Sunday, July 27, 2014

Review: Man Versus Ball (2013)

By Jon Hart

It would be easy to say that "Man Versus Ball" is about one man's experiences on the fringe of sports. But if by fringe we are talking about the area right next to the green in golf, that's not entirely accurate. To butcher that metaphor, the book is over the fringe, down the hill and near the out-of-bounds stakes near the practice putting green.

In other words, we're not talking mainstream sports here.

Jon Hart certainly has had some interesting adventures in athletics over the years, and he chronicles them in a most unusual way. Each episode gets a chapter here, and you'll get a taste of the concept just by what's covered - semi-pro football, stadium vending, tennis ball boy (ball man?), roller hockey, mascot school roller soccer, and running - as in running up the stairs of the Empire State Building.

That sounds like a collection of columns from a magazine about different experiences, but it's a little less structured than that. The story on a season in semipro football goes on for something like 30 pages, while there are four different chapters about the joys of selling pretzels and hot dogs at ballparks. Meanwhile, the portion about running up a building is covered in almost no time at all.

These stories are all told from the first-person viewpoint, and have a certain timeless quality to them. Hart rarely mentions any sort of time frame within a particular story. However, his first stint as a stadium vendor obviously took place in 1996, when the Yankees won a World Series. Otherwise, some of the other stories could come from then, some could come from the relatively recent past.

A book such as this comes down to the question, does it work? My personal reaction was: somewhat. The longer essays work pretty well, as Hart has a nice touch for the material. I know that I'll have a different opinion about those people selling popcorn at games from now on. He's got a good sense of humor, and has good observations about his surroundings.

Still, the 170 pages go by a little too quickly for a book that originally cost $25; a trade paperback edition might have been a better idea. Some of the stories needed to be flushed out a bit better, perhaps with interviews with others. Maybe a few more subjects would have helped all the way around too.

Hart shows some promise with "Man Versus Ball." He's done some work for major publications, and this book shows he looks like he could tackle some long-form subjects with skill and laughter. Here's hoping there's more work coming from his pen/computer in the future.

Three stars

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