Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Time Has Come

Softball season is over for me. I promised you no more softball posts. And, despite all evidence to the contrary, I'm a man of my word.

(The word, as you are about to find out, is "However...".)

However, while this isn't a softball post, it IS about sports. So, if you were expecting something besides sports, you probably have every reason to feel disappointed. If you wish to come here and beat me about the head and shoulders, I can't say that I'd blame you.

This post is about bowling.

Yes, I've chosen the one sporting subject that might be even less thrilling than softball. In your favor, though, it contains passages concerning me crying, bleeding, and otherwise suffering mental anguish, so there's that.

Oh! Did I forget to mention it's also a re-run? Yup.

Here, from the suldoggedly almost prehistoric time of 2006, is...


I told you recently, and also a while back (#54), that I am technically a professional bowler. I also told you that I'd tell you all about it someday. Well, today is the day. Feel free to run from the room screaming.

Now, the first thing we have to do - if you're still here - is get our terms straight. When I say "bowling", I might not mean the same thing as when you say "bowling". I'm talking candlepins here.

Candlepins is to tenpins as baseball is to softball. Except, in this case, the easier game is the one that you can make a living at. Candlepins is a much tougher game than tenpins.

Why is candlepin bowling a tougher game than tenpin bowling? I'm glad you asked.

1 - The candlepins are thinner than tenpins, therefore harder to hit.

2 - The candlepin ball is approximately 2-1/2 pounds and fits snugly into the palm of your hand, while the big-ass tenpin ball is roughly the size of your head and can weigh as much as a small Buick. While it is entirely possible to hit the #2 pin in candlepins and have that be the only pin that goes down (I've seen it happen and I've done it) any ball on the #2 pin in tenpins can't help but take out at least half the rack.

3 - Tenpins is so easy, they only give you two balls in a frame and they clear the wood after every shot and if you don't get every pin down with those two balls it's considered a grievous opening for your opponent. In candlepins, you get three shots per box and all of the wood is live and...

Let's cut to the chase. Professional tenpin bowlers hold averages in the range of 220 to 230. Perfect games of 300 certainly aren't easy, but they're not exceedingly rare, either - just about every pro has bowled one. Pro candlepin bowlers, on the other hand, hold averages around 125. Heck, I could drop acid and bowl a 125 in tenpins with one eye closed. As a matter of fact... no, let's not go there. And - listen up, tenpin people - there has never been a perfect game in the entire history of candlepin bowling. Game, set, match.


Before we go on, if you've never seen candlepin bowling, here's what it looks like.

No, really, you should watch at least a little bit of it. I'll wait.


OK, back to my history.

At the peak of my game, I held a 111 average. What did this mean? It meant that I could finish in the money (or even win) a short tournament - say, 10 strings - if my game was really on and if the field wasn't overloaded with the best pros. And so I did, a couple of times.

To put it into terms that some of you - unfamiliar with candlepins - might understand more readily, let's pretend that it was a golf tournament; a short one - 18 holes. I'm a 2 handicap. I shoot a very good round for me - 3 under par - and I win.

Would this happen often? No. Could it happen? Yes. In my case, it did. It didn't happen often enough for me to do the pro tour (yes, there is one for candlepins) but I was good enough, when I was on, to be a danger to any pro that wasn't on his game.


I was good at the game right from the get go. I was a natural. It's still the only sport I never had to think about. Baseball, basketball, hockey - every one of those was something I had to really sweat at just to be decent. Bowling? I wound up and threw and the pins went down - at a much higher rate than any of my friends.

When I was very young, my Mom would often buy me a couple of strings of bowling as a reward for some minor inconvenience, such as accompanying her on a shopping trip downtown. I'd often get to bowl a couple of strings at the lanes which operated in the basement of South Station then. I was under 10 and shooting over 90 frequently.

As I grew older, I got stronger and better. My average climbed into the low 100's as I hit my teens. I had my own set of 4 balls. They were a beautiful green and white marbled pattern. God, I was proud of those. Only the pros had their own and mine were as good as any of them. My Mom and Dad got them for me as a birthday present, along with my own shoes and a bag. At that point, I started taking it really seriously.

I'd go to the Lucky Strike lanes in Dorchester and bowl 25 or 30 strings in a row, sweating off three or four pounds in water. I was a maniac. It was pick up a ball, set, fire, pick up a ball, set, fire, scribble a score as I pushed the reset button, pick up another of my balls and throw it behind my back into my other hand while I waited impatiently for the next rack. I'd soak through two shirts and God help anyone who was bowling in the alley next to mine, because I'd shoot daggers at them with my eyes if they didn't observe the proper etiquette and wait for me to roll before they made their approach. I always requested a lane with no one on either side of me. The proprietors knew me, and they knew this was best for their business overall, so they usually gave me one.

