Bowling for dollars


The companion post to the earlier “Bowling for peppers”, we’ll chat a little today about my experiences in a money bowling league and my “transformation” into an honest-to-goodness bowler.

Bowling has always been a fun recreational sport.  Many Sundays were family days at the bowling alley and we’d be out with Dad or Mom rolling the ball.

In those days, there were no special gutter protectors like you see on lanes now.  Us kids rolled plenty of “zero” frames then.  Still, despite the difficulty, bowling was a favorite pastime.  Perhaps the nearby snack bar had a bit to do with that.

Up at college (University of Florida), the student union had its own lanes and students could bowl for 50 cents a game.  I probably got up to around a 140 average during all those months of bowling (instead of studying).

When I graduated and returned home, Mom eventually got me my own ball, a green plastic thing she picked up at the flea market for $2.  It was a 13-lb ball and we drilled it to fit my fingers.  The drilling cost $5, which seemed silly for a $2 ball, but Mom assured me it would make a difference (and she paid for it, so was I going to argue?).  I did shell out for my own bag (blue, my favorite color).

During my first job out of college, we had a lot of company sports leagues:  softball, golf, tennis and bowling.  I began to bowl often enough that I got my average up to around 150-ish.  I threw lefty (natch) and bowled down the middle of the lane with a slight back-up to the ball so that if it hit the pocket, it was usually from the right side.

Some years later, as I was working my way through my second degree, I met up with another guy working his way through his first.  We kicked off a friendship that’s running on 20+ years.

Turns out, he was quite the bowler in his teens, racking up several local trophies and with a potentially promising future (he was also pretty darn good at golf, but that’s for another tale).  A back injury he sustained in the Navy derailed that plan and limited his physical adventures, but not his competitive fire.  We decided to join a bowling league together.

Having no other plan or invitation, we simply went to our local Don Carter Bowling Center and talked with the front desk.  That person set us up with the league coordinator who placed us in the aptly named Men’s Wednesday Night Bowling League.

This was a sanctioned bowling league, 5-man teams, minimum 20 teams.  Many of these teams were long-established, we were warned, and it was likely we would simply be added as a new team from whatever stragglers also showed up.  We ultimately were joined by two young guys (low 20s) and an older man (mid 50s, of pepper fame).

My friend decided to take me under his wing as a “project”.  The first thing he insisted was the jettisoning of the plastic ball.  We searched the pro-shop for a suitable replacement.  Since we were both working students, we looked in the “used” section primarily, where I found a blue ball (favorite color) that met my friend’s standards.

The ball was a “Rhino” brand (like that meant anything to me) and my friend told the pro to drill it for fingertip (like that meant anything to me).  It was also a 15-lb. ball compared to my old 13-lb.

The first thing I noticed was that two pounds felt like a whole lot more than two pounds.  The first time I lifted the ball I thought it was twice the weight!

My friend showed me how to place my fingertips just inside the finger holes, admonished me to stop gripping the ball with my thumb and demonstrated the basics of a hook ball.  I promptly dropped the ball on the backswing.

Abashed, but not deflated, I picked up the ball, inserted my fingers properly once again…and promptly dropped the ball on the downswing this time.  Progress, I suppose, but hoo boy, this was going to take a while.

One of the nice things about bowling in the league was that the bowling alley let league bowlers come in and bowl on “open” lanes for only $1.00 per game.  Considering the regular price at that time was $2.50, that was helpful.

My friend and I found out early on how seriously the rest of the teams took this league.  Being a “money” league, there was a reasonable “pot” that went to the winners, about $1,500 per man, as I recall.  With real money on the line, some of the teams were less than friendly.

I always found this silly, since I bowled for fun (money would be nice, but it’s not like I would try less if it was for free).  My friend shared my opinion and fortunately, so did the rest of our team.  That surely helped as we sunk quickly to the bottom of the standings.

As we played the established teams, some of them were less than kind to us, in both attitude and performance.  My friend made careful note of this.  He is an intensely competitive man and such fodder serves as strong motivational fuel for him.

In case you haven’t picked it up from other posts by now, I’m no slouch when it comes to being intensely competitive.  As we hid the “official” mid-point of the 35-week long season (there were first half awards), I was still struggling trying to throw both a fingertip and a hook ball for the first time in my life.  I carried a measly 130 average into the second half.  This would not do.

I resolved to spend as much time as I could practicing.  Sometimes my friend would join me, but often it was just me and my bowling ball (and shoes; bowling that often, it just made sense).

I began to figure out what I was doing; how to shift my weight; how to finish my release; which mark to aim over.  Most important, I figured out how to pick up the terrifying 7-pin (death for a novice lefty hook).

The results started showing up pretty quickly in the second half.  With a more consistent and regular scoring average, the team moved me down to 4th, right before my friend, who was our “anchor” bowler based on his ability to conjure up the needed score when the game required.

The pepper man was our lead-off bowler, a steady 165 average who rarely had a bad game.  As my game matured, the two youngsters started feeding off the consistency and bowled more regular (with an occasional spectacular thrown in).  My friend was perhaps the only one whose game didn’t pick up as the season wore on.  I suspected his back was giving him trouble but of course he wouldn’t admit it.

We had finished the first half in 18th place, so many games out of the money that we didn’t even bother counting. Now, like every great sports movie, we were moving up the standings.  Our team, once was eagerly anticipated by the rest of the league, was now scary.  That’s the benefit of improving in a handicap league.

Of course, we faced some accusations, voiced and silent.  No one improves this much.  You must have been sandbagging (a time-honored tradition in bowling leagues of keeping the averages down for a while to take advantage of the handicaps later).  Anyone who had seen us bowling early in the league would have a hard time being convinced we were even good enough to sandbag!

I was now bowling out of my mind, regularly tossing 200+ games and had three (3!!!) over 230 (including my still-highest 269).  More importantly, I was converting my spares and doing the job in the critical 9th frame.

As we continued to climb, we came across some of those teams my friend had been keeping a mental record of.  During those nights, you could see a change in his demeanor.  We were going to win that night even if he had to do it all himself, which he sometimes did.

He had a number of techniques to “revenge” himself for the previous arrogance and patronism these particular teams lavished on us.  He might choose to engage the other team’s anchor bowler in an amicable discussion of bowling form, a subtle way of instilling doubt in his opponent.  He might choose to focus totally within our lane, apparently not even noticing the other team’s bowler.  Most often, when he would come up in a position he needed to deliver for our team (either head-to-head or simply on his own) he would exude a serene confidence that, regardless of how he had been rolling up to then, we all felt certain he would win it for us.

And he did.  In that second half, he was amazing.  I can only imagine how good he could have been but for the back injury.  But that second half!  He might be hurting, or tired or just plain off his game, but each time he came up with a chance for us to win a game, he did it.  It was incredible!

Ultimately, we were just too far back.  Despite beating the first place team two times in the last four weeks of the season, we ended up in third place.  Our take was a not-unimpressive $540 a man.  And I took “most improved” bowler, finishing the year with a 187 average (from my 130 at midway).

I think my friend was prouder about his success with me than the actual money we won.  We both agreed, however, that we didn’t want to play in another money league.  The players there took the game much too seriously and drained away some of the fun.

The team eventually broke up from job and scheduling conflicts, but I’ll always remember that great season of bowling and how I learned to bowl.

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