Category Archives: Sports (MC Archive)

Sports columns that appeared on Jason Menard’s previous Web site, Menard Communications.

No Need for Hank to Go Groupie

By Jason Menard

Now that Barry Bonds is but two dingers away from tying Hank Aaron’s career home run total, the pressure is mounting for Hammerin’ Hank to start following BALCO Barry around like a wayward Dead Head.

My question is why? Aaron is 73 years old and the way that Barry’s been hitting home runs lately, the record could be broken as soon as tonight or a month down the line. Is it fair to ask Aaron to turn into the world’s biggest groupie, following Barry’s oversized cranium from city to city on this less-than-magical mystery tour?

And for what reason? So Aaron can come out to a raucous applause, one that will probably overshadow the applause Barry receives for breaking the all-time home run mark of 755. After all, Aaron has long displayed grace, elegance, and dignity – three characteristics that aren’t exactly dripping off of Bonds.

Aaron chased down Babe Ruth and did so in the face of very real threats against his life. For a misguided few, the idea of a black man surpassing the Caucasian Babe Ruth was too much. Fortunately, as most racists are also cowards, Aaron was able to safely pass the all-time mark on Apr. 8, 1974 with his 715 th career home run.

Bonds has disgraced those who actually have experienced real racism by insinuating some of his negative perception is based upon the fact that he’s black. It’s not his skin colour that’s the problem – it’s his attitude, lack of respect for others, and general surliness that makes people hate him.

Aaron also received the support of Ruth’s widow, who stated that her husband would have enthusiastically endorsed Aaron’s campaign to break his own record. Those accolades aren’t exactly pouring in for Barry. Most people would be quite content to see him hang up his cleats shy of the record.

A short while ago I defended Barry because I think he’s good for the game in terms of attracting attention. As well, when he feels like opening up, he’s a good quote who doesn’t constrain himself with the standard baseball clichés. That said, do I think Aaron should be following him around to be in the park when Barry finally breaks his record? Only if that’s something he wants to do.

I don’t get the need to trot out former greats to celebrate someone breaking their record. If Aaron genuinely wanted to be there for Barry to congratulate him, then fine. But if he’s only going to show up because he feels he has to for HIS image, then there’s something wrong.

For 37 years, Aaron’s been the Home Run King. For many people, he will continue to be the only one worthy of the crown – a modern day slugging King Richard to Barry’s usurping John. And for some he may become akin to the Tibetan spiritual leader in exile – a veritable Dalai Hank, a king without a kingdom. In no way should Aaron’s reputation be tarnished by not being amongst the first to shake Barry’s hand once he makes that historic rounding of the bases.

For me it’s neither here nor there. Barry did hit those home runs. If he was juiced, he was not alone. And he’s the only one that’s even come close to Aaron’s record, so I give a solid measure of credit to his accomplishment. But would I feel bad if Hank decided to pass on the tour of the National League to wait for his pinnacle achievement between the white lines to be broken? Not at all.

I know I’d be bitter. After all, for years you’ve had the name Home Run King attached to your name and now the crown has been passed. Would I want to celebrate that? And sure, there’s an argument for showing grace and class, but Hank can do that by placing a phone call after that rerun of Matlock finishes. There’s no reason he has to wander around the country, waiting for an opportunity to clap.

As Bill Walton’s shown us, there are few things as sad as an aging groupie. In fact, the only thing worse may be one who’s obligated to attend because anything less would be an unfair denigration of his character.

Finally, by having Aaron attend in spite of his obvious preferences, it cheapens this and future moments like it – potentially when Barry has to swallow his pride and sit in the stands as Alex Rodriguez laps him on the homer track in just a handful of years.

The best of these types of moments come when they’re rooted in honest respect and appreciation. Those are the moments when fans and athletes alike stand up in pride. Faking it – like Major League Baseball’s going to do with Barry’s home run choice – represents a swing and a miss of an epic proportion.

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NFL Must Muzzle Vick Now

By Jason Menard

Why wait? The NFL’s got an image problem right now and his name is Michael Vick. In the statements coming out of yesterday’s grand jury indictment are even half true, then the Atlanta Falcons’ quarterback’s bite is far worse than his bark – and it may be time for commissioner Roger Goodell to neuter him once and for all.

