IS Minnesota losing its grip as a major-league sports locale? One has to wonder, given reports that pro basketball's Minnesota Timberwolves may follow hockey's North Stars in exiting the Twin Cities, possibly for Nashville.
The erosion of pro sports in the Twin Cities is unsettling. In the case of the North Stars, the split was acrimonious and perplexing. After all, if any state deserves to have a National Hockey League franchise it is Minnesota, prime hockey country. Many NHL players and United States hockey Olympians come from Minnesota, which, beginning next school year, will become the first state to add girls' ice hockey to its interscholastic sports program.
That the Timberwolves are contemplating an exit is almost as distressing, given the enthusiasm that has surrounded the National Basketball Association's return to Minnesota four years ago. Minnesotans have supported the Timberwolves with near-capacity crowds, even though there's been little to cheer - the Wolves are among the worst teams in the league.
The problem reportedly is the mortgage on the Target Center, the three-year-old arena where the Timberwolves play. The owners of the arena also own the team, and say they're losing money. They want to sell the facility and possibly move the basketball franchise. It seems unimaginable that the NBA or city officials won't try to prevent the exodus, but stranger things have happened. Gretzky's impact honored
IF any major sports trophy were awarded on the basis of aura and charisma, this year's Lester Patrick Trophy, presented recently in Los Angeles, was it. Wayne Gretzky, a Canadian, was one of two individuals cited by the National Hockey League for his ``outstanding service to hockey in the United States.''
Bob Ridder, a longtime administrator and builder of amateur hockey programs in the US received the other miniature copy of the original trophy, which honors the late Lester Patrick, the longtime general manager and coach of the New York Rangers.
The award has been presented annually since 1966 to players, officials, coaches, referees, and team and league executives.
So what has Gretzky done to deserve it? In announcing the winners, the NHL called Gretzky ``the leading force in establishing hockey as a national sport in the United States.''
His arrival with the Los Angeles Kings in 1988, after 10 championship-studded seasons in Edmonton, Alberta, triggered a chain reaction. The Kings became a prime attraction, paving the way for four new NHL expansion franchises in warm-weather climates - two in California (the San Jose Sharks and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks) and two in Florida (the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Panthers of Miami).
That, in turn, has led to record increases in league licensing revenue and merchandise sales, a cable TV contract with ESPN, and a return to US network television on ABC. Touching other bases
* The way major league baseball games statistics are collected sometimes doesn't seem fair. Last week, Montreal's Pedro Martinez pitched almost eight perfect innings against Cincinnati, finally giving up a hit in the ninth. But he did not get credit for the 3-2 victory, which Montreal secured in the bottom of the ninth. Similarly, Cleveland reliever Derek Lilliquist came in against California in the bottom of the ninth and picked up the victory without getting a single out. Pinch-runner Red Hudler was thrown out stealing to end the game. But because of baseball's game-scoring complexities, Lilliquist walked off the mound with credit for the win.
* One of the beauties of baseball is that size is pretty much a nonfactor, a point that came to mind last week as the Atlanta Braves saluted Hank Aaron. Aaron became Major League Baseball's all-time home run leader 20 years ago this month when his 715th round-tripper placed him ahead of Babe Ruth. Aaron, who was neither tall (5 ft. 11 in.) nor heavy (175 pounds) in his prime, nonetheless powered 755 balls out of the park during a 23-year career.
* The front-row treatment television provides couch-potato fans can make it mighty tempting to stay at home, especially when those who go to the games are denied some of the best instant replays. Until now, that has been the case in Major League Baseball, where controversial replays have been banned from scoreboard video screens. This has been in deference to the umpires, who don't want to incite home-team second-guessers. Nevertheless, baseball is now letting video screen operators show close plays as a service to fans. A close play can only be shown once, though, and not in slow motion. Balls-and-strikes pitching calls cannot be reviewed. Even so, the boss of the umpires' union has protested the replay decision to the American and National League presidents.