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In their ignorance, the young women on the Cheers II softball team probably believed they were being respectful when they asked Stasia Czernicki to join them one evening last spring. Softball is not Czernicki's sport and, local legend or not, she wouldn't have been asked at all except that Cheers II was one woman short and facing an automatic forfeit. So they went up into the stands and, after very little pleading, came back with a tall, solidly built and decidedly graying short fielder. And then they said it. "We don't expect a 65-year-old to actually play," they told her. "If the ball comes your way," they said, "just clear out and we'll handle it."
You tell Pete Rose to slide feetfirst. You suggest that Mother Nature lay off the hurricanes in September. But you never tell Stasia Czernicki (pronounced ZER-ni-key) not to compete.
So here was Czernicki in the outfield, and there, arcing into the Webster, Mass., sky, was a clean, white softball. The other players were screaming, "I've got it, I've got it," and you could, in all likelihood, see some of Czernicki's muscles twitching with adrenaline because it took all the willpower this grandmother could muster to politely back off and watch a woman in her 20's go for—and drop—the ball.
"I could have caught the damned ball," Czernicki fumed to herself. Outwardly she remained as gracious as ever, the same woman whose athletic ability has kept generations of New Englanders pinned to their TVs on Saturday afternoons and who has shown them how to win, and how to lose, with class.
The Cheers II players did not learn. When it was Czernicki's turn at bat, they said, "Don't swing at it. Just let it go by. If they walk you, O.K. If you get called out on strikes, no sweat." You can ask only so much of a grandmother, though, and by now Czernicki's reservoir of tolerance was empty. As soon as she had grown accustomed to the looping slo-pitch delivery, she smacked a solid single and then scored a run, which cleared the bench as her teammates ran to congratulate her.
Today she suffers grim flashbacks to that game and is convinced that the turning point in the 15-7 loss was the fly ball she knows she would have caught.
You see, it wasn't as if the Cheers II team had no clue as to who Czernicki was. They, like the rest of New England, knew Czernicki as the Queen of Candle-pin Bowling.
Candlepins—the dominant and native form of bowling north of the Connecticut border (although it was once played in that state as well)—is a big deal to thousands of television viewers in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. Candlepin Bowling, on Boston's Channel 5, is still, after 29 years, one of the top-rated television sports shows, sometimes outdrawing the Red Sox, Celtics or Bruins.
The game, played only in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine and in the Canadian Maritime Provinces, bears a grudging resemblance to tenpins, the sort of bowling that the rest of the U.S. either tolerates or embraces. There is a wooden lane. There are 10 pins. And there is a ball. Beyond that, there are more similarities between Gaddafi and Gandhi. In candlepins, the ball is about the size of a cantaloupe and has no finger holes. The pins are 16 inches high and look like skinny cylinders that taper toward the top and bottom. The pins are set once, and then the player is given three balls to knock them all down. Pins struck by the first or second ball remain where they fall. These fallen pins, called deadwood, can be used by the player to knock other pins down. They are also just as likely to deflect the ball into the gutter.
Historians of candlepins say the game was invented in 1881 in Worcester, Mass., by John J. Monsey, a billiards player. In the original game, the pins were inch-thick dowels, which from the foul line 60 feet away resembled candles. The name stuck. Today, the pins are two inches thick in the middle. Otherwise, the game is about the same and nearly as frustrating.