In the Game
Reports from sports’ frontlines
- By Thomas James Weaver
When Jon Hart ’90 considers lessons from his UVM years, the first name that comes to mind is former basketball coach Tom Brennan. Hart wasn’t on court for the coach, or even on the bench. He was in the bleachers, where the seats were plentiful during an era when Brennan was working hard to recruit solid players, pile up some wins and build buzz around the program. Hart says he admired and learned from Brennan’s persistence, and it made him a diehard Catamount basketball fan to this day.
But Hart’s recently published book, Man Versus Ball (Potomac Books), isn’t about spectating. It’s about getting in the game. And it took no small degree of persistence to see the project, which grows from years of experiential journalism in the sporting world, through to publication. The chapters, some of which build upon articles Hart originally wrote for national magazines, take readers directly into the ranks of professional wrestling, roller basketball (yes, such a sport exists, and he played for a world championship team), and semi-pro football, which he likens to gang warfare. Hart also found his tales on the fringes of the playing fields — working as a ball boy at the U.S. Open Tennis Championships, a vendor in the stands at Yankee Stadium, a PGA caddy and a mascot in a neon gorilla suit.
George Plimpton, who famously suited up as a Detroit Lions football player for his 1966 book Paper Lion, is a name some reviewers invoke when describing Hart’s work. Though his semi-pro football coach also tagged him with the nickname “Plimpton,” Hart doesn’t put a lot of stock in the comparison. “I get down and dirty,” Hart says in his thick New York City accent. “He’s an aristocrat.”
Hart was a rugby player — as down and dirty as sports get — during his UVM days until an injury put him on the sidelines. The next best thing to playing rugby was writing about it. Hart found his way to the Cynic where he wrote “funny little articles” about rugby that set a course for sharing firsthand athletic experiences from an everyman’s perspective. “I didn’t plan on playing rugby when I came to UVM; I didn’t plan on getting squashed on the field and injured; and I didn’t plan on writing about rugby. It was just the way it worked out. It’s just my nature to participate and write about it,” Hart says.
When the erstwhile P.O.V. Magazine hired Hart to take a job as a vendor at Yankee Stadium and write about the sub-culture of those who peddle beer and hot dogs for a living, it was a key break in his career as a journalist. Hart threw himself into the work and ended up staying on for the entire 1996 season, a championship year for the Yankees. He later worked the bleachers for the N.Y. Mets, a job in which he posted the Citi Field single-game record for pretzel sales, 180. “It was cloudy and cool,” Hart writes, “ideal pretzel-hawking weather.”
Throwing himself into it is Hart’s standard M.O. His stint on the mats at professional wrestling school included losing consciousness “once at least,” and some aspects of the sport that you may not have contemplated. “I didn’t particularly care for the smell of the other wrestlers,” Hart says. “I could do without that, but it was something you had to endure.” As a U.S. Open Tennis Championships ballboy, Hart’s speed, efficiency, and a powerful arm earned him the runner-up spot as the tournament’s rookie of the year, even if he did have a few more years on him than his colleagues. He says he’d eagerly take on that duty again: “I’ve still got some juice in the tank.”
Hart modestly ventures that his strongest talent as an athlete is his skill on skates, which helped him hold his own with the many roller basketball players who came to the decidedly niche sport from hoops careers. But he makes it clear that he’s no Bo Jackson — and that’s a good thing. If he were there wouldn’t be a book here, at least not one with the humor and humanity of Man Versus Ball.