What Would You Do with One Shot at Forever?
Posted by: Neil Hollands
It’s the last game of an unlikely season. A mongrel team of small town boys, led by one troubled but fantastic player, coached by the man that nobody thought could do it, has overcome a path of insurmountable obstacles to make the state finals. Here they are in what may be the most important moment of their lives, with even the other team’s fans starting to root for them, down to the last moments of the game. Can they possibly win?
Well, of course they can. This is the plot of at least a dozen inspiring films, perhaps most notably Hoosiers, about an Indiana basketball team. If you watch Hoosiers (and can withstand the jarringly wrong 1980s synthesizer soundtrack), you’ll know exactly what’s coming and whether or not you’re a sports fan, it will move you anyway. That’s the formula, and it gets repeated because it works. Enter Chris Ballard’s book One Shot at Forever: a Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and a Magical Baseball Season. The whole formula is in the title, so we know what’s coming right?
Well, not quite.
Ballard’s book has all the usual elements. It involves the Ironmen of Macon High School in Illinois at the start of the 1970s. The baseball team at Macon has been through a revolving door of coaches, saddled with a string of losing seasons against even other small town schools. Not expecting any better, the school hires English teacher L. C. Sweet to coach the team. Sweet is a hard drinking counterculture guy in a very square place. Leaving practice optional, letting the players decide their own positions and strategies during the game, and emphasizing fun, he’s the antithesis of the ex-military coaches his young players have come to expect, but there is method to the madness. Sweet makes the players loose, and when lucky brings him a team with some skills, fortunes for Macon turn dramatically.
Still, Macon is a tiny school in a time when there are no divisions in Illinois high school sports. A run through conference, sectionals, regionals, and the state tournament will require them to defeat big city schools with money and thousands more students from which to draw a team. For two years, Sweet and his ragtag, undersized team, sporting long hair, peace signs on their hats, and warming up to the strains of Jesus Christ Superstar, do the impossible, somehow making that run.
Several elements make this story more surprising than its ilk. Neither of Macon’s miracle seasons ends in quite the way that readers might be trained to expect. L. C. Sweet is such a fish out of water that he makes a unique and unforgettable character, even in this familiar story. And Ballard finishes his book with something unusual, an epilogue about what has happened to the team in the forty years since the big season. It’s an ending that leavens inspiration with a bit of melancholy, an ending that while ultimately uplifting, also lets the reader appreciate the price that nostalgia for that one shining moment can extract.
The result is a remarkable little piece of sports journalism, a story that’s brimming with real human emotion of all kinds that I highly recommend to book groups in search of something out of the ordinary.