Every week, I'll excerpt a handful of stories — old and new, sports and otherwise, relevant and merely sublime — that I urge you to read for one reason or another. Send any suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
"What makes Kansas' coach so successful? Self confidence," by Joe Posnanski (from Sports Illustrated, 2010)
Suggested readers: Kansas fans who will need reminding of what makes Self so great if and when the Jayhawks get Bucknelled out of the tournament before the Final Four
OK, you have to hear the Oral Roberts story. Self was hired to be coach at Oral Roberts when the basketball program was at a low point. Self took the job and believed he would turn it around because, well, that's just how he ticks.
So, the day came when he was going to be introduced ... only this being Oral Roberts, it is done a bit differently. Self was brought to the giant chapel, where every student in the school was present. And, understand, Oral Roberts is an evangelical school; it was built, Oral Roberts himself always said, because God told him to build it. Self grew up in a quiet Methodist home.
Stop here. What would you do? What would any of us do, thrown into that chapel, 4,000 kids in the pews, all of them wanting to know a little something about the new coach?
Bill Self preached. He preached that he was going to bring a winner back to Oral Roberts. He preached that he and his staff was going to work night and day to make it happen. "It was unbelievable," says Hinson, Self's friend who was there as an assistant coach. "He transformed himself." In time, after a rough first two years, Self and Hinson and the team did become winners, did go to their first postseason tournament in a decade. But perhaps the most lasting memory happened that day in the chapel, when quiet Self preached and preached, and the students swayed with him, and he made everyone believe, and that when he finished everyone in the place, everyone, including Oral Roberts himself, said "Amen."
(Hat tip to Alan K.)
"Chris Bell: The Legacy of Big Star's 'Other Genius'," by John Jeremiah Sullivan (from the Oxford American; anthologized in The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing)
Suggested readers: Fans of Big Star, mourners of Alex Chilton
Chilton said to Robert Gordon, "Most of the Big Star stuff was searching for how to get through two verses without saying anything really stupid. ..." Add "playing" to "saying," and you have as apt a description of the task involved in writing good pop songs as has ever been articulated. Great songwriters learn as much from listening to bad music as they do from listening to what they love. They memorize pitfalls, dead-ends; the how, as opposed to the what, of poor taste and cliché. It's a strange, hair-splitting science, since, let's face it, when you're thinking in Shostakovich terms, the distance between a Brian Wilson objet d'art and a breakfast-cereal jingle is about three atoms wide. For a pop songwriter, each new composition presents countless temptations and traps, moments when the song wants to become "stupid," wants to go to the obvious chord or rhyme, wants to sound too close, as opposed to just close enough, to what we've heard before. The game is to thread your way through these traps without sounding as if you're trying to be unpredictable — melodically, lyrically, in whatever way. And success comes when you've taken all the crap the genre gives you to work with — limited instrumentation, limited melodic possibilities, limited time — and made beauty of it, then disguised the beauty as more of the good ol' crap we like to hear when we turn on the radio. Isn't that precisely what makes those classics, like "Baby, It's You," so moving, so overwhelming, what makes you have to pull your car to the side of the road when they come on? The beauty in them is subversive. It doesn't belong. It's been smuggled in under the radar of suburban teenage taste and purchasing power. That's why pop music is the art for our time: It's an art of crap. And not in a self-conscious sense, not like a sculpture made of garbage and shown at the Whitney, which is only a way of saying that "low" materials can be made to serve the demands of "high" art. No, pop music really is crap. It's about transcending through crap. It's about standing there with your stupid guitar, and your stupid words, and your stupid band, and not being stupid.
"For The Champion In The Rotisserie League, Joy Is A Yoo-hoo Shampoo," by Steve Wulf (from Sports Illustrated, 1984)
Suggested readers: People who spend half their March drafting fantasy baseball teams
"John Denny, two dollars," he said. We laughed.
He was, still is, Daniel Okrent, owner of the Okrent Fenokees. We were, still are, the Rotisserie League, a flock of loons who have and hold our own baseball teams. You could say that these teams are imaginary, but we prefer to think of them as real, and the Chicago Cubs as imaginary.
We gather every year on the first Sunday after Opening Day, at Corona Park, which is really the dining room of Corlies M. Smith, the former owner of the Smith Coronas. There we choose National League players for the coming season in a sort of auction. Each of us, in turn, introduces the name of a player and his appropriate price, and the highest bid wins him. We cannot spend more than $260 to assemble a 23-man team. In that way we are like Calvin Griffith.
