by Ryan Meehan
Several months ago I got an email from New York comedian Brett Eidman, who had been a guest of ours in this very same segment. He wanted to know if I would be willing to read a book that a friend of his had written about his series of encounters with the world of sports entitled “Man Versus Ball: One Ordinary Guy and His Extraordinary Sports Adventures”. I’ve never been one to turn down a free meal – or in this case a free book – so I agreed. Shortly thereafter, I received a package that included the book.
The first section of the book was a very quick read for me. Author Jon Hart had documented his experiences with a semi-pro football league that – for lack of kinder words – wasn’t very well funded. Being a huge football fan, I was shocked to learn just how many of these leagues were present on the East Coast during the late eighties and early nineties. Our obsession with American football in this country is mind blowing, so much so that before I picked up this book I had almost forgotten there was a time where head trauma was considered to be a job risk that went with chasing legendary status. He led with the heaviest subject matter possible and it dragged me right to hell along with it.
Throughout the book, bizarre stories about the experiences Jon Hart shared were brought to life by assigning nicknames to those who were front and center while he either rode the bench or carried the equipment. It’s very similar to the manner in which players from the Seattle Pilots were described in the book “Ball Four” by Jim Bouton, and I found myself assigning faces that I had encountered in my own life to the individuals in the stories present. Another similarity in the two authors was that the events in Bouton’s life which were represented in that fucking unbelievable piece of American literature took place during a time where he was “past his prime” or in the “twilight” of his career. Hart never had a career in major professional sports, but these experiences he documents are very representative of a guy that refused to let himself be taken out of the sports landscape.
Stubborn? Sure…but here again, isn’t that what every coach you’ve ever had in your entire life has preached to you since day one? Never give up. No matter how far behind we are in the game, don’t quit. And for the love of God Ryan, you can’t have a soda from the cooler until after the game. I know this because I was the guy that rode the bench. I wasn’t even a starter in grade school, so I can definitely relate to the little guy. I was such a pussy as a kid that when my orange and blue car lost at the soapbox derby, I proceeded to burst into tears because I was eliminated in the first round. After I went and sat with my best friend Perry – who probably didn’t want to be next to me after that pre-pubescent display of ovulation – his mother came over and whispered something in his ear. When I asked him what she said after she left, he said “Just don’t do what you just did”. (Thank God just a few years later I would develop a strong love of overtly Satanic death metal, which is an ironic thought in and of itself…) Long story short, I was never cut out to be a sportsman in any definition of the term.
But what exactly defines a sportsman? More than never giving up? Is it that will to be dominant over your enemies? Is it the girl sitting in the bleachers, who in all reality is…probably not looking at you? Maybe, but under all of that shit is the desire to belong. To be a part of something greater than yourself, as cliché as that might sound. Even if that thing might not be greater than what you are individually capable of, it’s bigger than you to you in your own mind, and sometimes that’s enough. So am I a sportsman?
Well, let’s not go that far. Have I ever had a tennis ball whizz by my head at over a hundred miles an hour? Nope. Have I ever applied to sell soda at a Quad City River Bandits game? Hell no. Do I know anything at all about wrestling to the point where I’ve actually went to a school where the objective is to participate in a match at the local level? I think any of my recent interviews with wrestlers can answer that so I don’t have to explain myself. And would I ever consider being a mascot for the entertainment of others? Have you read the way I bag on furries on this site?
Hart at least had the stones to pick up these balls, and at times risk severe injury for the sliver of glory that might come with doing so. By now, you’re probably thinking “Jesus, are you gonna blow smoke up this guy’s ass all day so we’ll go out and buy this book on Amazon?” Sort of, but to be fair let’s just say I’m glad the golf chapter was very short. (You can’t win them all, but that’s kind of a running theme throughout this book) But overwhelmingly I found myself to be continuously delighted by Jon’s stories that brought to life several corners of the world that I would have never known about. Do you know that skyscraper racing is a thing? You do now.
