Jacques Villeneuve vs. Larry Walker: Why the 1997 Lou Marsh Trophy Debate Still Rages On
— February 8, 2019
A sports fan’s favourite pastime is debating the greats – great plays, great wins, the greatest of all time. One of Canada’s greatest sports debates revolves around the coveted Lou Marsh Trophy, awarded each year to Canada’s best athlete, as decided by a committee of Canadian sports journalists.
When FORMULA 1™ world champion Jacques Villeneuve was awarded the trophy in 1997 over Larry Walker, the first Canadian to be named an MVP in Major League Baseball, it set off one of the greatest sports debates in Canadian history. At the time, Walker claimed he felt like he “lost to a car,” and the debate has lived on for more than two decades since.
MAN VS. MACHINE, the second instalment in the new season of the TSN documentary series ENGRAVED ON A NATION takes a look back at the 1997 Lou Marsh Trophy controversy (Monday, Feb. 11 at 7:30 p.m. ET on TSN). The film features unique first-hand accounts from Walker and Villeneuve as well as interviews with Randy Johnson, Damon Hill, and Tony La Russa.
While this debate will likely rage on forever, @TSN_PR sat down with director Simon Ennis to share his thoughts on the controversy, his experience working with Villeneuve and Walker, and the impact this story made on the Canadian sports landscape.
Q: What drew you to the story of the 1997 Lou Marsh Trophy?SE: One of the joys of sports fandom is arguing. Who’s the greatest basketball player of all time, Jordan or LeBron? How would Babe Ruth do against today’s pitchers? And the ultimate sports fan argument is the one that can never be truly resolved. Who’s a better athlete…a baseball player or a race car driver? That’s a great one. How can you possibly choose?
I loved the “impossible argument" hook that came out of the ‘97 Lou Marsh Trophy and, even more so, I loved being able to use that as an excuse to profile, compare, and contrast two Canadian sports legends who are different in so many ways, and yet share some fascinating similarities, too.
Q: Do you remember the event unfolding in real time? If so, what was your take when it happened?SE: I do. I was a teenager and a huge baseball fan, so I definitely remember this playing out on sports radio and TSN at the time. As I didn't follow F1 back then, I was definitely pulling for Larry, but I’ve most definitely come around. If it was up to me to decide, I would campaign hard for a tie. Both Jacques and Larry’s accomplishments that year were staggering and unprecedented and they were equally worthy of the honour.
Q: Having intimate access to both Larry and Jacques, where do their similarities as athletes lie?SE: It was a privilege to have deep, multi-hour conversations with Jacques and Larry. They are both very different guys, which I think is clear in the film. That said, they share an extraordinary competitive drive and focus. Most surprising for me was their extreme positivity – to the point that they seem to have found ways in their careers to almost eliminate even the possibility of failure (despite the fact that in both of their sports, constant failure is inevitable). I found that fascinating, inspiring, and, frankly, sort of perplexing.
Q: What is one thing that you were surprised to learn about this story throughout filming and interviews?SE: With Jacques, it was when he said that his father’s tragic death actually had a positive effect on him. He describes this in a much more nuanced way in our interview, but you can imagine how that was a shocking and strangely moving thing to hear in the moment.
With Larry, it was realizing just how truly incredible a ballplayer he was. I grew up as a casual fan of Larry and knew he was an awesome player, but when you really dig into his career you realize that he is literally the 10th best right fielder of all time. That is staggering! He needs to get into the Hall Of Fame and I’m cautiously optimistic he’ll make it next year.
Q: How do you think this story altered Canada’s sports landscape?SE: These guys expanded the field of what a Canadian athlete could do. Before Jacques and Larry, we were supposed to be hockey players and Olympic athletes. These guys both broke incredible ground and, to this day, are respectively the greatest Canadian race car driver and baseball player in history (although Joey Votto has a chance to end up surpassing Larry).
Q: For whom are you most excited to screen the documentary?SE: My dad, who took me to game two of the 1993 World Series.
TSN’s ENGRAVED ON A NATION continues with MAN VS. MACHINE, premiering Monday, Feb. 11 at 7:30 p.m. ET on TSN.