Category Archives: Sports

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

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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a great story of a small town baseball team that made an improbable run at the Illinois high school baseball championship in 1971, in the days when small schools and big schools played each other in the postseason. It’s also a story of how a young teacher/coach transformed his players, students, and, to some degree, the town of Macon, IL.

I grew up in Decatur and Champaign, so it was an added bonus for me that Macon is close to Decatur and Lynn Sweet’s family settled in Champaign. Fred Schooley, one of Sweet’s Champaign friends, taught and coached at Champaign Central when I went there. It was a pleasant surprise to find him in the story. Macon also played at Champaign Central’s McKinley Field, which is where Central’s baseball team still plays.

Highly recommended for people who like a good sports story, especially those who live in Central Illinois.

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Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine

Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine by George Dohrmann

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Really well researched and written. Grassroots youth basketball chews up and spits out a lot of kids. As parents, we need to think about this. Demetrius Walker’s basketball career ended in December (see…). I keep wondering what might have been.

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Are We Winning? Fathers and Sons in the New Golden Age of Baseball by Will Leitch

I flat-out loved this book. Will Leitch grew up in Mattoon, which about 30 minutes south of Champaign. He’s a Cardinal fan (the fool), but is as devoted to his team as I am to the Cubs. He attended the University of Illinois, as did I, although in different decades (I’m older). And he and his dad bonded over baseball, just like I did with my dad.

I also liked the structure of the book, which unfolds by half-innings of the 2008 Cubs’ division-clinching win over the Cardinals. Each chapter opens with sights and sounds of the game in progress, then move into ruminations about fathers and sons, Albert Pujols, steroids, growing up in small town Central Illinois, and writing sports for the Daily Illini. It’s laugh-out-loud funny in spots and made me cry at least once. The only chapter I skimmed was Leitch’s journey through his collection of scorecards.

My boss lent me this book, but I plan to buy my own copy so I can reread it often, especially in the middle of winter when baseball season seems very far away.

Change Up by John Feinstein

The latest in the Susan Carol/Stevie mystery series. In this one, the two teenage journalists cover the World Series between the Washington Nationals and the Boston Red Sox. During the playoffs, Stevie discovers Norbert Doyle, an career minor-leaguer who, against all odds, makes the team for the series and is tapped to start Game Two. Stevie may have lucked into the best story of the Series, but as he learns more about Doyle’s past, he starts finding things that don’t add up.

As much as I want to love these books, I only like them. Feinstein is a great sports writer, especially when writing non-fiction, but the name-dropping and over explanation of baseball strategy really pulled me out of the story. I also thought the mystery was kind of a let-down at the end and found the fawning that seasoned sportswriters and announcers did over meeting Stevie and Susan Carol to be unrealistic. It just didn’t pull me in like some of the other books in the series.

Give this one a miss and pick up Heat by Mike Lupica or The Girl Who Threw Butterflies by Mick Cochrane instead for an excellent YA sports read. Or (if you’re a grown-up like me) pick up Feinstein’s The Last Amateurs, which is one of the best books on college basketball that I’ve ever read.

The Girl Who Threw Butterflies by Mick Cochran

Molly is an eighth grader who recently lost her father in a car accident. When he was alive, her dad played catch and watched baseball with her. He also taught her some pitching fundamentals, including how to throw a knuckleball (AKA The Butterfly Pitch). Rather than try out for softball the spring after he dies, Molly decides to try out for the baseball team. The boys baseball team.

This book really resonates with me. My dad and I bonded over the Chicago Cubs and APBA when I was a kid. We also used to play catch in the backyard (football in the fall, softball in the spring). He never taught me to pitch, but he did teach me to really understand and love the game. We had a lot of other things in common, but sports was a big one. He was also a journalist, as was Molly’s dad. My dad died five years ago. I still miss and think about him constantly, especially in April, when baseball season starts.

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis

Moneyball is way more entertaining than it has any right to be. It follows the story of the low-budget Oakland A’s and their unorthodox general manager Billy Beane as they use statistics and the scientific method to succeed against teams with much larger payrolls. Lewis is a very entertaining writer, at times laugh out loud funny, who has turned what could have been a very dry subject into a real page turner. I read this in one day, which is unusual for me with non-fiction. Highly recommended, especially in the dead of winter when the beginning of baseball season seems so far away.

Some excellent YA sports books

I’ve always been a fan of well-written sports books, particularly for kids. Here are three I’ve enjoyed recently:

The Boy Who Saved Baseball by John H. Ritter
Desperately trying to save their legendary ballpark, Tom, the thinker, Cruz, the mysterious cyber-vato, and the brash all-star, MarĂ­a, spur the rest of the Dillontown Nine plus a crazy ex-pro, Dante Del Gato, to face the challenge of a lifetime. What’s at stake? Only the very future of the town, the team, and the holy game of baseball. It reminded me a little bit of Field of Dreams, mainly for the mystical elements, including a 100-year-old prophesy that may or may not be coming true.

Travel Team by Mike Lupica
I’m a sucker for books about underdog teams coming together to take on more talented, better funded opponents. It probably has something to do with being a Cubs fan. This is a particularly fine example of the genre. The characters are well-drawn and the relationship between Danny and his father is interesting.

Last Shot: A Final Four Mystery by John Feinstein
I read this right after the 2005 NCAA tournament. The behind-the-scenes details were excellent and the mystery was compelling. I also liked the sports journalism angle.