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Time to Circle The Bandwagons

Of the many distasteful things you can be on in sports--steroids, probation, Around the Horn--none carry a greater stigma than the bandwagon, that universally reviled mode of transport now packed with fans of the Bengals, White Sox and Clippers.

Jet-lagged in a Los Angeles hotel room the other night, I woke to see on the late local news one of the many Clippers I don't recognize announce into a small bouquet of microphones that the team's bandwagon was now full: Anyone not already on it was no longer welcome aboard. In other words, only those three imbeciles who supported the team through a quarter century of apathetic play for a venal owner in a disgusting arena were truly entitled to enjoy the Clips' 7-2 start. At that moment I defiantly took a seat at the front of the Clippers' bandwagon in simultaneous tribute to two very different Parks--Rosa and Cherokee.

"You can't be a fan when you pick and choose to be a fan," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said two years ago while blistering Cincinnatians for jumping off the team's bandwagon. But within hours he phoned a local radio station to apologize, perhaps realizing that you can pick and choose when to be a fan.

I do. Like most sportswriters, I've been on so many bandwagons I am now eligible for preboarding. I leaped onto the Celtics' bandwagon in the early '80s and popped off their blandwagon in the early '90s as if it were public transport--a streetcar named Deserter.

And so I'm here to offer an impassioned defense of bandwagoneers. You know who you are: a fair-weather front-runner who never bothers to get in on the ground floor because you know you can chopper onto a rooftop helipad. Spring training tickets? No, thanks. Fall Classic tickets? Yes, please.

There are millions of us. Who were those Chicago masses packing South Side bars during the World Series? Nobody goes to or cares about White Sox games--the team was 17th in attendance last season--and yet "Sox fans" filled U.S. Cellular Field to 102% of capacity for the World Series, a fact that some Sox players seemed to resent. "We played for us and the Sox fans we had," pitcher Mark Buehrle told the Chicago Tribune in November. "We don't need no bandwagon fans jumping on."

Set aside for the moment the rich irony of professional athletes complaining about bandwagon-jumping. It's what they do, abandoning the hermit-crab shell of one useless uniform for the more promising prospect of another. By Buehrle's logic, the Beatles would have preferred to sell records only to those fans who came to see them in Hamburg in 1961.

In every form of entertainment besides sports, we wait until someone is good before paying to see him. It's why Itzhak Perlman sells out Carnegie Hall while third-grade recital halls are mostly empty.

You can be a bandwagon-jumper while still going to games, of course, as Penn State fans have demonstrated over the last several seasons. And isn't it possible that those Nittany Lions fans who want to canonize Joe Paterno this year and wanted to cannonade him last year were right both times? His teams weren't fun to watch when they were going through four losing seasons in five years, and they are fun to watch now. The Web address and the Web address both lead you to a single Janus-faced site that is at once violently opposed to and adamantly in favor of pink-slipping JoePa. And it has a point. Two of them, actually.

The original bandwagons were horse-drawn flatbeds that carried brass bands, often at political parades, so that "jumping on a bandwagon" was a way of showing support for a political candidate. But where voters once jumped on a politician's bandwagon, now the reverse happens. Last week, after the Florida Marlins--who never drew crowds except during their seven World Series games--were granted permission from Major League Baseball to move, Miami mayor Carlos Alvarez promised local fans that Dade County would "explore any and all options" to keep their team in South Florida.

In the end, you can't win. Once denounced for jumping off the bandwagon, Bengals fans are now ridiculed for climbing back on. "Everybody was on the Cincinnati Bengals' bandwagon," Steelers receiver Hines Ward sniffed after Pittsburgh beat Cincinnati in Week 7, as if there were no more distasteful activity imaginable than watching the Bengals now that they're watchable.

As for me, Johnny-come-latest, I've been a Bengals fan since Day One (of Week 9.) And I'll be one for the rest of the season, sticking with my boys through thick and thicker.

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Cincinnati fans are ridiculed for climbing back on the Bengals' bandwagon, as if nothing were more distasteful than watching the team now that it's watchable.