Ah, spring training. It’s happening. Baseball season is almost upon us!
I recently devoured “One Shot at Forever,” the tale of a high school team beating the odds in the midwest in the early 1970s. Chris Ballard’s book transports you back to that time of societal turmoil, as young men were being sent to war and their parents’ generation despaired at the developing hippie culture. Small town Macon, Illinois was a prime example. When Macon High School hired an English teacher with great recommendations, the board was willing to overlook his long hair. And because he expressed an enthusiasm for baseball, they decided his lack of coaching experience was of little concern.
The Macon Ironmen had mismatched uniforms, a shoddy field, and a penchant for rotating coaches. In fact, they’d had a new coach take the helm in each of the last three seasons before Lynn Sweet came on board. Sweet had an interest in sports, but he wasn’t driven by the W. He received word in the week before the season began that he would be the new coach, he subsequently took a rather informal approach to team leadership. Practices were optional, music was played, and the kids were asked which position they wanted to take on. And the funny thing is, the Ironmen started to win.
Some aspects of the story were rather predictable. We have all seen ragtag-team-turned-winner movies before. We know the unconventional coach will be challenged by a swarm of angry parents with powerful positions on the school board. We can even hear the music swell as the crucial pitch is thrown in the championship game. But do you know WHY these storylines are familiar and keep coming back? Because they work. Because they’re powerful. And, in this particular case, it’s better because they’re true.
I won’t give away what happens with Lynn Sweet’s team. The details may be on the book jacket but I can’t say for sure. What I want to focus on is what a critical role Sweet himself had in these young men’s lives, and in the town of Macon. I appreciate that the author takes time at the end of the book to create a “where are they now?” chapter. Not all of them are pleasant stories, so this is not made-for-Lifetime material.
Sweet taught the men about life and how to live it. These lessons just happened to translate well to baseball. Persistence, passion, authenticity, and being true to self and your own values instead of the pressures of society… those were Sweet’s legacy to his team. Sure, the winning felt good and the losses stung. But fairness and the art of learning from disappointment were what Sweet imparted to his students. He played mind games with the media to protect the team. He taught the players that Macon wasn’t SO small and the world wasn’t SO big to be overwhelming.
Let me break it down for you. I love baseball, and I feel like I should have been born in the 60s, so I truly related to this story. But the end of this book really brought it home for me. The students’ lives, and the legacy of their teacher, are just as interesting as that one high school season that brought them fame.