The thing about sports and me is that we don’t spend much time together anymore. When I was in middle school, I played on the local rec soccer team, but after a couple years, I stopped liking it. I think it was because the game was becoming much more about winning than it was about playing. And when people want to get nasty about winning, as I guess nearly the rest of the world could tell us Americans, soccer can be a very nasty sport.
I can understand that for athletes, sport is a kind of art form — when they’re playing their sport, they’re more themselves than they are at any other time. For them, the moment of triumph is worth all of the hardship that preceded it.
But I’m not an athlete. I’m not looking for a game to provide meaning to my life. When I win a game, I don’t want to feel like I’m the king of the world, because that means that when I lose, I’ll feel like a jester who just ran out of pies. I just want to have fun and feel fleeting sensations of motion and giddiness, and if possible, make fun of my friends along the way.
That’s why my engagement with sports before duckpin bowling generally involved a Frisbee, a Foxtail, or my old mountain bike (also a relic of middle school days — funny thing is that it still fits me). About the biggest struggle you can get into with any of these things is an ornery grass stain on your shorts.
Then I discovered duckpin bowling. It is a sport that is completely impossible to take seriously. Even regular bowling is possible to take seriously, you know. Even if it is dead boring to watch, there are lots of heavy objects moving at high speeds. Remember the announcers that speak in hushed tones on ESPN2 or ABC’s Wide World of Sports as some socially maladjusted guy rolls strike number 321,523 of his career?
The thing about duckpin bowling is that even the equipment has been rendered entirely silly. There are no fancy computer systems keeping score and pointing out your complete inability to roll the ball straight down a 60-foot stretch of parquet. To keep score, you have to use the old-school transparencies, or if the bowling alley is even more quaint, you get a worksheet and #2 pencil that has undoubtedly been gnawed on by bowlers who died before you were born.
The pins are short and squat. The balls are about half as big and an eighth as heavy as regular bowling balls, and it is impossible to find any in the basic bowling-ball black or the trendoid shiny marble style.
No, duckpin bowling balls are required by some obscure regulation to come in absurd color combinations. You’ve got your pink-splurts colored ones. Keeping things in balance are the balls that are colored like the aftermath of a ten-burrito dinner.
You’ve also got your wild pseudo-African colored balls, and ones that look sort of like the Earth if it were set on “puree,” and ones that remind you a little of pictures of Venus or Mercury or some other cosmological object that you remember reading about but can’t remember the name of.
And there is always exactly one ball whose colors you find fascinating. Every time you come up to bowl, you look for it. Inexplicably, the ball you love will get you terrible scores. The poop-colored balls rack up spares and strikes even though they have nasty gouges all over them.
The sad thing is that you use the pretty one anyway, just because it looks so cool.
Setting aside the aesthetics of the game, though, it is still a terrific way to work off stress. I belong to a class of human beings marginalized by ten-pin bowling. I have big, thick fingers, but I also have the arm strength of 12 toothpicks held together by a natty old rubber band.
The consequence of all this is that I have to use a heavier ball (and when I write “heavier,” I mean something on the order of 12 pounds) so that the finger holes are big enough for me. What this means is that my bowling is more of a collaborative effort between myself and the ball instead of, say, me actually guiding it in some coherent fashion.
Duckpin bowling balls have no holes. You just wrap your hand around it and hurl it as hard as you like. If you’re a grownup, that charmingly pink ball becomes a charmingly pink blur of destruction. When you get a strike, the pins fly all over the place, just like how it happens for those maladjusted professionals on television. If throw a gutter ball — well, it still looks like you meant it.
But at the same time, duckpin bowling is forgiving. You get three rolls instead of the usual two, which means that it takes a lesser act of God to score less than 6 in a frame. This may sound like no big deal to experienced bowlers, but when you’re out bowling on a Friday night, it doesn’t feel too good when your score is 30 after five frames.
(Bowling is always fickle like that. You know it. Your friends know it. But the hotties over on lane six don’t.)
But there is no great pressure upon you to deliver incredible scores. No one has ever, in the history in duckpin bowling, scored a perfect game. The highest score ever attained on record is 279, by Pete Signore, Jr. So not only are you furthering humanity’s collective quest to score a perfect game every time you go duckpin bowling, but if you come up a little short — well, it’s understandable.
The pros (by God, there are duckpin pros, and although they seem equally as socially maladjusted as their ten-pin brethren, there are no television shows about them) claim that’s because there’s just too much randomness in the interaction of the pins.
In other words, just because you pitch the ball in the exact perfect way doesn’t mean you’ll always get a strike. And conversely, if you screw up, there’s always a shot that the six pin will spin in a particularly interesting way and knock over that last pin.
I think this is one of life’s most difficult lessons.
Here, at the close of this essay, I would humbly suggest that you try duckpin bowling if you never have before. But duckpin isn’t everywhere. It started here in Maryland, and it has mostly stayed here. (There was a push a while back to make it the official state sport, but sadly, it failed. But that’s a story for another time.)
It spread a little up and down the East Coast, but the majority of the known world remains ignorant of duckpin bowling. And so I can only ask that if you do make a pilgrimage here for whatever reasons, you take a bit of one of your nights and give duckpin bowling a try.
And if you don’t, well — I humbly ask you to take yourself and your sports a little less seriously. Because it’s only a set of toys and rules. Because it’s only you and your friends and a little precious space of time.