- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Prohibitive favorite? Hah! Total lock? What a crock! It’s anybody’s ballgame in sports these days. America has become the Land of the Long Shot, the Dominion of the Dark Horse, the … oh, you get the idea.

Why, just this past weekend, we had Giacomo, who went off at 50-1, winning the Kentucky Derby; Steve Nash, a 6-foot-3 white guy from Canada, being voted NBA Most Valuable Player; and Tom Brady, a former sixth-round pick, signing a six-year, $60 million deal with the Patriots after leading them to their third championship in four years.

And that, I repeat, was just one glorious weekend.

The impossible isn’t just possible nowadays, it’s almost anticipated. We seem to be in the midst of some kind of Golden Age of Underdogs. Hardly a month goes by, it seems, without somebody providing us with a “What was that score again?” moment.

It’s hard to pinpoint when the cycle started. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, it was in the late spring of ‘99. That was when Lemon Drop Kid, another horse barely known outside the barns, won the Belmont at 29-1 odds — the second longest in the race’s history. Six weeks later, an unheard-of Frenchman named Jean Van de Velde blew the British Open by triple-bogeying the 72nd hole, but that merely allowed the almost as obscure Paul Lawrie to come from 10 shots back on the final day and take the claret jug.

Around the time Lemon Drop Kid was crossing the finish line at Belmont and Van de Velde was mucking it up at Carnoustie, the sports world, I’m guessing, was thrown off its axis. Or maybe it just pulled a hamstring. Whatever the case, it hasn’t been the same since.

And are Bostonians ever glad. They, after all, have benefited from this cataclysm as much as anybody. Just last fall, you may recall, the Red Sox ended nearly a century of suffering by winning the World Series. Better yet, they dispersed the Curse of the Bambino in history-making fashion — by overcoming a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees in the ALCS. As long shots go, that was the baseball equivalent of a Giacomo-Closing Argument exacta (which, incidentally, was worth $9,814.80, more than seven times the previous biggest Derby payout).

Four years earlier, the New England Patriots took a Guy Named Brady in the latter stages of the draft. That’s about all he was to Pats fans back then: a Guy Named Brady, a quarterback from Michigan who was selected after illustrious QBs like Giovanni Carmazzi and Spurgeon Wynn. Giovanni’s career turned out to be less than operatic, and Spurgeon didn’t win, but you have to like Tom’s results. And who saw them coming? Certainly not Mel Kiper, or even Bridget Moynahan.

So it has gone in sports the past five-odd years — one unlikely hero after another carting off a trophy, one out-of-nowhere team after another capturing a title. If Kurt Warner wasn’t emerging from the Arena League mists to lead the Rams to a Super Bowl victory, the Marlins were firing their manager two months into the season, rebounding from a 19-29 start and winning it all (a year after drawing barely 800,000 at home). If Rich Beem wasn’t holding off Tiger Woods down the stretch of the PGA, then Todd Hamilton was outdueling Ernie Els in a British Open playoff. If Sarava, a 70-to-1 shot, wasn’t spoiling War Emblem’s dreams of a Triple Crown, then Utah was going to a BCS bowl (and producing the top pick in the NFL Draft, Alex Smith). If Vermont wasn’t knocking Syracuse out of the NCAA basketball tournament, then Bucknell was showing Kansas the door.

Every era has its surprises, its shocks, its Mount St. Helens, but has there ever been a stretch quite like this one? The last three World Series champions have been wild-card teams. Three of the six longest shots to win the Belmont since 1940 have come in the last five years. And just a couple of months ago, let’s not forget, “Million Dollar Baby,” the boxing film no studio wanted to make, took the Oscar for best picture.

No, there’s something strange going on here. You can talk about parity, about the law of averages, about the thoroughbred ranks getting thinner and about talent evaluation being little more than a game of darts, but it still doesn’t explain what’s been happening in sports the last few years. Not nearly.

That’s OK, though. In fact, it’s probably better this way. If we try too hard to understand it, the sports world might poof! — go back to normal. And that’s the last thing anyone should want.

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