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Baseball Fans May Warm Up To the Game in a Minor Way

FANS disgruntled with Major League Baseball, in whatever form it assumes this year, may wish to join the back-to-the-minors movement. Baseball ''in the bushes'' is big these days, or at least bigger than it was for several lean decades, when major-league expansion and widespread television coverage had a serious negative impact.

Now fans are rediscovering the affordability and charm of minor-league ball. Some incorporate visits to minor-league games into their vacation plans. There's even a traveler's guide to minor-league baseball, ''Minor Trips,'' published by Bob Carson, a sixth-grade science and reading teacher.

The book sells for $5 and may be ordered by writing to: Minor Trips, P.O. Box 360105, Strongsville, OH 44136.

Based on a questionnaire sent with last season's orders, respondents listed their favorite minor-league ballparks as those of the Frederick (Md.) Keys; Durham (N.C.) Bulls; Buffalo (N.Y.) Bisons; Scranton Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Red Barons; and the Reading (Pa.) Phillies.

Contrast enriches Sampras-Agassi rivalry

THE men's tennis tour is convinced that Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi form the ''rivalry for the '90s.'' The Americans are first- and second-ranked in the world. Sampras serves 128 mile-per-hour aces, and Agassi hits 128 m.p.h. service returns. The clean-shaven Sampras, sometimes called ''Sweet Pete,'' likes baggy shorts and roomy shirts. Agassi, ''The Pirate,'' uses a bandanna, earring, and goatee to make his fashion statement.

If form holds, they will meet in the final of the Lipton Championships this Sunday. Sampras, the two-time defending champion, beat Agassi to win last year's Lipton title. The result was repeated in their latest match, the final of last week's Champions Cup Tournament in Indian Wells, Calif.

Golf hats off to Mr. Roberts

LOREN ROBERTS made a considerable golfing feat look almost easy Sunday at the Nestle Invitational, which he won on Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club layout in Orlando, Fla. Afterward, Roberts jokingly said he had built a large enough lead to take ''the choke factor'' out of the finishing holes. He bogeyed the 17th and 18th while still managing a two-stroke victory over Brad Faxon.

Two facts make Roberts's triumph special: He did what few professional golfers achieve by winning the same tournament in back-to-back years (in '94 he scored the first victory of a 12-year career at the Nestle); and he prevailed over a superior field. All 24 of the world's top-ranked players were present, only the second time this has happened in the 10-year history of the rankings other than at the Big Four tournaments -- the Masters, US Open, PGA Championship, and British Open.

Olympic Finnish line

THE Australians organizing the 2000 Sydney Olympic have made quite a discovery: Finland has produced the most summer Olympic medalists per capita. Summer, not winter.

Middle- and long-distance runner Paavo Nurmi, ''The Flying Finn,'' won nine gold medals between 1920 and 1928. (Sadly, Finnish runner Lasse Viren, the winner of the 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs at both the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, recently put his medals up for sale. ''What does it matter if they are with me or somewhere else,'' Sports Illustrated quoted him as saying.)

Using the Australians' methodology, the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles has concluded that the strongest overall per-capita Olympic nation, combining summer and winter results, is Liechtenstein. With a population of just 28,000, it has won nine Alpine skiing medals.

Touching other bases

r Many fans eager to witness Michael Jordan's heralded return to pro basketball and the Chicago Bulls after a 21-month absence forked over between $200 and $400 for the privilege Sunday in Indianapolis. Jordan, who came out with his shorts on backwards, started slowly, missing his first six shots, before warming up ever so slightly and finishing with 19 points in a 103-96 overtime loss to the Pacers. His .250 shooting percentage, while low by Jordan's own standards, was better than the .202 batting average he recorded during a minor-league baseball fling.

r The ability of television to not only cover but orchestrate sports events will be explored when pro football's World League of American Football returns in April. Rupert Murdoch's FOX Broadcasting and the National Football League will be partners in reviving the NFL satellite venture, which operated in 1991 and '92 before a shutdown. Murdoch says the World League will provide ''a unique combination of sports and event-oriented entertainment.''

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