By Kathleen Nelson
Of the Post-Dispatch

The Rams are moving forward by staying put.

They have become part of a trend among NFL teams that hold training camp at their practice facility - in the Rams' case, in Earth City- rather than in the quiet seclusion of venues such as Western Illinois University in Macomb. The Rams are the 13th NFL team to eschew the traditional summer getaway to remain closer to the comforts of home.

The biggest advantage of staying at Rams Park is continuity, according to John Oswald, Rams vice president of operations. "You know you don't have to break anything down, relocate, put it all back together, break it down again and move it all back here in a way that's conducive to Coach Martz's practice schedule," he said.

Oswald said that the team needed five tractor trailers and three to five days to load, unload and set up the trainers' equipment, weights, video equipment and other gear for each leg of the training camp trip.

By staying home, Rams players will have easier access to medical specialists, a concern of coach Mike Martz. In the past, injured Rams had to travel back and forth between Macomb and the doctors in St. Louis.

Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries are Rams fans, who can watch as many as 15 practice sessions in their own their backyard, relatively speaking, rather than making a three-hour trek through rural Illinois.

"We hope we have more fans," Oswald said. "It's hard to say how many more because so many practices are during the work week."

The Rams will have just one weekend at which practice will be open to the public, July 29-31. The Rams plan to install bleachers and to allow fans to stand along a hill behind one of the end zones. They'll offer refreshments for sale and allow small coolers.

They plan to hold an autograph session after the morning practices, though player availability will be more limited than it was at Macomb. Fans will be on the far side of the field and at one end zone; the players will leave the field and go to the locker room headed in the opposite direction.

Perhaps the biggest issue for fans is parking, which was never a problem in Macomb. Plenty of spots were available because of the fields' proximity to Western Illinois' stadium parking lot.

This year, fans should park in the open field north of the main gate of Rams Park. The Rams plan to lay gravel over the grass to avoid a repeat of the muddy trap that golf fans fell into at the Boone Valley Classic in 2000, when rains turned a field into quicksand and spectators couldn't get their cars out of the mud.

Dan Linza, the Rams director of security, urged fans to use the lot, rather than park on the streets or in the lots of nearby businesses. Oswald said he had notified offices around Rams Park of the team's plans, so they can expect increased traffic from Friday until open practice session August 18.

"We've let them know and will provide 'No Parking' signs for their business," Oswald said. "They have been good neighbors about this."

Where to put the players?

One of the advantages teams have touted for years about the getaway to camp was the team bonding that occurs when players have no distractions. The Rams hope to instill some of that esprit de corps by housing players at the Four Points Sheraton, less than a half-mile from Rams Park.

The team will provide shuttles to and from the hotel for practices, though players also can drive their own cars. Linza said providing the players with the option of driving themselves could cause confusion.

"This is one of those things we have to wait and see how it's going to work out," Linza said. "We're prepared to be flexible."

Oswald also is taking a wait-and-see approach to feeding the players. In Macomb, players stayed in dorms on the Western Illinois campus and ate in the dorm cafeteria. At camp this year, food arrangements are far more complicated. Oswald said players would eat breakfast, dinner and snacks at the hotel.

Lunch will be served at Rams Park in an area that has been used as a basketball court and interview room next to the small kitchen area. Oswald said the Rams used the minicamp in June to test the procedures at Rams Park and at the Sheraton.

"It was a dry run, to get the players used to it," he said, noting that to avoid congestion in the feed zone at Rams Park, "We trained them to go in one door and out the other. Things went fairly well, but this is probably my biggest concern."

Linza said he feared that because access to the players would be more limited at Rams Park than in Macomb, fans might try to stake out the team hotel to get autographs.

"The players are going to be there so little, and they need their rest," Linza said, noting he had hired more than two dozen security personnel. You'll be able to spot them in their bright yellow polo shirts.

Field conditions

When the team trained in Macomb, the grass at Rams Park got a rest from June until late August, helping the fields remain in pristine condition through the season. Two-a-day practices during the hottest, driest part of the year will stress the turf and allow it no recovery time.

Even a move indoors causes problems, Oswald said. The hangar-like building that houses the indoor field holds the heat as well as Busch Stadium. Oswald has contracted with Fabick Heating and Cooling to provide air-conditioning units. To cool such a large area, though, the units will have to run as much as 24 hours before a practice moves inside. In reality, they probably will run almost constantly.

"It's going to be a new experience," Linza said. "There will be a few unknowns, but we feel like it's nothing we can't handle."