Oh, sure, there’s that whole innocent until proven guilty thing, but the fact of the matter is that at the very least, Vick owned and paid for the continued maintenance of a property where unspeakable acts against innocent animals took place.

Due process? Or how about Vick getting his due?

He, along with three other thugs, have been indicted on three counts: (1) travel in interstate commerce and use the mail or any facility in interstate commerce to promote, manage, etc. a business enterprise involving gambling; (2) knowingly sponsor an animal moved in interstate commerce in an animal fighting venture; (3) knowingly transport a dog for the purposes of having the dog participate in an animal fighting venture.

And while the charge does fall under U.S. racketeering laws, it also provides the NFL with an easy out to suspend Vick immediately. After all, the league’s own gambling policy prohibits associating with gamblers or with gambling activities in a manner tending to bring discredit to the NFL.

Check please.

I don’t know whether to pity or vilify Falcons’ owner Arthur Blank. He seems like a good guy, concerned with the image of this club, and dedicated to putting forth the best product for his fans. So why does he get stuck with a punk like Vick?

Remember, it wasn’t all that long ago that Vick was caught in an airport with a false-bottom water bottle that allegedly smelled of some wacky tobaccey! Of course, a few days later Vick came out with the oh-so-plausible excuse that the false bottom was to hide his bling, not his bong. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.

Of course, it also wasn’t all that long ago that Vick was the face of the league’s future. From covers of the Madden video games to NFL commercials featuring the young quarterback, the NFL hitched its wagon to Vick and rode – if only they knew how he treaded the dogs on his sled.

This isn’t a time for partisanship. If you’re a Falcons’ fan you should be outraged. If you’re not, then do a search for the allegations against Vick and company. If abused dog carcasses and the term “rape stand” don’t make your blood boil, then you’ve got your priorities out of whack.

And I’m not some bleeding-heart dog lover either. In fact, my favourite breed is the ever-so-popular “Other people’s dog” breed. Yet this isn’t a question of animal rights, it’s about humanity.

Unfortunately, proponents of this disgusting display called dog fighting demean the word sport. There is no sport involved in this – only cruelty, selfishness, and sub-human violence.

If the NFL’s serious about cleaning up its image, it needs to act fast. And it needs to do so from the head office and not allow Blank to do the right thing first and suspend Vick. They need to send a clear message – preferably with Goodell and Blank standing side by side – saying that Vick will be suspended immediately in light of the grand jury indictment.

And that if he’s proven guilty of any of these charges, the only football he’ll be playing is as quarterback of the Mean Machine.

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Taking Exception to John Tavares’ Agents

By Jason Menard

John Tavares is an exceptional player, but he shouldn’t be made an exception to the rule.

The 16-year-old Oshawa General has proven wise beyond his years on the ice. He’s approaching – and in some cases surpassing – Gretzkyesque proportions in many ways. And in trying to get the NHL to allow Tavares an exception into next year’s draft they’re doing the wrong thing, albeit for some of the right reasons.

Agents are around to look out for the best interests of their clients, but sometimes the financial best interests run counter to what may be the right thing socially and developmentally.

And this idea that this is a matter of principle and that a Sept. 15 th cut-off date – with Tavares’ birthday falling on the 20 th – is antiquated is duplicitous at best. What this is about is long-term money, free agency, and trying to squeeze an extra contract out of this player’s future.

The NHL has some odd rules about player rights. If a team takes a player out of the U.S. high school or minor league ranks, who then attends college, the NHL club has their rights for up to five years – or until their collegiate eligibility runs out. However, CHLers, like Tavares, have to be signed within two years of being drafted – if not, it’s back into the pool they go.

So by having Tavares drafted as a 17-year-old, his agents are ensuring that their client will have to have an entry-level contract signed by 19 at the latest. That is unless he’s called up to the NHL ranks – à la Sidney Crosby – at 18. Which means that the NHL club has six years before their player is eligible for free agency. Even if he says until 19, he’ll still potentially be a free agent by 25 – which means a shot at at least two, if not three big-time paydays.

