Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

July 8, 2013

I Fought the Ball, and the Ball Won

Jon Hart takes readers on a fun but painful ride through the hills and valleys of his personal journey through the sports world.

David Goldenberg

At the heart of Jon Hart's new book Man versus Ball is a pretty basic but revelatory notion: you don’t have to be an elite athlete to live the sporting life. In fact, if you're willing to brave repeated embarrassment and crappy pay, you can participate in all levels of sports. At the pro level, Hart has to resort to a sideline gigs like hawking pretzels and managing equipment, but the farther down the line he gets, the more action he sees; by the end of the book, I genuinely worry about the future health of Hart's head, neck, back, and groin.

Roller Soccer player, courtesy of <a href=>sfbike's</a> Flickr.
"As far as roller blades making a comeback, I’m not the guy to ask. I’m usually about ten years behind the latest trend."

Roller Soccer player, courtesy of sfbike's Flickr.

Some of Hart's feats feel less Plimptonian than, shall we say, Gallagheresque; I'm still amazed that roller soccer exists as a sport, even more than the fact that he managed to play in its World Cup. But while Hart's New York City concrete upbringing leaves him more suited for marginalized, wheel-based sports than the crunching rigors of minor league football, he's game for pretty much everything he can talk himself into, and he's not shy about sharing the cringe-inducing moments that causes.

In the following interview, edited for clarity, Hart talks to Gelf about everything from ballpark vendor scams to nuance in professional wrestling. He also shares his knowledge about the best stadium to work in, the best athletes to drink with, and why men's tennis is better (for the ball boys).

Gelf Magazine: On a blurb on the back of the book, Joel Stein says that Ball wins, definitively. Do you agree?

Jon Hart: I wrote for [Stein] when he was at Time Out New York. He sent me to the New York Rangers locker room to ask Rangers enforcer Jeff Beukeboom one and only one question: “Mike Richter says you have a big ass. Care to comment?” That said, I disagree with Joel. Ball certainly took a few rounds, but I’m still standing. And no, Beuk didn’t kick my ass. He should’ve. Beuk is a very good guy.

Gelf Magazine: Besides for your inability to fall convincingly, one of your biggest problems with professional wrestling was that everyone had to either be a hero or a heel. Why is there no room for nuance? And will that ever change?

Jon Hart: Since my pro wrestling stint, I’ve been a bit traumatized. In short, I haven’t been following it much at all. I certainly haven’t been getting in the ring. With that in mind, pro wrestling has and always will have a comic book element to it. However, pro wrestling appears to be getting more nuanced and complex. It has to. There are a lot of pro wrestling fans that are sophisticated, very Dungeon & Dragons. I haven’t actually played D&D, but I figure that sounds good.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think of the rigid seniority process for gigs in the vendor world? Should there be some sort of meritocracy instead to determine who gets to sell beer in the bleachers?

Jon Hart: It can be frustrating, but I guess they have to have a system. Longevity must be rewarded. To some degree, I imagine it's somewhat like being a civil servant. For my work, I was rewarded a few times with the Everest of concessions items: beer. As far as that experience, it was as good as advertised.

Gelf Magazine: The vendor scam about picking up used cups and reselling them (in order to pocket the full sale, since the bosses only count cups used) was both gross and awesome. Can you explain how that works and how I can avoid getting a secondhand beer?

Jon Hart: Everyone can sleep well at night. Now, as best I can tell, stadium beverages are served out of sealed plastic bottles. I’m sure there are other kinds of hawker hijinks out there. Hopefully, they’re all sanitary. When you buy from a stadium hawker, remember to throw him or her buck. It’s a tough, sweaty job. Deodorant needs to be purchased!

Gelf Magazine: You've worked at almost every major stadium in New York; what's the best job there is?

Jon Hart: My vote is working as a ball person for the men’s final at the U.S. Open. The money’s not great, but you’re part of history. Selling beer at Yankee Stadium is a close second. Last I checked, a brewski was going for something like $9. Working off commission and tips, it adds up.

Gelf Magazine: Have you seen the Seinfeld episode where Kramer becomes a ball man? Given your New York roots, I kept waiting for the reference. Was his experience representative?

Jon Hart: Sorry, I was never a big Seinfeld guy. Yes, I watched a few episodes out of obligation. I just didn’t want to be left out. I never watched the Kramer ball boy episode, but everyone told me about it. I wasn’t trying to mimic Kramer. As a kid, I watched the ball boys and their athleticism and always wondered what it would be like to do it. Being a ball person at the U.S. Open is intense. You’re out there alone on the hard top with the players. You hear them breathing. You feel their sweat. At any moment, you have to be ready to pounce. I definitely miss it. Just talking about it has me thinking about calling the ball boy poobahs. I still got some juice left in the tank.

Gelf Magazine: Are there certain players that ball people want to work with? Why do you prefer the men's final to the women's?

Jon Hart: Ball people generally want to play for better players, so they'll be on a better court with bigger crowds. It's a blast to run after balls and chuck 'em in front of a big house. There are certain players that ball people aren't crazy about. I heard that Agassi was pretty anal. Also, I was told that Tim Henman was no walk in the park. I have no complaints about any of the players I worked with, even the one that almost hit the linesman with his racket. We're all human. I almost lost it a few times during a few seemingly never-ending women's rallies.

Gelf Magazine: Of all the random sports you played in and sports-related activities you took on, which attracted the worst personalities?

Jon Hart: No one was the worst. The semi-pro football guys were definitely the toughest. There’s a gladiator element to semi-pro ball, and there’s nothing nice about it. On the field, there weren’t too many smiles. However, off the field, we had our fun. The parties were awesome!

Gelf Magazine: You play basketball and soccer on roller blades, and even perform as a mascot on them. What attracted you to rollerblading in the first place? And do you think it'll ever make a comeback?

Jon Hart: As a kid, I was into quad skates. I just had decent balance. In the city, I was surrounded by pavement, so skates helped getting around. I lived at the roller rink on weekends. When I was invited to play basketball on blades, I got some blades. As far as roller blades making a comeback, I’m not the guy to ask that question. I’m usually about ten years behind the latest trend.

Gelf Magazine: You mentioned the Philly Phanatic pretty reverentially in the mascot section. What's so great about him? What makes a mascot great in general?

Jon Hart: Yes, I have a soft spot for the Phanatic. He does wonderful things with his tongue. I can't get tired of that. On that other hand, I can take or leave Mr. Met. He's just there. If you want to be a good mascot, do something, anything that makes you memorable. My vaunted mascot guru/sensei imparted this lesson to me regarding the mascot game: "Make the game an intermission for your act. Surprise the crowd. And NEVER pay attention to the guys!"

Gelf Magazine: If you were going to write a sequel, what would you do next?

Jon Hart: I’m just recovering from this one! I’ve been working on a follow-up. I don’t want to jinx it though. If all goes well, it will be participatory and will not be sports-related. If that doesn’t work, I’m mulling being a tour guide—at least that’s the plan today.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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- Sports
- posted on Jul 15, 13
Gene Camp

Jon Hart is a true journalist-Genius and brings the meaning of real NYC street sports to an up- front, accurate, funny and true reality in his new and popular book MAN verses BALL. Well Done and a 5-Star MUST READ!

- Sports
- posted on Jul 15, 13
Gene Camp

Jon Hart is a true journalist-Genius and brings the meaning of real NYC street sports to an up- front, accurate, funny reality in his new and popular book MAN verses BALL. Well Done and a 5-Star MUST READ!

- Sports
- posted on Jul 20, 13
Mark Hill

Read this book: It's hysterical. UVM Basketball, hire him already!

Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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