Ball Boys - “Lord Of The Ring” 

Ball Boys - “Lord Of The Ring” 

Ball Boys debuts today on ABC at 3 p.m. Eastern

Like millions of athletically challenged indoor kids in the 1980s, I spent the majority of Saturday afternoons poring over new packs of Topps MLB cards, chewing their disgusting sticks of petrified gum, and soaking up an afternoon of ABC’s Wide World Of Sports. Decades later, I still rely on weekend day games across all the major professional organizations and various syndicated, packaged roundup shows to provide ample excuse not to venture off the couch. Although, an exception could be made to visit classic, mom-and-pop sports-memorabilia shops/trading outposts like Robbie’s First Base in Baltimore. 

From their modest strip-mall location, Robbie Davis Sr. and Robbie Davis Jr. talk sports, dick around, and peddle valuable commodities ranging from signed jerseys and baseball cards to framed photos and game-used equipment. Customers come in with allegedly authentic wares like Jim Brown-signed helmets and Nick Swisher home-run balls, the Davis’—along with morbidly obese sidekick Sweet Lou and scrawny, brainiac staffer Shaggy—confirm their legitimacy, and buyer and seller engage in an exceptionally civil negotiation. 

If this sounds familiar, that’s by design. The dubiously titled Ball Boys is produced by Pawn Stars wunderkind Brent Montgomery. Unlike his haute Pawn Stars spin-off for TLC, the unwatchable What The Sell?, Montgomery’s careful to replicate nearly everything that clicked for his original smash hit and allow for minor adjustments, most of which are generated organically from the Davis’ charisma. 

Robbie Sr. is Pawn Stars’ Old Man and Rick in one, but with a kind of cartoony swagger all his own (e.g. “I’d climb a mountain of shit for a Babe Ruth autograph.”). Picture John Witherspoon working the Diamond District, and you might get the idea. Robbie Jr., meanwhile, is a lither, gentler Corey, and Sweet Lou is such a ringer for Chumlee that you wonder if he came from central casting. Third-party experts qualify themselves on camera and help steer Senior (the Robbies are typically referred to as just-plain Senior and Junior, respectively) and crew determine authenticity, and transactions are interspersed with rehearsed segments of the guys exchanging office banter and generally establishing their personalities.

Unlike lesser imitators that mix family with business and try to follow Montgomery’s formula (see: Monster Man), Ball Boys mostly gets it right. This is for a major network, after all, and it feels that way. With a high-quality digital aesthetic, steady camera work, seamless music integration and clean edits into and out of commercials—as well as between segments—it’s a half-hour that flows with the satisfying entertainment value of classic weekend sports-tainment like NBA Inside Stuff or This Week In Baseball. 

And like its History Channel predecessor, Ball Boys is genuinely informative, even when negotiations themselves feel scripted and pre-determined. I personally had no idea that NCAA football championship rings stopped incorporating diamonds and gold by the late-’70s, or as is revealed in a later episode (I was able to screen a couple, although this review pertains only to “Lord Of the Ring” unless otherwise noted), that you can discern a true Reggie White game-worn jersey because of the elastic he required around his arms to keep it tight against his body. 

It also doesn’t hurt that episode one features a lengthy guest appearance from Jim Brown himself, who’s there to personally certify the signature on a customer’s helmet and generally give everyone a hard time. Brown alone pushes proceedings up half a grade. The man is a legend of sports, radical filmmaking, and civil activism. He oozes legendary charm when he grins and reminds Senior, “I know a lot about a lotta things man.”

Of course, not everyone involved boasts Brown’s charisma and presence just yet. Sweet Lou, Shaggy, Junior, and even Senior all stumble through pre-drafted interview soundbites and forced one-liners. (Sweet Lou: “The only reason Senior knows they threw 90 back then is because he is 90!”) And as the series progresses, there’s more focus on boys being boys and less of the magnetic appeal that Hall Of Fame icons and pure, fascinating commerce can create. Ball Boys’ most original, enticing enhancement to the Pawn Stars model—and example of the show in its comfort zone—is that some patrons are actually looking to buy, which occasionally means the Davis’ need to seek out rare memorabilia (e.g. the aforementioned NCAA ring) from an outside supplier. 

And besides that, Senior and the guys are basically nice, sweet dudes working an honest, old-fashioned business. At one point, after more or less getting out-negotiated, Senior smiles with believable glee and surmises, “There’s nothing better than satisfying a customer.” You won’t see that on Pawn Stars, Celebrity Apprentice, or any other franchises documenting the reality of business. Which is why Ball Boys might just give a generation of young nerds and grown-up sports geeks a series with which they can truly identify.

Stray observations:

  • Sweet Lou might be the Heejun Han of Ball Boys.
  • I love Senior’s reverse negotiating.
  • I wish I knew why the sellers on Ball Boys need the money. That’s a show in itself.
  • Senior doesn’t mince words when it comes to a guy’s unsigned Swisher home-run ball: “We wanna sell it to someone else, and we don’t have a picture of them catching the ball.”
  • Fascinating that the Holtz-era ring is more valuable than Montana’s because it’s from the year he won his only championship and just plain looks nicer.