Everyone who has ever watched sports has envisioned themselves as a hero in their own mind at least once, no matter how trivial it may be. But this book is more about the unsung heroes of sports, the ones that keep the machine moving despite the lack of multi-million dollar signing bonuses that typically accompany their line of work. There’s a certain amount of “facelessness” that gets lost in the individuals who participate in sport simply for the love of the game. But these people are heroes in their own right: They coach youth sports, they sell hot dogs in the stands of the minor league ball parks you frequent, and they believe in ideas and other things that most of us have let go of a long time ago. I’m going to be thirty-six in a couple of months, and I can’t tell you how many of things in this read that I would never consider doing in a million years. Hart truly did “take one for the team” and by the team, I mean those of us who wouldn’t take the chances he did.
Overall, I am really glad that I read this one. Hell, I can’t think of another instance where I haven’t lost interest reading about tennis. That’s why I was happy to fork over six dollars for a pretzel – even if he didn’t give me a side of cream cheese as dipping sauce – and get the opportunity to discuss this piece of reading fodder with the author of “Man Versus Ball”, Jon Hart, in this very special edition of our artist profile series.
RM: What was your earliest “spectator” moment as a sports fan?
JH: When I was a young kid, my dad used to take me to Jets games at Shea Stadium, a beautiful dump of a place. There was a guy in the upper deck that used to lead cheers. When he was done with a sequence, he used to moon the crowd. Those were the days.
RM: At what point in your life did you decide that you had enough material for a book? Was this piece of literature comprised entirely from the depths of your own personal memory bank; or did you have written accounts of your experiences that you picked through that had been documented in previous articles, blog posts, or journal entries?
JH: I don’t know the exact moment. It was probably when I was getting my butt kicked at pro wrestling school. I wanted to get something substantial out of this after being physically abused. Along the way, I wrote a few articles. I also started taking notes. Memory will only go so far.
RM: How long did it take you compile the series of stories that eventually became “Man Versus Ball”? Did you have a ghostwriter on this project, or did you do it all by yourself?
JH: It took too long, more than ten years. Lots of self doubt and procrastination along the way. Oh yeah, there was rejection. No ghost writer. It was all me.
RM: How did some of these makeshift semi-pro teams come up with the money to actually rent a bus to take to away games? Did you guys take turns driving those things, or did you hire somebody to do that for you?
JH: I can’t speak for all semi-pro football teams. I can’t even speak for the team I suited up for. For my team, I know there was a huge raffle and the players themselves contributed. We hired a pro driver. Those buses are huge, and you need someone that knows what they’re doing.
RM: When you’re watching or listening to any NFL-related news and the concussion discussion comes up, do you ever find yourself thinking things that are less than sympathetic because of the conditions in which you played semi-pro ball?
JH: I am sympathetic. Most NFLers only get a few years in the league. Football is a dangerous game. I cringe when I watch it. After being involved with semi-pro ball, I have an entirely new perspective.
RM: For the readers that may never have heard of the sport, what was NIBBL and how did that sport come to fruition?
JH: NIBBL is the acronym for the National Inline Basketball League. Inline basketball is hoops on blades or wheels. It’s easier than it sounds. Tom LaGarde, who played in the NBA, as well as the Olympics, started it. It no longer exists in The States, but it still has a following in Europe and the Middle East. I led the league in trips to the emergency room, two, seriously. I caught a few elbows.
RM: In reference to the last question, given the fact that Americans seem to be obsessed with watching videos of things that go horribly wrong does it ever surprise you that there aren’t more hybrid sports floating around these days?
JH: There’s a ton of hybrid sports floating around. Almost all gain zero traction. I am not that surprised. As far as their sports, Americans are traditionalists for the most part. Rollerbasketball was the exception – and that eventually fizzled, at least in The States. But it had a nice roll for a few years.
RM: Other than certain death for the participants, what would be some of the possible outcomes of mixing full-contact roller derby with downhill skiing? If we couldn’t use inmates as the athletes, do you still think there would be enough lunatics to sign up for something like that if the two of us could put it together?
