The subtitle of Sports Illustrated writer Ballard’s book may lead readers to think they’ve seen this one before: “a Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and a Magic Baseball Season” sounds like the plot of at least a dozen sports films and books that I’ve encountered over the years. Those like me who are triggered to somewhat embarassed tears by the final scenes of movies such as Hoosiers will find all the same pathos in this new book, but Ballard has enough surprises up his sleeve to make his book special.
The book is set in 1970 and 1971 and the team in question are the Ironmen of Macon High, a tiny school in farmland Illinois in an era when the state tournament didn’t have different population divisions. The Macon boys had never won the baseball title in their own hicksville conference, but surviving that, then getting through sectionals, regionals, and finally competing at the state tournament against teams drawing players from thousands more students was all but an impossibility. But then that’s what makes an underdog story powerful, and for two magical seasons, the Ironmen would make that improbable run.
The players are the usual bunch in such tales, undersized or oddball, with one gifted athlete as their leader, the tough-minded Steve Shartzer who would lead the teams ultimate run with a broken bone in his wrist. The real revelation is their coach, one L. C. Sweet, a counterculture guy in a very square region, a hard drinker and beloved English teacher. He’s the fourth coach of the baseball team in four years, and nobody expects much. Sweet is the opposite of the ex-military coaches to whom the boys have become accustomed. He lets them decide how much or even if they want to practice, what positions they want to play, even what decisions to make in the field. He de-emphasizes competition, and relaxed, the boys start to win. They baffle their heartland competition, warming up to the strains of Jesus Christ Superstar and sporting long hair and peace symbols on their mismatched uniforms.
Read the book for the other suspenseful and fun details of the Ironmen’s rise. This book doesn’t take all the turns a jaded sports reader might expect, making it all the more powerful. Perhaps what makes Ballard’s book most unique is the ending, in which he chronicles what has happened to players and coach in the forty years since the big season, including a reunion scene that has real emotional power. Life goes on after those glorious seasons, and in sticking around to tell that story, Ballard creates a sports story with even more drama than is usual.
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