The challenge of the game also appears to be losing the battle to technology. It wasn't but a few years ago that the best bowlers in the world carried only a couple of old rubber balls around with them. Now the pros might tote a dozen urethane models to each stop and have 100 or 150 drilled to their specifications on tour—largely to deal with the oil. These space-age balls are designed to "grab" oiled lanes better so they'll hit the pocket harder, yielding more pin action and more strikes. A pleasant young man named Bill Hall follows the pro tour around and devotes almost all of his time to drilling holes in the balls in his trailer workshop. While I was in the trailer, Wayne Webb, Professional Bowlers Association Player of the Year in 1980, came in and reminded Hall that a few weeks before he'd gotten a ball slightly different than he'd requested. "Wayne didn't get through eighth grade," a kibitzer says, "but he can tell when his ball is a quarter ounce off."
Small differences like that really matter, too. "The ball is much better than the bowler now," says Dave Husted, one of the up-and-coming young pros. Remember last year when all everybody in baseball yakked about was how the ball was juiced up? Well, bowling is like that—only all the time. Imagine if you were there when Robin Hood split the other guy's arrow, but then all anybody talked about was the type of arrow Robin used, and the consistency of the wood, and how much deer grease he used, and scintillating stuff like that. Are you listening to me, Mr. Nixon? Are you beginning to understand why nobody wants to write about bowling when they can write about people?
But I sympathize with the bowling pooh-bahs. The double bind gets tighter all the time. Anybody who can plunk a buck down for a pair of jester's shoes can score. So nobody ever practices, and still expectations are so high that, even at reasonably modest levels, it becomes more a game of disappointment for failing to be perfect than a celebration for achieving, improving. As Peggy Lee sang, "Is that all there is?"
In fact, the most honest bowling in America is at Koz's Mini-Bowl in Milwaukee, because there the alleys are just 16 feet long. That way, even with little duckpin balls, almost anybody can bowl a 300. (They average five or six each week at Koz's, where they post scores under 140.) Many folks in the area do their bowling only at Koz', because the company is good, the beer is cold, and there's hard truth enough in the rest of the world.
One day, in my journeys throughout bowleriana, I paused to watch a little girl's birthday party at the Bowlmor. It's down in Greenwich Village, up an old elevator, one of only four houses left in Manhattan. I was standing there with a Hispanic guy who was garbed in intercentury attire: a Union Army cap, an earring and Nikes. The first four little girls threw gutter balls. The Hispanic guy and I shrugged. The balls were in the gutter eight feet from the foul line. But then the fifth little girl stepped up. She acted exactly like the others, shoved the ball, and it rolled over and over, and about a half hour later it nudged into the 1-3 pocket, and all the pins tumbled down like this, and she had a strike, the same as Mark Roth. (Roth is the leading money winner in the history of bowling, whom you also probably never heard of because that kind of stuff is seldom in the newspaper.) The Hispanic guy and I shrugged again.
I finally concluded that the reason bowling always does so well on television is because (there, anyway) it is less like a sport and more like a game show, in which everybody has a pretty equal chance, no matter what. Pat, Pat, I wanna solve the puzzle, Pat! Vanna, Vanna, I just bowled 298, Vanna! This drives the pros up the wall. And when the lanes are rigged to make it interesting so the bowlers don't get strikes with every ball, then every Cholly and Bunky down at Happy Time Bowl floods the Pro Bowlers Association with applications on Monday morning. "Hey, anybody can beat a pro on his own lanes," says Baker. "The game's too easy, and the balls are weapons now."
No wonder the pros have little self-regard. Often, when they're required to list their occupation, they write down "self-employed" instead of "pro bowler." Baker's girlfriend told him once, "Why don't you tell people you're a drug dealer and get some respectability?"
When the tour came to Columbus, Ohio, during Thanksgiving week, to the sumptuous Columbus Square Bowling Palace, the lanes were greased to make them as difficult as possible, and as a consequence the scores were the lowest of the year. As NBC prepared to televise the finals on Saturday (TV is so crucial to bowling, with its lack of an appreciable live gate or print coverage, that the players don't refer to qualifying for the finals; instead they talk of "making the show"), the producer. Glenn Adamo; the announcers, Jay Randolph and Bowling Hall of Famer Earl Anthony; and other principals met in the center's nursery to go over the telecast. As soon as Adamo mentioned that Randolph and Anthony would discuss the low scores—how Guppy Troup bowled a 92 one game; how Marshall Holman, the high-average pro for 1987, grew so frustrated over how the lanes were oiled that he threw his ball up against a wall; how the pros were generally threatening to eviscerate the PBA lane maintenance director—Kevin Shippy, who's head of public relations for the PBA, went bananas. "You're not going to say that, are you?" he asked.
"Kevin, that's the story of this tournament," Adamo replied.
Shippy pleaded that the reality of the low scores be glossed over. If not, viewers would be applying for the PBA tour left and right. "But, Kevin, it's been in the local papers," Adamo explained.