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THE TREND took off about 10 years ago, after the sunstroked
folks who were awarded the NBA expansion franchise in Miami
chose to dub their new team the Heat, a nickname that was only
slightly more flattering to the region than the Rental
Carjackers or the Blue-Haired Ladies Driving 45 MPH On I-95 With
Their Left Blinker On would have been. The nickname was not only
silly, it was singular--a fact that has surely doomed the Heat to
a lifetime of heartbreak. As Archie Bunker would say, it's a
well-known fact. You can look it up: A professional sports team
that doesn't end its nickname with an s doesn't end its season
with a championship. The Boston Red Sox last won the World
Series in 1918, and no NBA, NFL, NHL or major league baseball
team without an s at the end of its nickname has won a world
championship since.

Despite all the evidence, the Heat was quickly followed by the
Orlando Magic, which led the way for the Tampa Bay Lightning,
and before long it became obvious: We are officially out of
sensible team nicknames. Like mystery-novel titles, auto
mechanics and proven NFL quarterbacks, all the good ones are
taken. When they finally decided to shed a nickname that
connoted violence, the Washington Bullets asked their fans to
vote for one of five candidates as a replacement. I'm not saying
the choices were lame, but I believe Alan Keyes came in second.
The team never announced the results of its telephone poll, but
owner Abe Pollin settled on Wizards, which makes it sound as if
Marques Haynes should be playing the point.

Lately it seems as though team owners and universities have
given up their search for good, strong, proud names such as
Lions and Tigers and Bears, and decided to go with the silliest
damn thing that pops into their heads. For 13 years people
laughed at UC Santa Cruz for calling its teams the Banana
Slugs--until they saw John Travolta wearing a Banana Slugs
T-shirt in Pulp Fiction. Across minor league baseball these
days, teams are unabashedly attempting to cash in on ridiculous
nicknames. You aren't a hip, happenin' baseball fan until you
have a Winston-Salem (N.C.) Warthogs T-shirt or a Lansing
(Mich.) Lugnuts hat.

The latest trend in the minors is to invent a breed of dog and
see how it sells: There are the Portland (Maine) Seadogs, the
Florida Beachdogs and, making their debut this year, the
Massachusetts Mad Dogs. It's too bad the trend didn't carry over
to the majors, which will soon include a team called the Tampa
Bay Devil Rays. While most fans don't have a clue what a Devil
Ray is, everyone is familiar with Devil Dogs.

The search for the most outrageous and contrived nickname has
gone too far. Take, for example, Major League Soccer, which will
begin its inaugural season in April and probably fold by the
Fourth of July. When they introduced their venture last year,
the people behind MLS vowed that their league would be different
from the countless other pro soccer leagues that have gone
belly-up in this country, and they asked us to take them
seriously. Then they revealed the names of their teams, and I'm
still trying to figure one thing out: Are they kidding?

Of the 10 MLS teams, only two have plural nicknames, the
Colorado Rapids and the New York-New Jersey MetroStars, which
sounds more like a commuter train line than a sports team. The
rest of the teams could be part of the Lollapalooza tour. Where
to begin? There are the Columbus (Ohio) Crew, the Dallas Burn,
the Los Angeles Galaxy, the New England Revolution, the San Jose
Clash, the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the (Washington) D.C. United. I
can picture it: kids all across Ohio putting on hard hats and
dreaming of someday playing for the Crew, whose logo shows three
construction workers. The United? Now, there's a catchy
nickname. What are they going to use for a mascot--a flight

The Burn is no longer just something you get when you eat
drive-thru Mexican. Now it's a soccer team. In Tampa they were
looking for a name that would instill pride and loyalty in their
players. They chose Mutiny. They must have found out that Knicks
was already taken.

Of course representatives of the Burn, the Crew and the Mutiny
could only stand back in awe when the MLS folks announced that
the league's Kansas City franchise would be known as the Wiz.
They must have thought the Kansas City Tinkle didn't sound
dignified enough.

Last month the general manager of the Wiz, Tim Latta, actually
sent a letter to season-ticket holders in which he revealed the
team's slogan: "... as the ads will say, 'You Gotta Go!'" Three
days later the team renounced the wee-wee jokes and vowed to
come up with another slogan--and chances are one of the team's
account executives, Rusty John, will not be asked for his input.
Still, if nothing else, the Wiz has positioned itself for some
lucrative advertising deals: Tonight, sports fans, the Wiz was
brought to you by Budweiser....

Well, no kidding. Isn't it always?

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: EVANGELOS VIGLIS [Drawing of athletes looking at team names written on pieces of paper that came from can labeled "NICKNAMES"]