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 the Bombers’ binge…Huf huffing and puffing…a menage-a-goaltender…spoiled brats…and media groupies obsessed with a Raptors groupie

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

Many people were surprised to learn that Winnipeg has been ranked among the top seven most intelligent communities in the world. We’re not talking about one of the brightest burgs just in Manitoba, Canada or North America, understand. This is the whole world. The. Entire. Planet.

Ya, well, if there are so many Einsteins in Pegtown, why can’t one of them show the Winnipeg Blue Bombers how to win the Grey Cup?

John Hufnagel

John Hufnagel

I’m not sure what caused more raised eyebrows last week, the Bombers signing seven players scant seconds after the opening bell rang for the Canadian Football League’s annual livestock auction of untethered talent, or John Hufnagel’s reaction to the Big Blue’s free-agent binge. “I’d say that’s a little surprising,” the Calgary Stampeders grand poobah huffed and puffed. “How many years are they going to do it? You answer me that. They didn’t sign any of their guys, and they sign other people’s guys. I prefer to sign my own guys. That’s just me.” One day later, “just me” signed two “other people’s guys,” Bakari Grant and Taylor Reed of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, then added a third, James Green, late of the Ottawa RedBlacks. Pot, meet kettle.

You’ll have to excuse me if I hesitate to join the hallelujah chorus in touting the Bombers as new, improved and bound for glory. No doubt general manager Kyle Walters has added some top-end talent in running back Andrew Harris, size-smurf receivers Weston Dressler and Ryan Smith, and place-kicker Justin Medlock, but it’s still about the offensive line, the starting quarterback, Drew Willy, and, perhaps most important, the sideline maestro and film fanatic, head coach Mike O’Shea. Does Walters’ handiwork make O’Shea any smarter today than he was at the close of business in 2015? I think the GM said it best when asked how much better a product he’ll field in the ’16 CFL crusade: “Well, we’ll see.” So color me curious but not convinced.

Connor Hellebuyck

Connor Hellebuyck

Speaking of curious, I viewed the three’s-a-crowd demotion of Connor Hellebuyck to the farm as a bit of a head-scratcher. Not surprising, though, because the Winnipeg Jets have long been goaltender blind. Hellebuyck did enough good things during his time in the blue paint to convince me that he’s a National Hockey League-calibre goaltender and might be the Jets’ starter-in-waiting, so Michael Hutchinson should have been the fall guy and dispatched to the American Hockey League Manitoba Moose once Ondrej Pavelec returned from sick bay. Yes, I realize Hutchinson would have been exposed to the waiver wire were he the odd man out in the Jets’ menage-a-goaltender, but so what. I doubt another outfit would have claimed him. If so, no loss. I just cannot see where he fits into the club’s future.

There can be just one reason for the Winnipeg Free Press to have recruited Scott Campbell to pen a weekly column on the Winnipeg Jets: To provide a (former) player’s insight. His latest offering? Zero insight. I mean, telling us that Michael Hutchinson is having “a disappointing season” is lame. And implying that Andrew Copp has struggled as an NHL rookie because he’s been flanked by “a variety of nondescript players” is a copout (pun intended). From everything I’ve seen, Copp himself is a nondescript player. Gotta do better than that, Scott.

So let me see if I’ve got this straight: Cam Newton, the losing quarterback in the National Football League championship joust, walks out during a post-game chin-wag with news scavengers and he’s Darth QB. The Carolina Panthers’ main man is roasted and toasted as a sore loser, a spoiled brat and cited as an example of everything that is wrong with today’s pro jocks. Yet, two days later, Chicago Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville waves his arms in frustration and stomps out of a gab-session with the media and there isn’t a peep of protest. What am I missing here? Why is it unacceptable for an NFL quarterback to behave like a brat, but it’s permissble for an NHL coach?

Raptors groupie Drake

Raptors groupie Drake

I’m sorry, but I just don’t get this groupie-like love affair between scribes in the Republic of Tranna and the rapper Drake. I mean, I’ve read more headlines about Drake in the past few days than Stephen Curry, who, give or take a Lebron James, is the best basketball player on the planet. The National Basketball Association all-star weekend in Toronto has become a testimonial to Drake. There are feature pieces on him in both the Globe and Mail and National Post sports sections. And the headlines: Drake receives coaching tips from Michael Jordan; Drake starstruck by Michael Jordan; How Drake became the king of Toronto; Celebrate Valentine’s Day the Drake way; Drake gets key to the city; Drake to introduce all-stars.There were two pics of Drake on the front page of Toronto Sun website and three more on the sports front. And for what? Because he’s a Toronto Raptors groupie. And the media are groupies of the groupie.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 45 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 to her 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.

