Hart, Jon. Man Versus Ball: One Ordinary Guy and His Extraordinary Sports Adventures. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 2013. Pp. 184. $24.95 clothback.
Reviewed by Lindsay Parks Pieper
As a graduate student in a sport finance class, I was assigned to cover the Women’s Football Alliance’s semi-professional team, the Columbus Comets. To get a closer look into the operations of the Comets, I opted to try-out for the squad. I showed up for the 11pm practice, donned an extra pair of pads, rocked an ill-fitting helmet, and took to the field. Not long after I hit the turf, though, I was hit to the turf. Hard. Turns out playing tight end is much more difficult than it looks on TV. Antonio Gates I am not. My venture into the world of professional football lasted just one week.
Jon Hart survived his Plimpton-esq participatory role far longer than I did and in a variety of sports-related activities. In Man Versus Ball: One Extraordinary Guy and His Extraordinary Sports Adventures, he chronicles his forays in a range of undertakings, from his time competing for a semi-professional football team to his success on wheels in the now-defunct National In-Line Basketball League (NIBL). As he notes, Man Versus Ball “isn’t your typical sports book” (pg. 3). Rather, in an engaging, first-person narrative style, Hart describes his behind-the-scenes experiences in several often-ignored aspects of professional and semi-professional sport.
His venture into participatory writing started when he pitched the idea to cover Pudgie Walsh, the legendary coach of the Brooklyn Mariners, to the newspaper for which he worked. When his editor turned the assignment over to a colleague, Hart took it upon himself to do a more in-depth piece by joining the Mariners for an entire season. He did his best to keep up with the “tough, tattooed, heavily muscled brigade of barbarians,” many of whom vied for a chance at NFL glory (pg. 9). However, his game time appearances often ended in confusion or catastrophe. In Hart’s first taste of action, he was knocked unconscious. Next, he had to abruptly scurry off the field because his presence resulted in too many players in the huddle. Hart was eventually awarded a third chance to enter a game, but could not get his pads on in time. Finally, during his fourth opportunity, he almost sacked the quarterback. This almost-sacking-success convinced Hart to describe his other adventures on sport’s margins.
Hart’s experiences as a food and beverage vendor comprise a large part of Man Versus Ball. He first hawked at Yankee Stadium, before moving on to sell concessions at Madison Square Garden, Shea Stadium, and the new Citi Field. Also, for Red Sox spring training, Hart served as a “tourist vendor” at the City of Palms Park in Fort Meyers, Florida (pg. 159). As most readers are likely unaware of the intricacies of vending, these sections offer unique insights into the elaborate breakdown of food and beverage enterprises at sporting events. For example, Hart details the hierarchy of mobile sport concessions. Selling beer—regardless of weather, price, or location in the stadium—is the “holy grail.” Pushing All Sport, the Gatorade knock-off sold in Yankee Stadium, ranks last as it is heavy and not well-consumed. Furthermore, the average spectator presumably pays little attention to the effect of wind speed on the peddling of goods. Nor did Hart, until he experienced a cotton candy catastrophe when sugar clouds escaped his tray and tumbled through the stands.
Yet, Hart raises the most interesting points when he discusses the impact of mega-stadiums on both fandom and vending. He sold food and drink at Citi Field, the replacement for Shea Stadium that opened in 2009. To the delight of fans, and the chagrin of vendors, the new building incorporated several innovative features, which presumably improved the viewing experience, but diminished the need for mobile retailers. For example, adding television screens at the concession stands encouraged fans to wait in line rather than wait in seats for a vendor. Additionally, booths now included more upscale options, such as sushi and entrees from award-winning restaurants, which could not be hawked from a tray. Most surprisingly, the twenty-first century push for healthier options resulted in the printing of calories and ingredients on packaged foods, which decreased sales. Turns out fans do not actually want to know what goes into the making of baseball hotdogs.
Furthermore, Hart’s sports adventures extended beyond football and food. He also enrolled in retired professional wrestler Johnny Rodz’s Unpredictable School. The Unpredictable School trains hopeful amateurs to become professional wrestlers. As a student, explains Hart, his biggest challenge was perfecting the art of the fall, considered the most important element of professional wrestling. This type of fall required him to fall straight back, land below the shoulder blades, and swat the mat with both hands to produce a dramatic noise, all the while tensing his neck and shoulders to prevent serious injury. “Once a wrestler knows how to fall properly,” says Hart, he or she is “more than halfway to making a living” (pg. 53). During his tenure at the Unpredictable School, he managed to stay out of the emergency room, but “suffer(ed) countless headaches and survive(d) on a steady diet of Advil” (54).
After graduation from the Unpredictable School, Hart enrolled in Mascot Mania, a school run by former Eagles mascot Dean Schoenwald. In this three-day long course, which cost $800, he learned the art of firing up a crowd from inside a cumbersome character suit. Hart discovered that his character pizzazz stemmed from his expertise on in-line skates. According to Schoenwald, this was Hart’s unique and noteworthy skill set.
His in-line skating prowess did not land him a mascot job, but it did assist him in the NIBL. The strength of this chapter, which focuses on Hart’s time in the league, stems from the description of the rules and regulations of this unique (and now mostly defunct) sport. Four person teams played basketball on skates and in helmets. A travel occurred when someone rolled with the ball for five seconds. Although Hart proved himself quite capable on skates, he did end up unintentionally tackling an opponent and getting stitches. Here, Hart should be commended for continuously returning to his various adventures, despite suffering a series of injuries.
Finally, the most interesting sports-related sideline venture occurred when Hart answered a classified advertisement seeking ball persons for the U.S. Open. What stood out in this section was the lengthy tryouts ball persons must go through before making it to the actual tournament. The U.S. Director of Ball Persons—“yes, that is her real title,” notes Hart (pg. 76)—oversaw the several rounds of tryouts, judging the hundreds of ball-person-hopefuls on speed, arm strength, and invisibility. Although Hart was a “ball person reject” his first year, he eventually made the cut, even appearing on Arthur Ashe court during his sophomore season. His invisibility and arm strength paid off, but he again suffered injury; James Blake walloped him in the abdomen with a 115 mile per hour serve on national television. Who knew ball persons were also prone to sport-related injuries?
Man Versus Ball explores the often-overlooked aspects of the people and activities on the periphery of sport. Hart’s lively, colorful writing engages the reader, as does his self-depreciating humor about his sporting prowess—and lack thereof. Although amusing and entertaining, Hart does allow some components to go unexplored. For example, he insinuates that racial tensions underlined semi-professional football and implies that twenty-first century stadiums created class divisions, but Hart does not stop to offer a full explanation or perspective. That said, a critical analysis of sport was not the aim of Man Versus Ball; instead, Hart presents his story of sport on the sideline, producing an enjoyable, funny, and engaging read. He withstood physical punishment and much ridicule to create the entertaining and humorous stories told in Man Versus Ball.
George Plimpton would be proud.
Lindsay Parks Pieper is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lynchburg College and the Book Review Editor of Sport in American History. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be followed on Twitter @LindsayPieper. Check out her website at www.lindsayparkspieper.com.