That’s great financially, but is it right developmentally? The line has to be drawn somewhere, and Sept. 15 th seems to work.

It can be argued that Tavares is a superlative talent who is above and beyond the rest of his OHL class. However, he’s not the first wunderkind to come through the OHL, nor will he be the last. For every Gretzky, there’s a handful of Brian Fogertys, Eric Lindroses, and Corey Lockes who have torn up the junior ranks only to find a place on the failure spectrum ranging from disappointment to spectacular flame out. A superlative junior career is no absolute promise of long-term greatness.

There’s enough pressure on these athletes to perform as is, so why not give them the time to mature, develop, and refine their abilities so that they can maximize their long-term opportunities in the professional ranks, not just capitalize on the white-hot potential of their junior days? Why accelerate his development and force teams to make decisions earlier than otherwise needed? Sure, it’s only five days, but over the long term, an extra year of junior, an extra year at the World Championships, an extra year of playing in all situations could serve to improve all aspects of his game and cement the foundation upon which an outstanding career can be built.

Or maybe there’s a hint of fear here. Last year at this time Quebec’s Angelo Esposito and Ottawa’s Logan Couture were one-two on most people’s list as to whom would go number-one overall. In the end, both players dropped in the rankings due to illness and inconsistency respectively. At-the-time unheralded players like London’s own Pat Kane and Sam Gagner rocketed up the charts, and millions of potential dollars were lost in one season.

So maybe that’s why there’s such a rush to get Tavares drafted next year. After all, the longer a player is in the spotlight, the harsher the glare gets to be. Once the bloom is off the rose, the thorns start getting scrutinized and scouts and general managers have a horrible habit of talking themselves out of a player.

We saw that with Couture, Esposito, and Cherepanov this season – after so much time in the limelight, scouts got tired of writing raves and minor deficiencies in their games were magnified. It’s not that they weren’t there, but eventually they were blown out of proportion and overshadowed the positives. Is Tavares’ representation afraid of the same scenario playing out for their prize prospect?

There’s enough time to milk that cash cow – and as any steak aficionado knows, aged beef tastes so much better.

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Keep Your Heroes at Arm’s Length

By Jason Menard

The other day my wife was reading some magazine, which contained a quiz covering a wide variety of topics – including sports. And the question that stumped me the most? When she asked me which professional athlete I’d most like to have lunch with.

After a couple of days reflection, I may have to admit I lied.

The thing is, you ask most guys this question and the first names that come into their mind are Gabriella Sabatini, Maria Sharapova, or Anna Kournikova and, of course, trying to figure out whether Alyssa Milano’s recent baseball blog would qualify her for the event – and that invitation’s not being extended for their athletic abilities. And the smart man thinks before speaking and moves on past these passing fancies.

Then we give the answer we think we should. The quartet of athletes I chose are all worth of precognition: hockey heroes like Wayne Gretzky and the late Maurice Richard, and brave sporting pioneers like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali.

In the end, however, there are no athletes that’d like to spend any time with. After all, it’s hard for anyone to live up to the expectation that we’ve placed upon them.

I’ve had the distinct pleasure of meeting one of my hockey heroes, Guy Lafleur, earlier this year. It was at a charity event and a group of us, who were all French-speakers, engaged Guy in a long conversation. We did the embarrassing groupie things like having shirts signed and one of us – and I reserve my right to not comment on the grounds that it may incriminate me – even had The Flower record his outgoing answering cell phone machine message. Throughout the night he kept returning to talk – and we all walked away feeling the man measured up to the myth.

Unfortunately, that’s appears to be the exception to the rule.

Throughout my career writing for various on-line and print vehicles, I’ve had the opportunity – note the fact that I didn’t say pleasure – of meeting several professional and amateur athletes.

And all too often they’re boorish, rude, and obnoxious. Some appear to not value the importance of signing an autograph for a young child, or understand what their interaction with a fan can mean to that person.