 


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Canadian sports journalism (print division) is full of Benedict Arnolds

Full Disclosure: I was not loyal to the team as a jock journalist.

Actually, I was until I wasn’t. Which is to say I harbored an allegiance to the Winnipeg Tribune that was unwavering when a Philadelphia newspaper came calling one winter during the 1970s. I was flattered, but not tempted to move to the City of Brotherly Ink Stained Wretches. Ditto when the Winnipeg Free Press cast come-hither glances and pitched some woo. Too loyal to the Trib to move across the street.

That changed, though, when the puppet masters at Southam Inc. betrayed myself, 374 other people and 14 gargoyles at the corner of Smith and Graham by shuttering the Trib doors and windows and kicking us all to the curb 34 years ago this month.

Loyalty was also a casualty. At least it was for me.

Once the Trib presses stopped, there existed no personal attachment to any of the newspapers that recruited me post-Aug. 27, 1980. It became a job. A job I sometimes enjoyed, but more often did not enjoy, otherwise I wouldn’t have drifted about the country like a hobo looking for a hot meal and a fast train out of town.

This likely explains why I found a bit by Steve Simmons so objectionable this Sunday past.

In it, the loudest and most annoying of Sun Media’s sports voices referred to Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell as “Benedict Farrell.” Simmons branded the man a traitor because of Farrell’s thinly veiled desire to manage the Bosox while in the employ of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Well, let me tell you something about Steve Simmons. Then I’ll tell you about sports scribes.

Steve Simmons is one who preaches from the pompous ass pulpit. He is shackled to his ego. He is a fully carded member of the self-admiration society. That’s what drives him. No crime there. But he is a pot calling a kettle black. More than once he questioned Farrell’s loyalty, honesty and integrity, or lack thereof. He has brought into question his character, dignity and word.

Why? Because Farrell wanted to manage the Bosox, not the Blue Jays.

Yet, Simmons did the very same thing in his own little world back in the day. He was a cub reporter with the Calgary Herald who, while drawing his pay there, was negotiating to move to the opposition Calgary Sun. Then, while working the hockey beat and serving as sports editor at the Sun, he engaged in negotiations to move back to the Herald while being paid by the Sun.

Furthermore, during his entire stay in Cowtown, his stated goal was to one day return home and run with the big dogs at one of the Toronto newspapers, which he did upon joining the Toronto Sun in 1987.

So, here’s the Simmons scorecard: While working at the Calgary Herald, negotiated with and moved to the Calgary Sun; while working at the Sun, negotiated with and moved to the Herald; while working at the Herald, negotiated with and moved to the Toronto Sun.

And Simmons has the temerity to brand John Farrell a traitor? Farrell did nothing Simmons hadn’t already done. Three times.

Sports scribes are the last people who should be talking about loyalty. They move more often than a carnival barker. A lost dog stays in one place longer than some jock journalists.

Not so long ago, Cathal Kelly was scribbling for the Toronto Star. Today, he does that very thing for the Globe and Mail. A few months ago, Bruce Arthur was a wordsmith at the National Post. Today, he pens his prose for the Star. Stephen Brunt left the Globe for Sportsnet. Terry Jones betrayed the Edmonton Journal after 15 years when he defected to the opposition Sun. Cam Cole spent almost a quarter of a century writing the good stuff for the Journal, then bolted for the National Post, then the Vancouver Sun.

It’s no different on the home front in River City. Paul Friesen walked away from CJOB for a newspaper career at the Winnipeg Sun. Ed Tait defected from the Sun to the Winnipeg Free Press. So did his sports editor, Steve Lyons. Gary Lawless walked away from the Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay to join the Freep. And we are free to question Lawless’s loyalties today. Are they with the Free Press or TSN radio? He surely spends more time on air than he does writing his column.

And it’s important to note that, in most cases, these people likely were dealing behind their employers’ backs.

