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Thursday, May 24, 2012 03:17 pm

A magical high school baseball season

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The 1971 Macon Ironmen

One Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach and a Magical Baseball Season, by Chris Ballard. Hyperion, 234 pages.

Here in central Illinois we love our high school sports. Granted we also pay attention to the Cardinals, Bears, Cubs, Sox and other sports franchises, but nothing seems to get the juices flowing like high school football, basketball and baseball. Perhaps it is the community spirit that is raised by the hometown school’s accomplishments. It may just be that most high school athletes are unspoiled by money and fame. It could be the desire to relive some long ago accomplishment. Whatever the reason, there is a warm spot in many hearts for the innocence represented by high school teams, coaches and athletes.

Chris Ballard is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated who has seen and covered the sordid side of the professional sports. One Shot at Forever is as far removed from the money-hungry world of sports as a writer could travel. Ballard has come to central Illinois, indeed to Macon County, to chronicle a sports accomplishment that some in central Illinois may recall with fondness. He has written about the Macon Ironmen and their improbable run for the 1971 Illinois State High School Baseball Championship. It is a beautiful narrative that readers will find compelling and enjoyable. You need not be a baseball fan or sports fan to find this book a pleasure.

Macon High School has ceased to exist. The merger of small Illinois community schools has resulted in Meridian High School, the combination of Macon and Meridian high schools. In 1971, Macon High School enrolled 250 students and had 19 teachers. One of those teachers, Lynn Sweet, was drafted to become the Macon baseball coach. Sweet had important qualifications. He was young, single and had the time. Sweet would become a very untraditional coach who offered little tactical advice and gave his players free rein. In the 1960s, such independence was viewed with a wary eye.

Modern high school sports across America find championships contested by schools according to enrollment. In Illinois sports vary from two to eight classes. In 1971, every Illinois school, regardless of enrollment, battled for one state baseball championship. In that quest Macon faced schools with enrollments of several thousand. Macon would face Lane Tech of Chicago, a school that had more than 400 students try out for their baseball team. The 15 players on the Macon team made the roster by simply showing up on the first day of practice.

Make no mistake, One Shot at Forever is a classic David and Goliath sports story that sports fans have grown to love. Whether Hebron, Cobden or Macon, the saga of the small school fighting the giant is what sports is about. But there is something more about Ballard’s book. A great writer captures more than the game; he captures the spirit of the time. The Vietnam era was a turbulent time in our nation and those tumultuous times were reflected in the sports world. One Shot at Forever captures the spirit of the 60s and 70s and the impact of the times on rural communities and education. And the book is a wonderful testament to the spirit of high school sports and its impact on the lives of players, coaches and community.

Stuart Shiffman reviews books for bookreporter.com and Judicature as well as Illinois Times.

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