by Keith Aksel
Jon Hart’s Man Versus Ball takes readers through the inner-corridors of some of the most obscure segments of America’s sports landscape. He discusses his (sometimes undercover) experiences as a semi-pro football player, a low-level professional wrestler, and a golf caddie, among other adventures. Whether chasing a good story for one of his writing gigs, or simply looking for sports triumph in unexpected places, Hart entertainingly explains that being a food vendor/mascot/ballplayer/caddie/skyscraper stair runner is probably way less glamorous, and way more tiring, than you ever thought.
The book begins appropriately with a chapter titled “Plimpton” in honor of George Plimpton, Hart’s own inspiration as a writer who undertook various sports endeavors just to get a book out of it. In the section, Hart reveals that attempting to cover semi-pro football’s Brooklyn Mariners as a writer is much more interesting if you join the team like Plimpton did. Hart gets pounded here and there playing lineman with the team’s aptly named “Moose” crew, while still intermittently dreaming about making some kind of Rudy-esque impact on the game. Throughout the chapter you get to know the team’s coach (“Pudgie”) the imported-from-Romania backup kicker (Cezar), and the bowling-ball running back (“McGee”). Most, if not all, give Hart a hard time as a less-athletic outsider trying to fit in with a batch of he-men. Even so, Hart forms bonds with his teammates, and admittedly feels empty when the season mercifully ends.
The book presents itself as a joy-read, and delivers as advertised. It isn’t a high-minded sports-in-society academic commentary, or a hagiography of some old Lakers or Steelers squad. Hart is accessible in his writing style, and doesn’t avoid chronicling the politically-incorrect language one would hear when running in the working-class circles that normally populate the activities he attempts. Some of the people Hart meets are sometimes mean or downright malicious. Take the Yankee Stadium beer vendors who purposely refill discarded cups to pocket more profit as a most obvious example. Are these people genuinely bad, or just trying to make a thankless living the best way they know how? That judgment is for the reader to decide.
Man Versus Ball is not a book anyone needs to read. But, for patrons of this website, that might actually make it a more important one to pick up. Not everything written about sports in America has to be about something larger- race, star feuds, exploitation, or malicious ownership power grabs. Hart gives us a book that just tells a story of life as it comes in these ignored parts of the American sports world. And somehow that feels very right.
But, we wouldn’t be doing our readers justice by just leaving it at that. There is a certain message that the book conveys when taken as a whole, one Hart might not have explicitly intended. At least to me, the book explains well that sports matter in this country in ways we don’t think about, connecting athletes at the highest levels with those toiling in obscurity, and multi-million dollar team executives with lower-level operators. In so many words, Hart shows that sports reach people who probably don’t care at all about world championships and contracts, but still depend on sports to provide economic and personal satisfaction. Sports franchises in America make a ton of money, but the individuals who hawk heavy sports drinks in the stands at Yankee Stadium, for instance, also stand to inherit some of that gain (and usually work their tails off doing so). Hart’s account of the semi-pro Mariners may make it seem like these players play for the love of the game alone. But there is a certain tragedy in that the people the game has seemingly passed by can’t get the sport out of their systems. Is Bret Favre and his cringeworthy struggle with leaving football really that different from the Mariners players who can’t put the ball down either? Only one has millions of dollars to show for his efforts, but both examples make clear the fact that being an athlete is something that goes down hard when your time is up. With all the references to his own high school sports experimentation in the book, perhaps some of that is what drove Hart to do all these activities in the first place.
In sum, Man Versus Ball is helpful to remind us that sports in America has more facets to it than meets the eye. We see troubles in sports all the time. Doping scandals and domestic abuse issues are evidence that America's sports landscape can be an ugly place. And yet, like the athletes in the book, we fans just can’t put it down.
You can pick the book up here: