the number of people who, reminded that he plays for a St. Louis team without other offensive options, talk about how sad a situation it is, as though he's locked inside a tower at the Edward Jones Dome.