One Shot at Forever by Chris Ballard

July 21, 2013

one shot at forever Summary (from the publisher): In 1971, a small-town high school baseball team from rural Illinois playing with hand-me-down uniforms and peace signs on their hats defied convention and the odds. Led by an English teacher with no coaching experience, the Macon Ironmen emerged from a field of 370 teams to become the smallest school in modern Illinois history to make the
state final, a distinction that still stands. There, sporting long hair, and warming up to Jesus Christ Superstar, the Ironmen would play a dramatic game against a Chicago powerhouse that would change their lives forever.

In a gripping, cinematic narrative, Sports Illustrated writer Chris Ballard tells the story of the team and its coach, Lynn Sweet, a hippie, dreamer and intellectual who arrived in Macon in 1966, bringing progressive ideas to a town stuck in the Eisenhower era. Beloved by students but not administration, Sweet reluctantly took over a rag-tag team, intent on teaching the boys as much about life as baseball. Inspired by Sweet’s unconventional methods and led by fiery star Steve Shartzer and spindly curveball artist John Heneberry, the undersized, undermanned Macon Ironmen embarked on an improbable postseason run that infuriated rival coaches and buoyed an entire town.

Beginning with Sweet’s arrival, Ballard takes readers on a journey back to the Ironmen’s historic season and then on to the present day, returning to the 1971 Ironmen to explore the effect the game had on their lives’ trajectories–and the men they’ve become because of it.

Engaging and poignant, One Shot at Forever is a testament to the power of high school sports to shape the lives of those who play them, and it reminds us that there are few bonds more sacred than that among a coach, a team, and a town.

Reaction:

I love sports, baseball, and underdog stories, so it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that I would enjoy this book. Fortunately, Ballard didn’t disappoint. One Shot at Forever is a mostly gripping tale that had me engaged from beginning to end (for the most part). As others have pointed out, this is a baseball version of Hoosiers–with the exception of the championship outcome. Now if the Ironmen had actually won, this story would have been perfect!

Ballard does a good job of setting the scene in the early stages of the book. He introduces the reader to the town of Macon, IL, and to Lynn Sweet, the radical teacher/coach who does everything his own way, convention and popular opinion be damned. Ballard also chooses to focus on star player Steve Shartzer at this point, which is something I didn’t really agree with. It was too early to bring Shartzer’s childhood into the picture, IMO, and these passages threatened to drag the story down for me.

The Ironmen actually had a better squad in 1970, and Ballard spent a good deal of time recapping that season near the beginning of the book. In fact, I think he gave more game-to-game details about the 1970 regular season than the ’71 regular season, which struck me as odd. But perhaps that was just a function of the data he had to work with.

The treatment of the “magical” ’71 season was superb, and the coverage of the post-season was so detailed that I couldn’t believe I was reading about a small-time high school baseball program from more than 40 years ago. The record keeping (or the players’ memories) must have been simply outstanding. The fact that Ballard is a sportswriter by trade really helped bring the action front and center, as well. This was, by far, the best part of the book.

I also liked that there was an epilogue that brought readers up to date on what some of the boys from the Macon team are doing now, though it certainly could have been more comprehensive. It was heartbreaking to learn that Shartzer carried the weight of that championship loss with him after all that time–but I fully understood what he was going through. While I can’t say I’ve been in a game as monumental as the state championship, I know all too well how sports memories can haunt you for decades. I do hope this book has helped him work past some of that guilt and regret, though.

What I enjoyed most about Ballard’s book was the camaraderie that developed between the teammates. There really isn’t anything like the bond teammates share through a season like that. I’m fully confident that if I ever met up with my high school teammates (from any sport), we’d slip right back into that easy camaraderie despite the fact that 20+ years have passed.

Rating:

I realize the Reaction section above hardly does this book justice, but there’s really no way to put into words how good One Shot at Forever is without devolving into empty sports cliches. It’s not a flawless work, as it does bog down in several places (particularly when dealing with school politics), so the rating must suffer a bit. I give this one 4 stars out of 5.

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