However, athletes are really just regular people, with extraordinary jobs and paycheques. And, as regular people they are subject to the same foibles and insecurities as all the rest of us. Of course, as regular people with irregular bank accounts and unwavering customer affection, they can often find themselves in trouble. After all, for years they’ve been told they’re special and the rules don’t apply to them, so is it any surprise that the mix of loyalty, intoxication – both physical and spiritual, and an all-too-ready-to-please fan base ready to cover up any follies?

I’ve been out on the town with famous NHLers after a charity event – and saw some of the most pronounced displays of misogyny and lack of consideration for others; I’ve talked with an NHL legend who ended up going on a 10-minutes tirade about foreigners; and I’ve seen grown adults be as disrespectful and immature as six-year-old boys.

Again, I’m using awfully broad strokes with an awfully broad bust. Not all athletes in all sports are like this, but there’s no hard and fast way to know what lurks beneath that PR’d and polished demeanour.

So my real answer to the question of which athlete would I like to spend time with? None thanks.

I prefer a little romance and mystery in my life. Just as I never want to find out a how a magician perform a trick, so too do I not want to delve into an athlete’s true self. I’m much happier thinking of them as bigger than life. I’m far more content admiring their sills and abilities on their field of play.

And those activities are best done from afar.

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Barry Bonds Is Good for Baseball

By Jason Menard

As Barry Bonds approaches the magical 755 number, he’s endured personal attacks that number at least a hundred-fold the number of dingers he’s sent over the wall of baseball diamonds throughout North America.

I won’t be adding my voice to the chorus of Barry-haters out there. In fact, I’m here to argue that – in a way — we need more Barry Bonds’ in sports.

Barry’s big head’s been in the news on an ever-increasing basis, thanks to commissioner Bud Selig bungling yet another aspect of his job. His on-again, off-again flirtation with being present for the game when – and it’s now truly a when, not an if – Barry breaks the all-time home run mark has been a source of embarrassment and amusement.

You may not like Barry, you may think he cheated to get where he needed to go. That’s your right. But to ignore such a monumental event would be exceptionally wrong – especially when Barry’s one of the best things about the game of baseball.

OK, before you call for the good people in the white jackets to wrest me away from the mike, let me explain. Barry, although being the bane of media people everywhere, is exactly what those same media people have been begging for all these years. And his antics ensure that baseball maintains a place of priority on sportscasts.

And when Bonds finally pops 756, barring unforeseen circumstances, baseball will once again be the lead story in daily newspapers around North America – and when was the last time that happened?

Bonds also represents what the caveat “be careful what you wish for” truly means. After all, what’s the one complaint that most media people – and many fans – have about their athletes? That’s they’re as dull as watching paint dry once you get them off the field of play and in front of a microphone.

Athletes have their own language of boring platitudes, designed-to-be-non-offensive statements, and banal generalizations that offer absolutely no insight into the game or the person. After all, how many athletes have you heard giving 110 per cent, while taking it one game at a time and making sure to bring their A game each and every night because there’s no I in team and winning takes a total team effort, so guys need to step it up, keep their focus, circle the wagons, get off their heels and fight their way back off the ropes so they can answer the call, go for the jugular, and pull it out in the end.

The call has rung out loud and clear for someone to break through the platitudes and tell it like it is. We cry for honesty, then howl with disapproval when Barry gives it to us. Unfortunately, you can’t pick and choose how honesty is served. Sometimes you’ll get an engaging, genuinely funny, and insightful person spinning witty yarns that speed the beat grunts towards carpal tunnel syndrome in their efforts to catch every precious word.

And then sometimes you get the rude, boorish SOBs.

The thing is, Barry’s not just a mashing machine carnival side-show – he can still play. He currently leads the National League in on-base percentage and on-base-plus-slugging percentage. And his relatively healthy performance this season has led to Bonds’ agent making noise about the slugger returning for yet another season next year.

In 78 games so far, he’s within a hair’s-breadth of his career batting average, as his .295 mark stands just four thousands of a percentage point shy of his lifetime mark. On a woeful Giants roster that offers little support or protection for Bonds, he’s still managed to crank out 17 home runs and chip in 42 RBIs. And let’s not forget that when he’s allowed the chance to hit. He’s drawn 91 walks – a pace that would find him amongst his top-three career walk totals if it continues until the end of the season.