I had the most extreme kick out of my right leg that I've ever seen on any bowler. (As a visual aid, look here) On my slide and release, I'd get down so low and kick out my leg so far, that I would, over time, wear a hole on the right side of my right shoe as well as in the knee of my pants. I fired the ball with every ounce of strength I had in my body, on every shot. When I hit the pocket right, the pins just exploded. They'd all go down at once with a crashing sound that is still the most satisfying sound I've ever heard.

I'd throw 750 or 800 balls that way. Think of it - it added up to an actual ton of balls on some days. My long hair would be soaked, my shirt all wet, and when I woke up the next day, I sometimes wouldn't be able to lift my arm above my shoulder. I worked as hard at my game as any athlete I knew.

I bowled in leagues, of course. My favorite was at Wollaston Bowladrome on the beach in Quincy. There I bowled with a team including my friends Mike, Craig and Mark. We called ourselves the Reefer Rollers. There were some people who were under the impression that this was our team name because we drove refrigerated trucks. These people were not too smart and they must not have had very good senses of smell. We reeked of smoke. Before every match we toked up.

I've got to tell you - smoking weed did NOT hurt my game. If anything, it improved it. If you're familiar with the effects of pot, you know that your focus while high tends to narrow to the minutest details. When I was high, all I saw were the pins. Outside noises didn't exist. I was dialed-in. Every part of the experience became its own concentrated delight. I would never recommend smoking grass before a more strenuous athletic endeavor, or one that involves a more varied and complex set of actions, but it was a perfect fit for me and for bowling. I was so on it. If I knocked down nine with my first ball, leaving the 10 pin, I would just grab a ball, fire, and turn my back, knowing as soon as I released it that it was perfect. I'd just walk over and hit the reset button without even looking to see that I had made the shot. I knew I had. That trick sure pissed off a lot of other teams.

Mike was a good bowler, too, and we often entered roll-offs together. Roll-offs were the qualifiers for the TV shows that used to be more numerous, wherein you could win some decent cash. The granddaddy was the Channel 5 show, hosted for so many years by Jim Britt and then for even more years by Don Gillis. It was almost a religious practice for Boston bowlers to watch this show on Saturday mornings. There were also great shows hosted by Bob Fouracre and Bill O'Connell. The stars who appeared regularly - Tony Karem, Tom Olszta, Rosario Lechiara, Fran Onorato - were my idols. I never won a roll-off, nor did Mike, but we did get to bowl with some of these great pros and we came damned close once or twice. One of the biggest thrills of my "career" in roll-offs was going toe-to-toe with the great Charlie Jutras for five strings, at Sammy White's in Brighton, coming up six pins short in the end.

I bowled in Wollaston, at the Wonderbowl in Quincy, at Lucky Strike, at Sammy White's. Anywhere there was a bowling alley, I bowled. There used to be a gigantic bowling center underneath Symphony Hall in Boston. It had 55 lanes. I loved that place. I mentioned South Station earlier. There were places in Milton, Mattapan, Weymouth. I bowled my high single in Weymouth, a 156, which was part of my high triple of 424. Just about all of these houses are gone. For the most part, I can't even revisit the sites of whatever triumphs I had.

Here comes the sad part. Do you remember a baseball pitcher by the name of Steve Blass? Steve Blass just totally and inexplicably lost his ability to pitch a baseball with any degree of effectiveness. No explanation for it. He was a major leaguer one day and a bum the next. Same thing with me as a bowler. I lost it. I just totally lost it. Whatever I had, naturally, just went away one day. And, since I had never thought about what I was doing, I didn't know how to get it back. I tried. God, how I tried.

It happened suddenly. I just couldn't control the ball. I thought I was doing all of the same things I had always done, but now the ball was just flying off wildly. My average fell into the 80's. I was completely embarrassed and mentally fucked up beyond belief. I tried everything. I went to a different approach, I slid less, I tried to keep my arm completely rigid, I started from the left side of the lane, the right side, in the middle, I looked at the pins, I tried aiming from the marks on the alley, I tried throwing a curve, a hook, I tried dropping the ball slightly before my slide, slightly after I went in to it, I tried to not think at all, I tried to concentrate on every tiny little motion, I even tried bowling with my eyes shut, God help me, but NOTHING got it back.

