Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Candlepins For Cash

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? Well, I'll tell ya.

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.


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'm glad to say that some of these shows may be making a comeback. Check out this.)

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. 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.


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Suldog said...

Yes, certainly, glad you... enjoyed... something.

Chuck said...

I know that Wil said he had the same thing happen to him with his golf swing, not that he was ever seriously good at it. I've never really been a great athlete in any sports I've tried, so I have no personal insights to offer, unfortunately. But I am a lot less klutzy now than when I was a kid, for some reason.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Sul, you ever bowl with or against Rich Pedroli?
He was a regionally known candlepin bowler of the '70s and '80s who made the rounds of the TV bowling shows -- also a former co-worker of mine and a great guy.
He died a year or so ago, unfortunately.

Suldog said...

I don't recall the name. Sorry!

It's possible I bowled against him without knowing who he was. I was in a few leagues, and also competed in lots of roll-offs. It's highly possible that I rolled against any number of very good bowlers without knowing who they were by name that day.

Thanks for stopping by!

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