One Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and A Magical Baseball Season by Chris Ballard (Hyperion, $24.95, 254 pages)
“He loved us boys… He loved us, and we loved him – and we still do.” Steve Shartzer on Macon high’s former baseball coach Lynn Sweet
One Shot at Forever proves that Bad News Bears stories do happen in real life. This is the tale of the 1971 high school baseball team from the rust belt town of Macon, Illinois. The Macon team represented the smallest high school to ever qualify for the Illinois state championship playoff, and they did it not once, but two years in a row. The talented team with the mismatched uniforms and an unconventional coach (he was said to look like a hung-over version of Frank Zappa) was headed to Peoria in 1970, before being disqualified on a strange technicality. It looked like the underdog’s day was over, until the slight, long-haired players very improbably made another championship run in ’71.
The boys from Macon adopted Jesus Christ Superstar as their theme song, and they made it all the way to the state championship final game. Did they win or lose the big game? You’ll need to read One Shot to find out.
Chris Ballard has produced a great, small but big, book about life’s lessons and the value of competition. This one’s especially recommended for younger readers whose wins, losses and draws are still ahead of them.
A review copy was provided by the publisher. “A beautiful and unforgettable book.” Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights.
It may just be me… Sometimes with non-fiction sports stories – especially ones that are intended to be inspirational – I feel like I can’t get any traction as a reader. They start off slowly and I tend to wait and wait and wait and wait, thinking they’ll speed up and the excitement will hit me. I had this problem with the book version of Friday Night Lights. I bought the trade paperback while on vacation thinking the read would fly by. Instead, I plodded and crawled my way through the story and somehow never located the part where it sped up.
Sadly, The Boys… is a very Friday Night… like tale. It’s a non-fiction account chronicled by an on-leave newspaper reporter of his year spent with a high school’s football team on the plains of Kansas. OK, if this makes your heart beat faster it may be a book for your vacation. (Beware that the words wheat and wheat fields are used a lot.)
Perhaps part of the problem for me is that I was reading a galley/advanced reading copy of Our Boys. There were no teaser quotes on the front or back cover – or even inside – stating things like, “The most inspirational youth sports story of the decade!” or “This is Drape’s youth sports masterpiece!” Galleys can be a bit dull.
Then there’s Drape’s factual reporting style. Here’s a sample: “The coaches’ office… was not much to look at – blue lockers on one wall and across from them a long desk fashioned from plywood and file cabinets. Its top was buried under papers… Beneath it were boxes full of jerseys and T-shirts and rolls of tape. Scouting reports dating back five years were in red binders and lined the sleeves.” Does this make you want to know what happened next?
To be fair, the author himself notes that the Smith Center football coach was hard for reporters to cover as his proclamations “rarely veered from too familiar themes.” Oh, the coach would say that his team respected every opponent while fearing none; he’d also praise the opponents for playing hard.
In summary, I had hopes that this true life story would offer some fun like a ride in a Volkswagen GTI. Instead it was a ride in a John Deere Harvester as it plowed through Kansas wheat fields, never quite managing to speed up.