Last month, I blubbered for joy when I saw that video of Susan Boyle singing on the British-type American Idol show. Then, a few days later, came the sad news that Mark Fidrych — "The Bird" — had met an accidental death. It took me a while, but over time I came to connect the two disparate people in my mind.
You see, what was so wonderful about Fidrych was not just that he had a terrific rookie season as a pitcher in 1976, but that he was a surprise. Like Miss Boyle, he seemed to have come out of nowhere. And that was sweetness and light ... and, so sadly, that never seems to happen anymore in sports. Does it?
Ironically, American Idol and the reality shows have stolen the fun from sports. This year, the championship game in the men's Final Four — which is supposed to be so at the heart of our American culture that even the president makes out brackets — drew an audience of around 16 million viewers on CBS. That same evening on ABC, 19.5 million Americans watched just another run-of-the-mill week of Dancing With The Stars.
Sorry, sports fans, I call this a triumph of taste. Sports is so prepackaged, so diagrammed to death by experts and analysts, that it is reduced to all the charm of following the Dow Jones average on CNBC.
Hey, let the sunshine back into sports. The humorless defenders of the college cartel have increasingly cut back on inviting smaller conference schools into March Madness. No, instead, let's have a lifeless seventh-place finisher from some big-foot conference. If Susan Boyle were a college basketball team, she'd be a midmajor and would have never gotten a chance.
But then a trainer in a black Johnny Cash cowboy hat, limping on crutches, whose cheap horses had managed exactly one win in 34 starts this year, put a tiny little bay gelding who once sold for $9,500 into a van and drove 21 hours from New Mexico to Louisville. He signed up an unaffected Cajun jockey, who does two things particularly well — ride horses down on the rail and cry like a baby when he's happy — and won the Kentucky Derby at 50 to 1.
Why, even as I tore up all my losing tickets, I couldn't help but smile ear to ear, because this was about the happiest surprise in sports since, well, since Mark "The Bird" Fidrych was bringing joy to us all 33 years ago. And, of course, the little bay gelding's name is Mine That Bird. What a hunch bet I missed, but how nice that another Bird made sports happier for us all once more.
Commentator Frank Deford weighs in from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Conn.