It was maddening and tantalizing. I'd bowl well for three or four frames and get a glimmer of hope that I was recalling the muscle memory that I needed, and then I'd fall apart completely again. I don't think I can adequately explain to you the mental anguish I had, or the physical pain I put myself through. It sounds so damned silly, to be talking this way about something as unimportant as bowling, but there is nothing in the world quite so frustrating as having been able to do something better than anyone you knew and then finding yourself unable to do it even as well as when you were a rank beginner.

I bowled 20, 25, 30 strings at a time, same as I did when I was good, but now it was four or five hours of swearing, cursing, trying to figure out just what the hell had happened and never being able to do it. I finally gave up the game completely. Over the past 20 years now, I'd guess that I've been bowling no more than ten or twelve times.

I don't quite know how to end this piece without leaving you with the impression that I'm totally whack. Unless you've had that experience of losing something, and then trying with all your heart and soul to regain it, then you can't fully understand the emotional wreckage involved. It sounds crazy, and it was crazy while I was doing it, but it wasn't crazy, you know? No, maybe you don't. I can't say that I blame you.

I still have those green balls that my parents gave me. They're a bit worse for wear now - small chips in them and scars - but I haven't thrown them out or given them away. Someday, I'm going to try it again, one more time. Maybe I've been away from it long enough to just let my body take over and find that elusive muscle memory one more time. When I do try it, I'll let you know what happens.


That's the end of the original piece. And the reason I re-ran it? I'm going bowling tomorrow night. Big Jay Atton invited me. And I felt it only fair to let him know what he might be in for.

Soon, with more (or, I hope, fewer) psychotic episodes.


haphazardlife said...

I lost my virginity once - never managed to regain it. Not much emotional wreckage was involved though.

Craig said...

Wonderful post, Sully! You provoke so many possible responses from me. . .

You had your own set of balls? Okay, I get that. Four of 'em? And they were marbled green & white? I'm duly impressed. . . And I have no doubt that, by now, they're a tad worse for wear. . . (Sorry; I just had to get the obvious stuff out of the way. . .) (But hey. . . Green & White! They'd have a place for you at my alma mater. . .)

We've taken a couple vacations in Ontario, over the years, and when you go to a bowling alley in Canada, they immediately ask you, "Ten-pin or Five-pin?" If they peg us as obvious Yanks, they'll just hand us the Ten-pin stuff, but hey, when in Rome. . .

So we bowled a few lines of Five-pin. The pins are small, like duck-pins, and arranged in an inverted 'V'. The head pin counts five, the second row counts three, and the end-pins count two, so a strike is fifteen points, and a perfect game is 450. And the ball is probably pretty similar to your candlepin ball - about the size of a softball, and no finger-holes. I don't remember what I scored, but hey, it was an interesting and different experience, and our Canadian hosts seemed to appreciate our willingness to take an extra step into their world. . .


And I just blew snot out my nose at Hap's comment. . .

Suldog said...

Haphazard - Ditto!

Craig - I probably shouldn't have sounded so snotty concerning ten-pin. I love any kind of bowling, and I used to enjoy watching that stuff on a Saturday on ABC, with Chris Schenkel (sp?) as the announcer.

I tried duckpins once. It had it's own charms. I did tremendously well at it, too, and I did consider trying to see if I could do that at a "pro" level, but there are no duckpin houses in Massachusetts, at least anywhere near where I was living - maybe far south, toward Rhode Island and Connecticut.

I actually had my own ten-pin ball, too, although it wasn't custom fit as it should have been. I bought it at a Goodwill store (thrift shop, run by a charitable organization - don't know if they're nationwide) because it was almost a perfect match for my fingers (not quite - got a couple of small blisters - but it was close enough for me to use when I went bowling ten-pins, rather than search out a fit from the house balls.)

Daryl said...

i dont mind bowling aside from wearing someone else's shoes (ewwwww) and the potential for broken finger nails... Toonman was once quite the bowler. me? not so much.

Suldog said...

Daryl - You'll have to try "our" game someday, if you haven't done candlepins yet. The great thing about it is that it is accessible for all ages with the smaller and less-weighty ball to roll.

Jenny Woolf said...

Now I understand what Homer Simpson is trying to do in those cartoons. Knock the things down, right? You see I have learned and absorbed fully what you have written. Feel free to give me an apple for being a good pupil.

Suldog said...

Jenny - Consider yourself the proud possessor of a virtual Golden Delicious!

Michelle H. said...

Never went bowling, with either set of pins. There just wasn't that many bowling lanes where I lived to make it worthwhile to go.

Have fun with Big Jay. A pitcher playing against a catcher. Sounds like he'll give you a good game at it.

SueAnn Lommler said...

All I can say is more power to ya!! Ha!
Bowling huh? Sigh!

messymimi said...