In the end, whether Barry was juiced or not really doesn’t matter. Pitchers were juiced, hitters were juiced – heck, I’ve seen some suspect peanut vendors who have a little too much oomph in their tosses… That isn’t real-life – it’s sport, so there’s no need to work yourself up into a fit of indignant apoplexy.

Athletes from all walks of life cheat to get ahead. They always look for that extra edge. Taking steroids, in truth, is morally no better or worse than popping Sudafed between periods – it’s an attempt to gain a competitive advantage. Singling Barry out for something many others were alleged to be doing seems at best a little malicious, and at worst too much like a witch hunt. The legal aspect of obtaining an illegal prescription for a drug – that’s a different story. But it’s also one that has no impact on the field of play.

We prefer to remember our sporting past as a halcyon time, but the reality was probably much different. And I’m pretty sure the same was happening in Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth’s time – instead of steroids, it could have been amphetamines, cocaine, or other illicit substances. It’s just that a co-operative media would look the other way. No more.

In the end, Barry’s Barry. Great hitter? Best player ever? The game’s biggest cheater? Obnoxious buffoon? Or an example of being careful what you wish for? I choose the latter.

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

All Star Appetizers Better than Main Course

By Jason Menard

Have you ever been to a restaurant and had the experience of ordering an entrée that completely and utterly overwhelmed the following course? You know those meals – where the gustatory promise created by the appetizer is left unfulfilled by a less-than-inspired main course.

That’s what all-star games are like — a dynamic, tapas-esque appetizer followed by a bland, stale, and hard-to-swallow main service.

What is it that makes those appetizers so, well, appetizing? By design, those entrees are quick, colourful, and vibrant. Because they have to make an impression in just a couple of bites, they are decadently crafted works of culinary art. By comparison, a main course can get bogged down in its own sense of self-importance. The gravitas of its composition can, ironically, leave one less-than-overwhelmed by the experience.

Yet you’ll remember that appetizer – light, flavourful, enjoyable, fun.

Think about what you remember from your last few all-star games. How many of the highlights have come from the game itself, and how much of what leaves a lasting impression comes from the so-called ancillary aspects of the festivities?

Do you remember who scored the 12 th goal in a 15-14 hockey game that featured no checking, no passion, and no defense? Or do you remember being blown away by Al Iafrate’s 105-plus mile per hour howitzer blast from the skills competition?

The only memorable moment from a baseball all-star game (with all apologies to Ray Fosse who may just be now coming out of that Pete Rose-induced fog caused by a 1970 overzealous play at the plate) came in 2002 when Bud Selig made the ill-advised decision to leave the game a tie. However, the home run competition continues to thrill, despite its inherent cheesiness.

Basketball? It’s all about the dunk competition and the three-point shootout? Jordan became Jordan with that leap from the foul line – and ABA dunk contests featuring Dr. J are still talked about in reverential tones.

Heck, even the anthems are more memorable than the games themselves. And if you don’t believe me, search on-line for a copy of Marvin Gaye singing the Star-Spangled Banner at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game – if you’re not clapping along with the fans and bouncing with the players, then you are serious deficient in funkiness.

The simple fact of the matter is that these Battle of the Network Stars-style competitions are more engaging to the fans than any so-called game could ever be. Players don’t put out the maximum effort in fake games and fans know it. Even artificial incentives like giving home field advantage in the championships to the league that wins the All-Star Game can’t foster passion in a passionless game. The players are going through the motions, so instead of seeing the best of the sport we’re seeing a mockery of the games we love.

But individual competitions offer an opportunity for the league to showcase the players’ respective skills. They afford the broadcasters a chance to place microphones and cameras on players that they couldn’t do in a regular game. Essentially, they allow fans to get right on the ice with the stars.

And that’s marketing gold for any sport. If you can get to know the player, if you can be entertained by them, then you – as a fan – are more likely to get engaged in the sport. A fan can be created with one positive interaction, so if you’re able to showcase the personalities in your sport then you stand a chance of solidifying your fan base.

