The River City Renegade


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Victoria HarbourCats keeping the Claire Eccles girl-vs-boys story on the down low; gets first start on Sunday

At first blush, I’ll admit that I was skeptical and cynical about the signing of Claire Eccles. It reeked of gimmickry. Sexist gimmickry.

I mean, the girl-vs-boys angle is the simplest sideshow to sell in sports. It’s also one of the media’s favorite chew toys. For evidence, look no further than Billie Jean King, Manon Rheaume, Annika Sorenstam, Michelle Wie, Mo’ne Davis, Hayley Wickenheiser and Danica Patrick.

Yes, sir, put a Jill in with the jocks and it’s news copy gold. And, hey, it’s a bonus for the marketing wizards if she’s what the lads call a “looker.” (Do you really think Patrick has been showered with all that publicity because she’s made a habit of getting her race car to the finish line ahead of the good, ol’ boys on the top NASCAR circuit? She leads the league in long hair and lipstick, not top-10 finishes.)

Claire Eccles

So what better way for the Victoria HarbourCats to put rumps in the pews of their quaint ballpark than to trot a girl-next-door type out to the pitcher’s mound and have her strike out all those hot-shot college boys from Trumpsylvania? Curiosity seekers are guaranteed to flock to Royal Athletic Park on the edge of downtown Victoria and cheer lustily each time Eccles is beckoned to make the hike to the hill, with the hip-hop beat of Gwen Stefani’s Hollaback Girl accompanying her every step. Ka-ching!

Except that isn’t how the Claire Eccles baseball-with-the-boys tale is unfolding.

Oh, sure, there was an avalanche of attention from the Fourth Estate—hither and yon—upon the Surrey southpaw’s arrival in the B.C. capital. ESPN, the Washington Post, the Globe and Mail, the National Post, Sportsnet and MSN.com, among many others, eagerly glombed onto the Eccles story at the outset. But a week into the 19-year-old’s West Coast League experience, she has been summoned by head coach Brian McRae exactly once. For a two-inning gig.

If that’s a publicity stunt based on gender, the HarbourCats are failing miserably at Marketing 101.

That’s the point, though. Other than the announcement of Eccles coming on board, the HarbourCats have resisted any urge to play the gender card in an effort to inflate ticket sales. Bravo for them. She’s a baseball player, not a promotional circus act.

Mind you, that might be about to change, because McRae did the chin-wag thing with MSN.com 120 Sports on Tuesday morning and he declared Eccles his starter when the Kitsap BlueJackets come calling for a non-league game this weekend at RAP.

We’re gonna give her a shot, just like we give all the other guys that are here, to compete for innings,” McRae said. “She’s gonna start for us next Sunday and we’ll see where it goes from there.”

That sound you hear is the publicity machine cranking up.

I can’t imagine the pre-game noise being any louder than in July 2010, though. That’s when the Chico Outlaws and their so-called Knuckle Princess paid a visit to Royal Athletic Park. As it turns out, Eri Yoshida’s knuckler didn’t knuckle so well. The Japanese hurler allowed just one hit, but it was a grand slam, and she also walked seven batsmen and hit three others in her 2 1/3 innings of work. The thing is, advance hype attracted 4,753 to the ballpark that night, the largest gathering in Victoria Seals history.

Brian McRae

By contrast, when Eccles emerged from the bullpen last week to become the first female to pitch in the WCL, the head count was approximately 800. (She mopped up in a 9-0 loss to the Wenatchee RedSox and produced this pitching line: 2 IP, 1 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 1 HBP, 0 K, 9.00 ERA.)

It’s a safe bet that the HarbourCats Hollaback Girl will be hucking the rawhide in front of an audience three to five times that size on the afternoon of June 18 at the local ballyard.

I think having people like Claire come in and show everybody out there that it’s not a publicity stunt, that she’s getting an opportunity because she has a chance to be successful and help us, I think, in turn, that empowers other girls. I think you may see more and more women trying to play baseball,” said McRae, who clearly sees both the short- and long-term pictures. “Pitching is about the only thing I think, if a woman were to be able to play pro ball, where they could compete with the males, would be on the mound.”

And if Eccles, a University of British Columbia student who also pitches for Canada’s national women’s team, has designs on playing pro baseball?

She’s gotta get a little bit stronger, add some miles-an-hour to her fastball,” said McRae, who played 10 years in Major League Baseball. “We think she could throw 80 miles-an-hour if we cleaned up her mechanics and got her to use her lower body a little bit better. Her fastball tops out about 71, 72 miles-an-hour right now, and her knuckleball is in the mid-60s or so, but we think there’s more there that can get her to throw a little bit harder and be a little bit more effective.”

In the meantime, “It’s been kind of cool having her around.”

Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling mostly about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, but she now lives one block from Royal Athletic Park in Victoria and might cross the street to watch Claire Eccles throw a baseball.

 


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About sports and social issues…women in the Hockey Hall of Fame…sad days in America…that left-wing kook Babs…and other things on my mind

I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

I have often wondered why more sports scribes don’t tackle societal issues, yet, when they do, I wonder why they bothered.

Consider Michael Grange of Sportsnet, as an e.g.

Grange penned a piece in the wake of last week’s United States presidential election that sends Donald Trump to the White House, and it included this comment: “Sports have generally been perceived as being ahead of the general population on many social issues. While not always elegantly, the major U.S. sports leagues have pushed ahead on inclusivity and tolerance.”

I assume Grange wrote that with a straight face, which is ironic because it’s so laughable.

