Leave a comment

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.

 

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Alexander Burmistrov: Is born-again Burmi the Winnipeg Jets new Fro Lite or Kane Lite?

Quiz yourself this, kids: Would you trade Michael Frolik for Alexander Burmistrov? Even up?

Didn’t think so.

That, however, is essentially what Grand Master Kevin Cheveldayoff did last week. For reasons yet to be clearly defined, the man who generally manages the Winnipeg Jets was unable to convince his most useful forward to remain in River City, thus Frolik shall continue his Jack-of-all-trades career while wearing Calgary Flames adornments.

To compensate for the Fro defection, the Grand Master prepared the fatted calf and welcomed home the prodigal player, Burmistrov, who, when last seen prior to resurfacing at the National Hockey League club’s development camp this past weekend, was acting every bit the petulant, pouting punk and skulking off to Mother Russia.

So that’s your exchange: Frolik out, Burmistrov in.

I have heard it suggested that Burmistrov is Frolik Lite, in that he delivers all those special niceties that the Czech forward provided. He just doesn’t do them as well. I believe that to be an accurate assessment.

But, is Burmistrov actually Fro Lite or is he Kane Lite?

The dearly departed Evander Kane was, of course, a skilled (much of it wasted) player with attitude issues. He played cat-and-mouse with defrocked head coach Claude Noel, challenging his authority on more than one occasion. Although never putting it on public record that he wanted out of Winnipeg, we know he liked Pegtown about as much as Phil Kessel likes media scrums. Eventually, he was shuffled off to Buffalo.

Similarly, Burmistrov and Noel were singing from different sheets in the songbook, thus he skedaddled home for a two-season gig with Ak-Bars of the Kontinental Hockey League.

Now he’s back and what the born-again Burmi brings to the party come October will be among the main storylines as the Winnipegs commence their 2015-16 crusade. If he’s Frolik Lite, it’s all good. If he’s Kane Lite, not so much.

As it is, the former teenage prospect is now a 23-year-old prospect with plenty of upside but a past that fuels skepticism, and the Jets surely harbor a morsel of uncertainty about this migrant young man, otherwise they would have welcomed Burmistrov back to the flock with something more than a two-year contract.

The hope, of course, is that he’s finally got his shite together, meaning he knows head coach Paul Maurice is the boss.

Desperate Hockey Wives: Okay, money aside, we still don’t know the intimate details of Michael Frolik’s defection to the Calgary Flames, thus rumors abound.

One such trickle of gossip suggests his girlfriend, Diana, pulled a Lauren Pronger and forced Frolik to sign anywhere but Winnipeg. The way it is whispered, she developed a considerable distaste for all things River City and, much like Lauren Pronger with hubby Chris and the Edmonton Oilers, she held veto power on where they set up house with daughter Ella.

I have neither heard nor read anything to lend credence to that rumor but, if true, I ask this: So what? Should a wife/girlfriend not have a voice in where she lives?

It seems to me she should have a loud voice.

Sam’s Story a Non-Story? Once upon a time, a lot of football people were strictly Xs, Os and bite-the-head-off-a-live-chicken kind of guys. It would seem that at least one of those dinosaurs still walks among us.

I say that because of a snippet in a Kirk Penton piece last week.

It seems an unidentified Canadian Football League coach or manager pooh-poohs the considerable copy and air time devoted to Michael Sam, whose on-again, off-again career appears to be on again, although it’s expected that the Montreal Alouettes will arrrive in River City for their date with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers this Friday sans the only openly gay man to sign a CFL contract.

Michael Sam hasn’t played a down of football north of the border and he has gotten a thousand times more recognition than Randy Chevrier, who won the Tom Pate Award (for oustanding sportsmanship and someone who has made a significant contribution to his team, his community and the CFLPA),” Coach/Manager No Name said. “That’s pathetic. You guys (in the media) should be embarrassed.”

Well, no. Here’s what’s pathetic and here’s who should be embarrassed: A football lifer who doesn’t recognize or appreciate the social significance of Sam’s story.

It should never be just about Xs, Os and quarterback sacks. Sam is man-bites-dog copy. Can an openly gay man not only survive but, indeed, succeed in the macho world that is professional football? Is major professional sports in North America still a homophobic hinterland in a day and age when same-sex marriage is legal in Canada and the U.S.? Will Sam pave the way for more gay athletes to come out? That’s why noted sheets like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Daily Mail in the U.K. and so many others track the trials and tribulations of the Alouettes would-be rush end.

But what do those papers know about news? They’re pathetic, right coach?

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 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.