The other thing that’s important to note is that players try in these competitions because it’s one on one. Athletes at this level love to compete, whether it’s on the ice, playing pool, or even with cards and video games. So by making this a mano-e-mano event, you’re appealing to the base-level competitiveness these athletes possess. When it’s their name on the line, they want to win at all costs – which improves the quality of your presentation.

After all, the point of All Star celebrations is to showcase the best the league has to offer. A passion-filled individual competition is far more palatable than yet another bland, emotionless impersonation of a game. That type of contest is tough to swallow and will have fans calling for the cheque early.

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Ferguson Training Wheels an Accident Waiting to Happen

By Jason Menard

When John Ferguson Jr. was brought in to run the Toronto Maple Leafs, he was brought in as a purported thoroughbred, champing at the bit to burst out of the gates and lead the beleaguered Buds down the home stretch and into the winner’s circle.

Whew… I think I may have exhausted all my equine metaphors. Well, all but this one – if the Leafs bring in John Muckler as a senior advisor, then they’ll have effectively taken that thoroughbred and turned him into a gelding.

Seriously, if the Leafs are that desperate to bring someone into the front office who will be, for all intents and purposes, a glorified baby sitter to the 40-year-old Ferguson, then it’s time to stop riding that dead horse, take off the saddle, and send him to the glue factory.

OK, I promise, no more horse metaphors.

Ferguson burst onto the scene back in 2003 as a 36-year-old wunderkind who was going to free the Leafs from the shackles of the Pat Quinn regime. Where Quinn represented the past and a fear that the game may have passed him by on a managerial level, Ferguson was supposed to represent the future.

Of course, looking back to his past, you could see the future didn’t hold much promise of being bright. After all, he had spent a few years in the St. Louis organization and as vice-president and director of hockey operations for the club he helped make the moves that caused the Blues to miss the playoffs for the first time in 24 years – and have left them as perennial doormats since.

And now one could argue that those same seeds have been planted in Hogtown – and Leafs fans can only hope that the same yield will not be reaped. Unfortunately, there is no time to learn in the top job – you’ve got to hit the ground running. And Ferguson’s shown that when it comes to running, he’s got two left feet – and those shoelaces are tied together.

Signing Pavel Kubina to an overly long and overly expensive deal only exacerbated the fact that he dumped a pile of money into a questionable blueliner in Bryan McCabe. And let’s not forget the third defensive blunder – the handsome three-year deal handed out to lumbering blueliner Hal Gill who continues to collect his millions while the game – and its players – pass him by.

And the worst deal of all? Peddling off all-world netminder Tukka Raask, who is arguably one of the top two goaltending prospects in the world with Carey Price, for a quick fix in Andrew Raycroft. Compounding that error by trying to fix it, Ferguson peddled away more of the club’s future for Vesa Toskala. Sure, there may be an improvement in net, but under the new CBA and salary cap, the first and second-round selections he gave up are worth their weight in gold.

These moves – and a handful of others – show that Ferguson’s not ready for the big time. But what the Leafs are doing by bringing in a senior advisor is simply greasing the skids for JFJ’s exit from the Air Canada Centre.

Not only does Ferguson lose face amongst his peer group – the other NHL general managers, but he suddenly becomes in danger of losing the respect of his coaching staff and players. After all, when the buck no longer stops at Ferguson’s desk, why would anyone respect his word as final?

The Leafs are setting themselves up for inner turmoil of an epic proportion. Does Ferguson have to vet every trade with Muckler? What happens if the senior advisor says no? Is Ferguson allowed to go on his own and veto that opinion, or is he bound to respect those wishes? If a coach doesn’t like Ferguson’s directive, can he go above his head to Muckler and lobby him to advise JFJ of a new change in philosophy?

Toronto thought it was getting a sleek, new-model sports car that was perfect for keeping pace with the new league. If they’ve determined that they’ve bought a lemon, bringing in an old reliable truck won’t make him run any better.

If the Toronto Maple Leafs is ready to take the wheel out of John Ferguson Jr.’s hands, they might as well go all the way and hand the keys to someone new.

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved