Minnesota sports: Thirsty for success

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 17, 2012 - 4:35 AM

L.A. is celebrating a Stanley Cup title. Miami and Oklahoma City are showing their colors in the NBA Finals. If only fans of struggling pro teams in the Twin Cities could get a piece of that action.

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Former Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek talked after his bronze statue was uncovered for the first time at Gate 14 at Target Field last April.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Kent Hrbek sees people still celebrating the Twins' World Series titles, the last of which came 21 years ago.

The star first baseman on those two teams, and one of Minnesota's biggest sports fans, isn't all that nostalgic.

"It's time for new stuff," Hrbek joked. "I see too many '87 and '91 sweatshirts. It's time to get a new shirt."

These are historically bad times for Twin Cities pro sports team. Yes, the Lynx are treating the WNBA regular season like a barnstorming tour, but as far as professional sports go, they are the exception. The Vikings, Wild, Timberwolves and Twins are at an all-time low, in just about every measurable sense.

If you've been despairing over the local sports scene, you're not alone. Prominent sports figures with deep Minnesota ties -- Jim Petersen, who grew up in St. Louis Park; Lynx star Lindsay Whalen, who grew up in Hutchinson; Lou Nanne, who came to Minnesota in 1959 and never really left, and Hrbek -- feel your angst.

Hrbek grew up in Bloomington, listened to the Twins on the radio with his dad, pretended he was Tony Oliva while playing Home Run Derby in his back yard, pretended he was J.P. Parise when he was playing hockey.

"I'm with everyone else," Hrbek said. "I'm struggling with this."

The Vikings have won nine games the past two seasons. The Timberwolves have failed to make the playoffs eight consecutive seasons, the Wild four. The Twins tumbled to 99 losses last season and are struggling again this year.

In all the years Minnesota has had pro teams in all four major sports -- and that includes a couple years in the 1960s when the American Basketball Association was here -- the market never has seen all four teams fail to make the playoffs for two consecutive seasons at the same time.

Of the 12 U.S. markets that have all four major sports, only the Twin Cities and Washington have failed to win a championship since 2000. And the longest title drought belongs here, dating to when the Twins beat Atlanta in seven games for the 1991 title.

Winning, losing cycles

Petersen played basketball for the Gophers and had a solid NBA career. He is now a Lynx assistant coach and Wolves TV announcer. But he grew up a huge North Stars fan.

"I wanted to be Cesare Maniago," he said, of the team's storied goalie.

Playing pro ball changed the 6-10 Petersen, who grew up selling Vikings programs at Met Stadium in exchange for free admission. Now Petersen is less of a fan, more of an analyst. That changed for good after the shocking 1998 NFC title game loss by the Vikings to the Atlanta Falcons.

"I'm still a fan of the Wolves, no matter what," he said. "But I understand the fans' situation. It's been tough. You have to fight for entertainment dollars here. You'd better draft well, make good management decisions."

Nanne, the former North Stars player, coach and general manager, came to the Twin Cities in 1959 to play hockey for the Gophers. He was here when the Twins and Vikings came, and has been here, for the most part, ever since.

"When you look at it, it's only been a couple of years," he said. "The Vikings aren't that far from having won, the Twins had some great seasons not long ago. It's been a while for the Wolves and Wild. But these things are cyclical. You have to remember, we have a tougher time getting free agents to come to this marketplace. It's tougher to build a team than it would be in New York, or Boston or L.A."

There certainly have been cycles of success. In 2003, for example. The 2002-03 Wild made it to the conference finals, the Wolves won 51 games and the Twins went to the postseason. In 2004 three of the four teams made the playoffs, with the Wolves going to the conference finals.

And there have been down times. The 2004-05 NHL season was canceled due to the lockout, and the other three teams failed to make the playoffs. Back in 1995, before the Wild filled the void left with the North Stars moving to Dallas, none of the three teams had a winning record.

But it has never been like this.

Optimistic group

Whalen, the point guard on the most successful pro franchise in town right now, grew up in Hutchinson a huge fan of all Minnesota sports, especially the Vikings. She keeps up with all the teams, even when she's playing basketball in Europe.

She shares the fans' pain.

"The last couple years have been hard," she said. "The Vikings seasons have been tough ever since we almost got to the top with the [2009] NFC Championship Game. But that last year with [Brett] Favre, and last season with [Donovan] McNabb, it was hard. But they'll turn it around eventually. And the other teams will, too."

Like true fans, Whalen, Petersen, Nanne and Hrbek see a light at the end of the tunnel.

Petersen had a front-row seat to watch Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love push the Wolves into playoff contention before Rubio's season-ending knee injury. Whalen loves the Vikings' youth movement. Nanne feels the Wild will be the next Minnesota team in the playoffs thanks to Wild GM Chuck Fletcher's commitment to young, talented players.

Hrbek?

"I even catch flak from my buddies," he said. "They say, 'What's wrong with the Twins?' I know they're trying. The organization is trying. ... Stuff happens, and now is not the time to be a bandwagon jumper."

One other thing they all agree on is this: There is a huge yearning for success among local fans waiting for a team to break through.

"If you win, it will be unbelievable," Petersen said.

Said Whalen: "If you have a team that works hard and goes about things the right way? We, in Minnesota, we love that."

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