It’s something to keep in mind the next time a sports scribe lashes out at a “Benedict Jock.” Chances are it’s a cobra calling a rattler a snake, because it’s my experience that most jock journalists (print division) are loyal to one thing—their egos.

rooftop riting biz card back sidePatti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for more than 40 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, comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she doesn’t know when to quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented to her in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C.


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Winnipeg sports: These two Jacks were both aces

Media musings and some other stuff…

Nice touch to name the press box at Football Follies Field in Fort Garry in honor of the two Jacks—Matheson and Wells.

Both Jack Matheson, my first sports editor, and Cactus Jack Wells, the lots-of-yuks broadcaster who never met a multi-syllabic name he couldn’t mangle or a day that didn’t turn out nice, were giants of jock journalism, not just in Winnipeg but on a national scale. I wonder, though: Do the names Matty and Cactus Jack carry any weight with the stable of young sports scribes and talking heads who will occupy Two Jacks Press Box going forward?

I hope so, because there are lessons to be learned from both men.

Matty, left, and Cactus Jack.

Matty, left, and Cactus Jack.

Matty, sports columnist at the Winnipeg Tribune, was a supreme wordsmith who never, ever mailed it in. His copy was pristine and it sang. He was a writer’s writer who worked at his craft. Hard. Matty didn’t write every day (his bride Peggy, aka the LGIW, insisted he take vacation once a year), but few wrote as often and as well. Most important, Matty loved his job, because it wasn’t a job to him.

As for Cactus, he went through life with a wink and a nod. He was fun and he had fun. I think that’s what jock journalists can learn most from this broadcasting legend: Take your job seriously, but not yourself.

ODDS ‘N’ SODS: Since the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are 4-1 and joint leaders in the western precinct of the Canadian Football League, I guess I should show some respect and stop calling their digs Football Follies Field in Fort Garry. It seems that the Football Follies boarded the same plane out of town as Joe Mack, Gary Crowton and a cast of quarterbacks who now appear to be in witness protection programs…Interesting how things work out. If the Bombers were still in the East Division, they’d already have a playoff spot locked up…This from Gary (La La) Lawless of the Winnipeg Free Press on July 25: “Don’t be fooled by the (Bombers) 3-1 record. It’s a mirage.” And this tweet from Gary La La exactly one day later: “So I don’t know if the #bombers are for real on the field.” I assume a loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Thursday will reduce the Bombers to “mirage” status again. Last time I saw flip-flops like this, they were on Jeff Reinebold’s feet…How much fun would Cactus Jack be having with the name Lirim Hajrullahu? I think he could handle Lirim without tripping over either syllable, but I’m pretty sure the Bomber kicker’s last name would be Hallelujah or Hoolahoopa or Highroller…Ed Tait continues to do boffo work for the Freep. His piece on former Bombers linebacker and National Football League wannabe Henoc Muamba is first rate…Read Steve Simmons three-dot column in the Winnipeg Sun this morning, and I must say that Little Stevie Blunder sounds like a bitter and angry old man in his rant against fancy stats in hockey. You don’t like fancy stats, Stevie? Well, here’s an unfancy stat for you: The next time you make a statement, put a period at the end of it, not a question mark…Again, I don’t understand why the Sun runs a column by a Toronto-based scribe who basically tells us everything he dislikes in the world. Here’s today’s scoreboard on the Simmons column: Toronto issues 17, Winnipeg issues 0…Is there any rhyme or reason to when sports columnists Paul Friesen (Winnipeg Sun) and Gary Lawless appear in print? The columnist is the most important read in a sports section. Why do we have to guess when they write?…Steven Stamkos says he wants to play hockey where he has a chance to win the Stanley Cup. Guess that rules out Canada…If I told you I know someone who’s never smoked pot, never had a tattoo and never taken a selfie, what would you say? I agree. I need to get a life.

WORTH REPEATING: When asked by Sean Fitz-Gerald of the National Post if Winnipeg deserved a second chance with a National Hockey League franchise, Bobby Hull said

“I don’t think they could afford it. It’s not that they don’t deserve one, but I don’t think they have enough fans, enough corporate businesses, to fund a professional franchise of that magnitude.”

rooftop riting biz card back sidePatti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for more than 40 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, comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she doesn’t know when to quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented to her in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C.