Dave: Today we’re discussing the book, “One Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and a Magical Baseball Season” by Chris Ballard. I really loved this book. It’s the story of a high school baseball team in a small town in central Illinois called Macon, that made a run through the state playoffs back in 1971. And the coach of the team was a young English teacher who had no coaching experience, had long hair, facial hair, and didn’t fit into the establishment at all.
Nate: Especially in central Illinois in the early ‘70s.
Dave: Exactly. Small town, central Illinois at this time was still stuck in the 1950s in terms of overall worldview, so this young teacher, named Lynn Sweet, ruffled a few feathers. But it was his similarity to my high school baseball coach, in terms of looks and lifestyle that really drew me in to the story. Plus, this took me back to when I was growing up because I was about the same age as most of the kids in the book.
Nate: I just loved how much of a leader Coach Sweet was. Here was someone who had no coaching experience, although he had played some baseball when he was a kid; but with no coaching experience he makes this team a consistent winner. It shows that leadership isn’t all about X’s and O’s. He knew how to instill confidence in his team, help them relax, and make them believe they could win any game.
Dave: And the coaching establishment in the state just hated him. But his players loved him – as did the students who took his English classes. There’s probably nothing better for a young kid than to have an adult, other than your parents, have a positive influence on you.
Nate: His teaching methods were as unorthodox as his looks. It wasn’t the usual, boring English class the kids were used to having throughout their schooling. He had them write their own obituaries so they could think about what they were going to do in their lives and he had them reading controversial books.
Dave: And on the baseball field, he told them they didn’t really have to practice. The practices they had were loose and fun. He allowed them to play “Jesus Christ Superstar” while they warmed up before games. He wanted them to think about things differently, have fun, get comfortable, and believe in themselves. Which is exactly what happened. That, despite not having much of an equipment budget.
Nate: You’ve got that right. They wore about three different styles of uniform that year, while just about everyone on the team had a different hat.
Dave: Yeah, some of the uniforms had Macon spelled out, some just had an M, and some of the kids had peace signs on their hats. It was a complete hodgepodge because there was no money for equipment. They had two bats, and one time, before a game, when they both broke, a parent had to run to the local hardware store and buy two more so they would be able to hit.
Nate: It’s hard to believe a team in this kind of a situation could make a run through the state tournament, but that’s what Macon did, beating some schools that are much bigger along the way.
Dave: They actually thought the year before was going to be their big year, but they ended up having a couple of players ruled ineligible, so they were eliminated from the playoffs. But they came back the next year and were even better, and finally earned their shot at the state tournament.
Nate: One thing I really loved about this book was that it felt real. While it certainly had a “Hoosiers” quality to it, it wasn’t just the formulaic team coming together, beating the odds, and winning a championship type of story. There was adversity faced by the team, the individual players, and the coach – and not every game turns out the way you might think. It’s a wild ride, but also one where the reality of life intervenes.
Dave: I loved some of the kids on the team. There was only one real “star” on the team who would go on to play baseball professionally. The rest were moderately talented kids who were able to put it all together as a team despite their individual shortcomings. I especially loved their left handed starting pitcher who, despite having no fastball whatsoever, could somehow get anyone out with his slow curve. He was a kid I think anyone could really root for and relate to.
Nate: I thought the administrator who hired Lynn Sweet was pretty interesting as well.
Dave: Absolutely. He knew that the kids in the school district were sheltered from what was going on in the world, so it was his goal to bring in a variety of viewpoints to give them an idea of what was really out there. I think that was important for the kids in Macon.
Nate: And interestingly enough, none of the baseball team parents had an issue with Sweet. His ideas might have been off the beaten path, but they obviously saw what an effect he was having on their kids, and they embraced him. I think most people can relate to having a coach or a teacher who served as a role model for them when they were growing up, which is exactly what Lynn Sweet was.
Dave: Which is one reason why I would recommend this book to just about anyone. Although it focuses on the success of a baseball team, the reality is that it’s a story about how important leadership is and how important and influential one person can be on a group of kids.