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SERIOUS MALADY AFFLICTING FANS ACROSS NATION: FRONTRUNNERITIS

It's time to address a serious topic in this column, specifically that dread disease afflicting not just baseball, but all of professional sports: Frontrunneritis, also known as Bandwagonosis.

It's an ailment suffered by a vast multitude of contemporary sports fans, causing them to switch "favorite" teams more often than they change their socks. Usually much more often.Fans inflicted by this malady are easily recognized by the brand-spanking-new caps, jackets, T-shirts and other items of apparel they wear, all sporting the logo of their current team of choice. At the recent state high school baseball tournament, for instance, it was amazing how many fans - most of whom have probably never been east of the Rockies - sported bright red Cincinnati Reds hats. Last year at this time, you could have thrown a net over the entire Salt Lake Valley and done well to turn up one such hat.

Children seem to be even more susceptible to the infirmity than adults, influenced as the youngsters are by trading cards. Kids decide they like a player when his card is worth a lot, then drop him in favor of a new hero when his card begins to lose value.

The biggest contributor to the spread of this pestilence is, of course, TV, which tears down natural, regional biases in fans' minds by hyping certain individuals (Who said Bo?) and teams (How 'bout those 49ers?), specifically, teams that win. Remember the Steeler frenzy of the '70s, the Celtic pride of the early '80s, the Met mania of the mid-80s? All clear examples of Frontrunneritis.

The cure? Here's one suggestion: Require all sports enthusiasts to register as fans of the team of their choice, then cut off their cable TV privileges if they are discovered rooting for a different team. Unless they have a darn good reason, like the team has moved to Florida, or has taken to wearing pastel uniforms, or something equally odious.

NOT LIKE THE OLD DAYS: Of course, one reason fans feel less loyalty to teams these days is because players have become so mobile. It used to be that fans of a team could always count on certain mainstay players being with the club year after year. The New York Yankee lineups of the late '50s and early '60s, for instance, changed about one player per year. Now, in the era of free agency and unbridled trading, wholesale lineup changes from one month to the next are not uncommon.

Consider: Only eight players from the Los Angeles Dodgers' World Series title team of 1988 remain with the club, and only seven players - and not a single pitcher - from the Minnesota Twins' championship team still play in the Twin Cities.

OVER THE EDGE: Here's an example of memorabilia collecting reaching a new low: At an auction to benefit Special Olympics in Houston, someone paid $6,250 for a piece of equipment worn by Nolan Ryan when he pitched his seventh no-hitter. The equipment? A protective cup. The perfect conversation piece for your mantel.

WHO CAN YOU TRUST? Baseball's Mr. Nice Guy, Dale Murphy, recently looked suspicious enough at his home ballpark, Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, that a security guard accosted him and demanded some identification. "I didn't have a baseball card to show him, so I just showed him my driver's license," Murphy said. "I guess it worked, because he let me in. I guess I'll have to go out tonight and get an infield single." All he managed was a homer, though.

OBVIOUSLY TERRIFIED: Dodger pitcher Kevin Gross, the free-agent signee with the 4.98 ERA, was seen gesturing and shouting at Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda when pulled from a recent game in the fourth inning, trailing 3-0. One Dodger player said Gross screamed at Lasorda: "What am I here for, caddying?" The player said Lasorda seemed shocked and predicted: "I don't think Tommy will take him out like that again. He looked scared." Right. Lasorda was so frightened that he removed Gross from the starting rotation completely in favor of Orel Hershiser.

TRADE RUMOR: Wally Joyner's name keeps popping up in the same sentence as that of Bobby Bonilla of Pittsburgh. Both players will be free agents in October, and both have been unable to come to terms with their parent clubs on multi-year deals . . . Bonilla for the Mets' Dave Magadan and Gregg Jefferies has also been mentioned. The Mets have been quietly working out Hubie Brooks at first base, which seems an indication Magadan may be history. And Jefferies keeps popping off about how unhappy he is.