The Rotisserie League is silly, and we know that. We also know that it has caused great changes in the lives of each and every one of us, mostly for the better. We play for money, of course, but we also play for friendship, competition, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Corona Park, on Manhattan's fashionable East Side, is a very special place, for it is here that we share our innermost secrets, such as the knowledge that one of us once paid $32 for Paul Householder. At 10 a.m. on draft day, we board a mysterious elevator that beams us up to Corona Park. We exchange pleasantries, sip coffee and then get down to business. Laden with books and charts, we take our places around the table, and a wonderful table it is — long and mahogany. That's the way it was when we gathered for the 1983 draft, and that's the way it always will be, we hope.
But it's last year's draft of which we speak. Someone said, "John Denny, one dollar." Pause. Okrent said, "John Denny, two dollars." Snickers, but no other bids, followed. After all, in 1982 Denny had been a combined 6-13 for the Indians and Phillies, giving up almost five earned runs every nine innings. Sold to Okrent for $2.
What genius! Denny won 19 games for the Phillies, had an ERA of 2.37 and gave up just 1.16 hits and walks per inning pitched. Denny also won the Cy Young Award in the National League, but that's for sentimentalists. "John Denny, two dollars," said Okrent. Of course, he also said, "Greg Minton, forty-two dollars," which comes out to about $2 a save, so what does he know?
Okrent certainly didn't know what he was about to start on that dreary January day in 1980 when he and five others rendezvoused at La Rotisserie Française, a restaurant — now morte — on Manhattan's fashionable East Side. They met for a regular session of the Phillies Appreciation Society, but out of that meeting came the idea for a statistical baseball league. The league was actually organized at another East Side eatery, P.J. Moriarity's — also now defunct — but the Rotisserie League sounds a lot better than the Moriarity League, don't you think? It's also a nice play on Hot Stove League, but you probably don't care.
And so the Constitution was hammered out in long, painful sessions. "I felt like Madison writing The Federalist papers," says Okrent, who, incidentally, is Vedie Himsl's biggest fan (see page 575 of the fifth edition of The Baseball Encyclopedia): "Glen Waggoner was Hamilton and Bob Sklar was John Jay. At one point Glen said, 'Why do this for money? It'll be fun to play for nothing.' We looked at him as if he were a Martian."
At the end of the meal the eight-four-year-old Queen Mother tottered out of the room. We — the eight hundred insurance salesmen, the two managing directors from Salomon Brothers, their wives, and I — stood in respectful silence as she crept toward what I at first took to be the back door. Then I realized that it must be the front of the palace and that we fund raiser types had been let in like delivery boys, through the back. Anyway, the Queen Mother was headed our way. Behind her walked Jeeves, straight as a broom, clad in white tie and tails and carrying a silver tray. Following Jeeves, in procession, was a team of small, tubular dogs, called corgis, that looked like large rats. The English think corgis are cute. The British royals, I was later told, never go anywhere without them.
A complete hush enveloped the Great Hall of St. James's Palace. As the Queen Mother drew near, the insurance salesmen bowed their heads like churchgoers. The corgis had been trained to curtsy every fifteen seconds by crossing their back legs and dropping their ratlike bellies onto the floor. The procession at last arrived at its destination. We stood immediately at the Queen Mother's side. The Salomon Brothers wife glowed. I'm sure I glowed, too. But she glowed more. Her desire to be noticed was tangible. There are a number of ways to grab the attention of royalty in the presence of eight hundred silent agents of the Prudential, but probably the surest is to shout. That's what she did. Specifically, she shouted, "Hey, Queen, Nice Dogs You Have There!"
Several dozen insurance salesmen went pale. Actually they were already pale, so perhaps I exaggerate. But they cleared their throats a great deal and stared at their tassel loafers. The only person within earshot who didn't appear distinctly uncomfortable was the Queen Mother herself. She passed out of the room without missing a step.
At that odd moment in St. James's Palace, representatives of two proud institutions had flown their finest colors side by side: The unflappable Queen Mother gracefully dealt with an embarrassing situation by ignoring it; the Salomon Brothers managing director's wife, drawing on hidden reserves of nerve and instinct, restored the balance of power in the room by hollering. I had always had a soft spot for the royals, and especially the Queen Mother. But from that moment I found Salomon Brothers, the bleacher bums of St. James's, equally irresistible. I mean it. To some, they were crude, rude, and socially unacceptable. But I wouldn't have had them any other way. These were, as much as any investment bankers could be, my people. And there was no doubt in mind mind that this unusually forceful product of the Salomon Brothers culture could persuade her husband to give me a job.