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usual suspects

Yunel Escobar's suspension for wearing offensive messages on his face during a game was lipstick on this pig of a season for the Toronto Blue Jays. Anything that could go wrong did go wrong for the team. So it's understandable that Sportsnet analyst Gregg Zaun, a former Jays catcher, should criticize the team on Sportsnet 590 The Fan in Toronto.

Okay, criticize perhaps understates the vitriol Zaun applied to Escobar, other players, manager John Farrell and general manager Alex Anthopoulos. Zaun talked about an entitlement culture, players not caring and a dire lack of fundamentals.

We wondered about repercussions for Zaun within the Rogers empire, which employs him but also owns the ball club. Zaun and the Blue Jays declined requests from The Globe and Mail for comment, but Zaun didn't miss any games. Sources say the issue might be revisited later.

By Friday, however, Zaun was conciliatory, pleading with Toronto fans on Twitter for understanding about Escobar. "Believe it or not, I'd love to see baseball fans in Toronto take the high road when it comes to the Escobar situation. He's sorry 4 mistake. … I think the fans should embrace him as long as he keeps his nose clean," Zaun tweeted.

More interesting than the official non-reaction was the firestorm among fans to Zaun's jeremiad on social media and in reader comments on The Globe and Mail's website. There was plenty of approval for Zaun but also much criticism. Most of it was that old: Where does a journeyman player such as Zaun get off ripping anyone? "Zaun was the worst position player in the history of the Blue Jays and now we have to listen to him spout his total crap on TV," commented Amac, summing up the who-does-he-think-he-is meme. Regster wrote, "As a baseball player [Zaun] could barely hit for average or play tremendous defence ... For you to bash these young bluejays saying there making to much idiot mistake is foul."

Spelling and grammar aside, why can't a journeyman player criticize? We don't insist that music critics be virtuosi or that political commentators run an election campaign. Yet the sports world is slavish in its deference to the opinions of the chiefs. The status quo needs challenging, and Zaun's credentials were more than enough for that job.

Loose lips

Which leads us to the NHL's chiefs fining a lowly team executive for musing publicly about the current lockout. Detroit Red Wings executive Jim Devellano said the league is a ranch where the owners allow the cattle to eat and sleep at the bosses' sufferance. "That's the way it's always been and that the way it will be forever," Devellano told Island Sports News. "And the owners simply aren't going to let a union push them around."

Devellano is right. The NHL is a frozen autocracy. No matter. Only the commissioner and deputy commissioner are permitted public comment. For their part, player advocates are bragging that their side is allowed to extemporize at will. Free speech and all that.

But commissioner Gary Bettman's most nimble manoeuvre in the 2004-05 lockout was herding the cats in his ownership. When it appeared the owners' solidarity was being strained in January of 2005, Bettman simply cancelled a board of governors meeting. Case closed. So while Devellano's free-speech rights may seem trampled, the end will justify the means for the NHL's purposes.

Golf gets it

Here at the Usual Suspects home office, we talk about how pro sports has evolved from the expansion and equity model of the 1990s (still propped up by NHL owners) to the new TV-driven event model. Perhaps there is no better example of bending the old models to create something bigger than the PGA Tour adopting the FedEx Cup playoff system.

The idea was to replace the boring regular fall golf season with something new and exciting. After a few years of refining, the format has hit its stride this year as almost all the top names in golf were within shots of the lead and the $10-million (U.S.) bonus prize in the final round of the Tour Championship on Sunday. Golf is actually holding its own against the mighty NFL and National Collegiate Athletic Association football.

When it finishes trying to ruin its product, the NHL should look carefully at a late-season format like the FedEx Cup before the playoffs. How about a the final eight or 10 games of the regular season played in a tournament within the division that sends just two teams forward to the next round? Okay, it might take refining, but coming out of its lockout mess the NHL is going to need something special.

Big bang

And in case you're wondering how you'll fill your Saturday TV viewing come October, CTV has decided to go out with a bang. The network will air four episodes of The Big Bang Theory from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. for those who like a laugh track better than labour talk.

Can't wait for Bettman to lead a chorus of, "See ya, wouldn't wanna be ya/ Set in motion by the same big bang!"

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