I mean, hands up anyone who actually believes that major professional sports has been “ahead” of the curve in areas such as domestic violence, gay rights, gender equality, drug abuse, drunk driving, etc. Hmmm, I don’t see any hands. No surprise.

Our major professional sports leagues, all of which are for and about men, have been a leader on these issues like Lady Gaga is a middle linebacker.

Let’s use sexual orientation as an example. Openly gay men can be found in every segment of society, from our military to our music, from our law courts to our classrooms, from our newspapers and our TV networks to our amateur playing fields and arenas. Yet how many openly gay men play in the National Hockey League? The National Football League? The National Basketball Association? Major League Baseball? Zero.

Julia Lemigova and tennis great Martina Navratilova on their wedding day.

Julia Lemigova and tennis great Martina Navratilova on their wedding day.

Meantime, there are out lesbians performing in the Women’s NBA—Elena Delle Donne, Janel McCarville, Brittney Griner, Seimone Augustus, etc. Professional women’s tennis has featured many out lesbians, including legendary players such as Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, as well as Grand Slam champions Amelie Mauresmo and Hana Mandlikova. And that’s not to forget transgender pioneer Renee Richards. The Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour included openly gay Hall of Famer Patty Sheehan, Karrie Webb, Jane Geddes, Rosie Jones, etc. Canada’s national women’s hockey team has included lesbians Angela James, Sarah Vaillancourt, Charline Labonte and Jayna Hefford. The rosters in women’s soccer, here and abroad, are pockmarked with open lesbians.

Major men’s professional sports leagues and peripheral affiliates like tennis and golf are, in fact, decades behind society and women’s pro and amateur sports in the acceptance of gays. I doubt they will catch up in my lifetime. So much for inclusivity.

Tolerance? Yes, the NFL exercises tolerance, but in an ass-backwards manner. That is, it tolerates the use of a racist nickname for one of its member teams, the Washington Redskins. MLB tolerates the use of Chief Wahoo, a red-skinned, clownish, crazed-looking Indian as a logo for one of its member teams, Cleveland.

Grange failed to provide examples of how sports has been “ahead of the general population on many social issues,” which leads me to assume he was lazy or couldn’t think of any. And his use of the word “tolerance” shows a lack of understanding of marginalized groups. My gay friends don’t seek tolerance, they seek acceptance.

On the matter of minorities, Damien Cox has used his Toronto Star soapbox to deliver a lament about the lack of female presence in the Hockey Hall of Fame. It’s a wellborn thought, to be sure, but Cox misses the mark when he implies it was a stretch for this year’s selection committee to induct Sergei Makarov ahead of women like Cassie Campbell-Pascall and Manon Rheaume. The committee “showed some genuine creativity in bending over backwards to honour men over women, dusting off the portfolios of former goaltender Rogatien Vachon and one-time Calgary Flames winger Sergei Makarov,” is how Cox put it. Nonsense. Makarov is a two-time Olympic champion, an eight-time world champion, a two-time world junior champion, and he was named to the International Ice Hockey Federation centennial all-star team, along with Wayne Gretzky, Valeri Kharlamov, Borje Salming, Viacheslav Fetisov and Vladislav Tretiak. Campbell-Pascall had a commendable international career, but that was largley in a two-country competition. As for Rheaume, she was Phil Esposito’s public relations sideshow in Tampa.

Cox also points out that 28 men and two women have been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in the past six years. “So much for even a semblance of equality,” he writes. Cox just doesn’t get it. It isn’t about gender equality or a female quota. It’s about performance and contribution. And, given the female game’s relative newness on a global scale and its overall lack of competitive depth, the pool of possibility is quite shallow for the women. Certainly someone like Fran Rider qualifies for the Hockey Hall of Fame for her contribution to the women’s game. She’ll get in. But not before Teemu Selanne, and it won’t be because he’s a he and she’s a she.

At least one sports writer believes Donald Trump winning the U.S. presidential election is sadder than the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

At least one sports writer believes Donald Trump winning the U.S. presidential election was a more mournful day than Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

From the department of “Does He Actually Think Before He Writes?” I give you anti-Trumpster Steve Simmons of Postmedia. On the night our neighbors to the south elected Donald Trump as their 45th president, the Toronto Sun sports scribe tweeted this gem: “The saddest night in American history.” Sigh. Let’s play that Sesame Street game: Pearl Harbor. JFK. 9/11. Katrina. Challenger. Kent State. Trump elected president…which one of these doesn’t belong?

Speaking of speaking without thinking, Hockey Night in Canada blowhard Don Cherry also used his Twitter account to weigh in on the presidential election: “The left wing kook entertainers and the left wing weirdo’s (sic) in the media in the U.S. have said if Trump wins the presidency they will move to Canada. Please, we have enough of these type here now.” Yes, by all means Grapes, let’s keep “kook entertainers” like Barbra Streisand out of Canada. She might do something radical. Like teach Justin Bieber how to sing, act and behave properly in mixed company.

Why are so many Canadians feeling misguidedly smug about the American election? Wasn’t it so long ago when they voted a man many consider to be a xenophobe, a racist, a protectionist, a bigot, a misogynist and a homophobe as the seventh greatest Canadian in history? Yup. That man is Don Cherry.

Yes, now that you mention it, this is an interesting world in which we live. I mean, unvarnished, unscripted, misogynist “locker room talk” gets Billy Bush fired from a TV show and it gets Donald Trump a room in the White House. Go figure.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 46 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour in 2015.