JH: I think Red Bull has something like that right now. Yes, I think there are enough lunatics. By the way, I did try roller derby for a time. It wasn’t as much fun as I thought it would be. Very painful. I can’t imagine doing that on a mountain. Rollerbasketball was much more graceful.
RM: When it came time to actually sequence the chapters in the book, was there any time that you had questioned the order in which you decided to arrange the stories themselves? Why or why not?
JH: I was a little concerned a bit about the order. But I was much more concerned about typos. In short, the order was basically chronological, with one or two exceptions. I put the football chapter first because it was my favorite. Lead with your best stuff, right?
RM: Throughout the book, there seems to be an overall theme of assigning nicknames to people…Was that done just so that their characters would have a colorful moniker associated with their persona that would help the readers remember them, or was there some kind of underlying desire to portray those individuals as the hero of their own story and how they viewed themselves and their role in the world of sports?
JH: Many of the people that were in the book were unaware that they were participating in a book, so legality was a concern. Also, for much of it, I didn’t know that I was writing a book. I was participating first, writing second. Besides all that, I didn’t know a lot of people’s full names. I assigned colorful names according to specific traits of individuals. Ultimately, I think it all worked out, but I am biased of course.
RM: Was the decision to not have a lot of pictures in the book something that you had settled on, was it the publisher’s decision, or was there simply not enough photo documentation of the events that took place over the course of this time period? What’s the one moment you discuss in this book that you would love to have an image of?
JH: I didn’t have enough great pictures that’s for sure, wish I did. I hope the writing stands on its own. If I had a video crew to follow me, I would have used what they came up with. But they would’ve obstructed the process. I went in as regular participant.
RM: How would you briefly describe the hierarchy of sports vending items? Do you think beer will always remain at the top even though it isn’t served in later portions of the contest in question?
JH: Beer is king. I repeat: Beer is king. It’s the holy grail. Tips are great. People respect the beer guy. The pretzel guy? Not so much. However, there are exceptions to the sell beer at all costs rule. When it gets cold, hot chocolate is the item to request. When it gets really hot, go with water, soda or ice cream.
RM: You aren’t a stand-up comedian, but you’ve done your fair share of humorous writing over the years…You’ve also done stories about the industry of comedy such as this one about The King of the Times Square Comedy Ticket Hawker…As someone who doesn’t do stand-up, how do you go about testing bits or anecdotes before putting your ideas into print?
JH: If I’m fortunate to have a friend take a peek at something, I send it to ’em. Usually, I write and rewrite until deadline and hope my instincts are good.
RM: What is the one sports experience that you would have loved to have been involved with that would have made for a fantastic addition to this book? What prevented you from achieving that illumination of sports enlightenment?
JH: Male cheerleader. I thought that would’ve been funny. I just never got around to it.
RM: At the end of the book, you allude to the fact that you’re probably done being involved with some of the activities you discussed in the previous chapters. Although your knees probably won’t allow for a return to inline basketball, do you ever think you’ll vend again in your later years? Do you miss doing that at all?
JH: If my prostate was in better condition, I’d return to hawking. Jeez, you make me sound ready for a retirement center. Sure, I’d go back to vending. I’d love to work a few games here and there. At the same time, there’s a strong feeling of been there, done that. It’s time to move on and tackle new things. Progress – we all need it. I would also play some roller basketball, but as I said, that has fizzled out. It’s actually easy on the knees. You’re rolling instead of pounding.
RM: Where do you go from here? Do you currently have any other writing projects you’re working on that we should know about?
JH: I am trying to write more. I’m not gonna talk about it though. That’s suicide for a writer: Talking about it before you actually do it. Believe me.
Official Website: www.manversusball.com
Purchase Man Versus Ball on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Man-versus-Ball-Extraordinary-Adventures/dp/1612344143
Man Versus Ball on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ManversusBall
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