"Less thrilling"?! No, i love bowling (never tried candlepins, but i'd love to). No, i'm not very good, but i have a great time. Hope you have a great time tomorrow, too.

Buck said...

When I was high, all I saw were the pins. Outside noises didn't exist. I was dialed-in. Every part of the experience became its own concentrated delight.

I know that feelin'... kinda like sex on pot. I miss it, too. ;-)

I'd never heard of candlepins until today. Tenpins and duckpins, yes. Candlepins must be a New England thang, mebbe even a Bahston thang.

Have fun tomorrow night.

Stephen Hayes said...

I've never heard of candlepin bowling. The things you learn by reading blogs!

Suldog said...

Buck - EXACTLY! Sex is a perfect analogy.

It's regional, mostly confined to New England (actually Northern New England - MA, VT, NH, ME) and some parts of the maritime provinces of Canada. It should be more widespread, but it's actually becoming less so. Shame, that. It's a much more family-friendly game, what with the smaller and more easily handled equipment. Even little kids can roll the balls, not like ten-pins.

lime said...

i am a terrible bowler (tenpin) but i sure have had fun with it. lots of good memories of bowling with my grandmother (who bowled in leagues up until 6 months before she died) and other friends. i've never tried candlepin but it sounds fun. i'd like to try that sometime. hope you and jay had a happily non=psychotic time.

Matt Conlon said...

*snicker* "as I hit my teens. I had my own set of 4 balls."

Hilary said...

I'd never heard of it but I've bowled (very poorly) with ten pin. Strange how your ability changed like that. I hope you have a great time tomorrow.

Matt Conlon said...

*hehe* smaller and more easily handled equipment

Uncle Skip, said...

I think I still have a bowling ball (ten pin) hiding somewhere in a closet, along with a pair of shoes). I'd heard of duck pin and candle pin. Thanks for the video.

Is Big Jay gonna wear the mask in case you're still a little wild?

Jeni said...

Hmmm. I too lost my virginity but then I heard if you go 7 years without sex, it grows back. I'm heading towards double that number of years so wonder if I get lucky at 14 years what kind of earth-shaking explosion may follow that! But as to bowling, I bowled for a few years in a duck pin league (back when I worked in D.C. in the mid-to-late 60s) which I think is sort of between the candlestick and ten pins, isn't it? I did on a few very rare occasions roll a score semi-decent for duckpins. Then our group switched to a ten-pin alley and I graduated, in size -in more ways than one there -but was lucky if I eventually got up to carrying an average between 130-140. I too had my own bag, shoes and ball -ten pin -and I think the ball is still floating around the house -somewhere -albeit it probably covered in dust maybe even mold too as the shoes definitely went that way the last time I saw them, before I finally pitched them out! Wish I had a word or two of wisdom for how you could get your swing back but best I can say is wait 7 years more maybe?

Joan said...

Ahhhhh, bowling. Haven't gone for several years. My shoulder isn't what it used to be.
Never heard of candlepins. Some bowler I was!

silly rabbit said...

It is fair to say that when it comes to bowling, I am truly a multiple rebendable. (Hanging head in shame.)
I have never seen candlepins before! Kind of like bowling with hairspray cans and a mush ball. If we had thought of it, we would have done it.

All joking aside, I am sure that it takes skill. I can't hit fat bottom pins let alone skinny ones. Good luck. I hope your game returns to you. If not, drink lots of beer. It seems to help my game. Or maybe it helps endure my game. I forget which.

Cricket said...

Heh, heh.

Heck, I could drop acid and bowl a 125 in tenpins with one eye closed. As a matter of fact... no, let's not go there.

Are we talking quality blotter or red star?

We have a unique combo "far south" here in RI: tiny duck-style pins with a candlepin ball. Also fun. There are, in fact ten-pin lanes also. Been bowling a lot with the kids lately. I too was once in a league... candlepin, of course, out of Timber Lanes in Weymouth. I too suck now. Whatever.

What can ya do?

Jackie said...

I always learn a lot from reading your posts, Jim.
I'll just leave it at that! :))
I've missed being here. It's good to be back.

Shammickite said...

I have never heard of those candle pins. But here in my small town we used to have a very successful five pin bowling alley, with an active bowling league. I took the kids quite a bit when they were small. Ball is smaller and easier to use than the big ten pin ball. But the building was sold a couple of years ago to a doctor who wanted to change the whole place into doctor offices. I don't know what happened to the doctor, as it sat empty for ages, and now it's a busy paint and wallpaper shop. But I wish the five pin alleys were still there. Somehow, our town lost some of it's unique small town flavour when the five pin Bowling alley closed it's doors.
Hope you won your game against Big Jay Atton.