My friend The Duchess, the sports connoisseur who seeks to protect and defend all that which may be decorous and gracious in sport, is distressed anew. Writing to me in her lovely cursive hand, The Duchess is, once again, spot-on with her complaint.
"Well, my dear Frank," begins her letter, "I see that we have arrived at that dreadful time when all you sports authorities are employing that horrid phrase — 'on the bubble' — surely the most loathsome term to soil the beauty of athletics. If you could please let your brethren in your benighted profession know how distasteful to both the ear and eye is this wretched expression, I would forever be in your debt."
The Duchess, of course, is referring to that description that is, this week, excessively, if not to say ruthlessly, employed to denote those at-large teams that are the final candidates for the 65 spots in what is colloquially known as March Madness. Those fragile teams are invariably "on the bubble."
I explained to The Duchess that the term that so inflames her seems to have first been employed in automobile racing — a sport always jarring to the ears — to denote those cars that had barely qualified for the Indianapolis 500 and might be displaced in the last time trials. Presumably the lingo was derived from having your bubble burst.
Curiously, as "on the bubble" is so prominent for the NCAA basketball tournament, it does not seem to have migrated to any other sport. Nobody, for instance, referred to the New England Patriots or the Dallas Cowboys as being "on the bubble" when they just missed the NFL playoffs.
Now, an old friend and colleague of mine, Herman Weiskopf, who, sadly, died a few months ago, used to keep a folder neatly filed in his desk under the letter "U." It was Herm's "Up For Grabs" folder — in which he kept all headlines that used the expression "up for grabs." And you would be amazed how often "up for grabs" once appeared. Herm's folder veritably bulged.
More's the pity. If it were not for "on the bubble," we would surely be hearing these days about the last spots in the tournament being "up for grabs." For goodness' sake, ladies and gentlemen of the sports media, the least you can do is revive "up for grabs" and use it as an occasional, fresh synonym for "on the bubble."
The Duchess pointed out something else. "Frank," she wrote, "as hideous as 'on the bubble' is at any time, it's also most unseemly these days. It only reminds me of how so many jobs are 'on the bubble' and how many houses are 'on the bubble' and how many hopes are 'on the bubble' and how many lives are 'on the bubble.' Please cease and desist and get on with the tournament."
Well said, Duchess. And it's a wide open field, so the championship is definitely up for grabs.
Commentator Frank Deford reports from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Conn.