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Free agent fans

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Cartoon by Rigee

TEMPE, ARI. - Under the brilliant desert sun that helps make spring training baseball a time of awakening for players and fans, the game's best hitter is blasting away in the batting cage. He looks as sharp as ever, so why should I care that Albert Pujols' red jersey now says Angels rather than Cardinals?

I'm finished being a sucker. Like many liberated fans, I no longer care about teams as much as individual players.

This is part of a gradual, but unmistakable shift that began decades ago when free agency set players loose and sports franchises started moving from one city to another. Until recently, however, fans were stuck with the local team and its roster.

Now, if you're a Pujols fan in St. Louis, where he hit 445 homers and batted .328 over the last 11 years, you can root for him just as easily with his L.A. team. You can see every game he plays on satellite TV or computer and read details of his performance on Internet blogs. You can still have him on your fantasy baseball team. And you can frequent his website (Pujolsfive.com), like him on Facebook, or follow his tweets (@PujolsFive).

Many fans are still inclined to think of the local team as being "us," in a civic-minded sort of way, overlooking the fact that pro athletes and their employers are in the entertainment business. Nothing wrong with that. But the notion that fans should slavishly root for a particular team no matter who it hires or where it opts to play is passé.

The best recent example involves Jeremy Lin, the 23-year-old Harvard grad who leaped from obscurity to become the NBA's hottest player. Like many fans, I immediately started watching his games on satellite, and the fact that Lin happens to play for the New York Knicks is irrelevant; if Lin ever leaves the Knicks, I'm going with him.

By placing most games on satellite and computer, teams have encouraged fans to find freedom. And media supports it with highlights that increasingly emphasize individual achievements - from "Web Gems" to the "Dunks of the Day."

It's quite different, of course, at the amateur level, where Little League and scholastic sports appropriately inspire community allegiance, while teaching kids about teamwork and loyalty. With pro sports, however, there are few teams I'd care to root for any more than I root for, say, FedEx or Starbucks - to name businesses I admire but whose logos I'd never wear on a shirt or hat unless they paid me to do it.

To be sure, some sports franchises are more worthy of respect than others. The Green Bay Packers, for example, are owned by roughly 112,000 of their fans. The Angels and their owner Arte Moreno, who lured Pujols, operate possibly the most fan-friendly organization in pro sports. But generally, there is no real fun in rooting for corporations unless you're a shareholder.

Sports have always provided the great American metaphors, so you have to wonder if our attitude toward athletes reflects a wider societal trend. After all, manufacturers, just like sports franchises, don't give a hoot about leaving town if they can find a better deal. We hire a million or so soldiers to handle our wars, and then fail to cheer them on like we once did. Our politicians behave increasingly like free agent athletes, looking out for themselves and seeking the biggest endorsement deals when they retire.

Fortunately, sports offers simpler choices. I still root for one team over another during specific games, and I continue to give an extra measure of emotional support to the teams from the region where I live. But that's it. I refuse to be part of, say, the Red Sox Nation as if it deserved the same allegiance as an actual country, and if the score disappoints me, I won't bleed Dodger Blue.

Here at spring training I'm rooting for a dozen players on a half-dozen different teams. I find that free agency works as well in the stands as it does on the field.

- The columns of Peter Funt, a writer and public speaker, are

distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc. (www.CandidCamera.com).

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