In One Shot at Forever, Sports Illustrated writer Chris Ballard tells the improbable story of a small-town high school baseball team from rural Illinois that defied convention, inspired by its coach, Lynn Sweet, an English teacher with no coaching experience.
What brought this story to your attention in the first place? When did you decide to write the book?
Basically, I got lucky. Two and a half years ago I received an email from a Sports Illustrated reader named Chris Collins. He told me the story of a small town high school baseball team and its unusual coach. He mentioned a Cinderella run, and kids wearing peace signs on their hats, and players who went on to be drafted into the majors. I was intrigued enough to talk to Chris on the phone and, when that went well, fly out to meet the coach, Lynn Sweet. All it took was an afternoon with Sweet for me to fall in love with the story. Here was a man—complicated, charismatic, controversial, kind, good-hearted—that I knew readers could root for. Then there was the tale itself, redolent of Hoosiers and full of natural drama.
The resulting SI story was titled “The Magical Season of the Macon Ironmen” and it ran in June of 2010. We were blown away by the response. Something about that team, and Sweet, really struck a nerve. For weeks, the letters poured in—more than I can remember for any feature story at SI in a long time. People nominated Sweet for “Sportsman of the Year,” and wrote of re-reading the story on tear-stained pages. Many wanted to share their own stories of coaches and small towns and long-forgotten teams. Within weeks, a half a dozen film producers had called. It was overwhelming.
It was about two months later that I decided to write the book. It just felt like there was so much more to the story than I was able to get into the 10,000-word magazine story: themes of loss and hope and coming of age. Plus, I genuinely liked the people I was writing about, which is crucial with a book like this that is so tied to the main characters.
Coach Sweet somewhat unexpectedly arrives in Macon, Illinois. He sweeps into town and is a completely different type of person. What was he like and how did the town react?
Sweet was the son of an Army Sergeant who had, in his words, “broke the other way.” He’s this 22-year-old liberal-minded English teacher who’s exploring life and embracing the changing times. Macon, on the other hand, is a town of 1,200 in the middle of Illinois that remains stuck in the Eisenhower era. Short hair, unquestioned patriotism, conservative values. The clash was almost immediate. In particular, the principal and school board had no idea what to make of Sweet, who arrived in town in a red Mustang. He frequented the local bars, threw out the entire English curriculum, refused to engage in corporal punishment and grew out his hair to complement a killer Fu Manchu mustache. If it weren’t for the fact that the students loved him – and for baseball – he would have been fired within a matter of years.