My feet are on the dots and I do a little knee bend … it’s part of my ritual.
Look ahead. Focus on the marks on the floor.
Four slow steps forward: right, left, right, left. Arm swings back. Arm swings forward. Release the ball so it flies directly over the center mark. Follow through.
It’s smooth and graceful and I should be rewarded with an explosion of wood and resin sixty feet down the lane. But as I watch, the ball gradually fades to the left and squeezes itself between the pins in an apologetic way as if it is saying, “pardon me, sorry to bother you”. Seven pins fall, but they don’t really want to, they’re just being polite.
I’ve been in this bowling league for five years and I’m terrible. I have always been hopeless at ball sports, and I said so to Coach Rob when he asked me and MSL to join. I can’t dribble a basketball. I couldn’t throw a baseball even before I screwed up my shoulder. A grounder toward right field is the best I can do in softball. I can dig a hole with a golf club, but I can’t hit a golf ball with it. There’s no way in hell I could ever catch a football, and throwing one is absolutely out of the question. There’s no reason to expect bowling to be any different.
“Yeah, but do you like to hang out and have fun?”, Coach asked.
I admitted that fun was something I enjoyed, and so we joined - MSL and me as a 2-person team - and proceeded to stink up the league with scores about a hundred points below everyone else’s.
A potential saving grace in the sport of bowling is that you get two chances in every frame, so I line up and take another shot at the three pins still standing: the knee bend, the four steps, the follow through - but this time slower and more controlled. I don’t have to be fast on the second ball, I just have to be accurate. The three pins are right in the middle of the lane. For just a moment it looks promising, but the ball goes slightly left again and I miss the pins by about the thickness of a piece of paper. It’s as near a miss as it could possibly be, but a miss is still a miss and the pins remain standing and it is entirely typical of my abilities in the sport.
I’m so bad, I can’t keep a partner for more than one year. MSL still comes to spectate, but she quit bowling with me after the first year. I’ve had Chuck and Doug and Tyler and PJ as teammates and they all politely decline invitations to come back for a second season.
My next turn comes and I stand on the dots again, bend my knees again, focus on the center mark again and this time really concentrate on the follow-through. I mean I really concentrate on it because when my follow-through is good sometimes the pins fall over.
The ball lofts nicely and hits the center of the lane just beyond the mark. It rolls straight and true and it looks good from here, but I know better than to celebrate too soon. This time the ball plows a path through the center of the pins, leaving three standing on the left, two on the right and a hole right up the middle.
There are enough pins still standing that for my second ball, about all I have to do is get it down there and it should hit something. If I get it there fast enough the pins should fly around and knock each other over and I can spare this frame. So I stand on the dots and bend my knees and focus on the mark and my follow through and I throw the thing hard and it goes about 17 miles per hour right up the hole in the middle and doesn’t touch a single pin. I mean, hell, I threw that thing hard enough that the wind should have knocked the pins over, but putting the ball into the smallest space where the pins aren’t is a real talent of mine.
I don’t know why I’m so incredibly bad at this. It’s not a matter of equipment: I’ve got all the stuff. One of the guys gave me an extra ball that he wasn’t using. After my second year, I got my own shoes because they were cheap and it was gross wearing other people’s all the time. I got a wrist brace because my arms are about as meaty as a chicken leg and that ball is really heavy. I got a ball sack to carry it all in. Then I got another ball, lighter weight than the first one and I seem to be a little better with it. By having my own equipment I thought I would eliminate some of the variables that make me so inconsistent.
With two-person teams, the games move quickly and it’s my turn again. The ball has been going left for me all night so I line up a little to the right to offset it. I stand on the dots, bend my knees, focus on the mark, take four steps, swing my arm and this time the ball rolls dead-nuts straight down the lane and if I hadn’t moved to the right it would have nailed the headpin and I’d have a strike. Instead, I left four pins standing on the left side.
I’m getting pissed now and for my second ball I line up as usual, stand on the dots, bend my knees, focus on the mark, take four steps, swing my arm, follow through and it is the same damn thing I do every single time so why doesn’t my ball do what I want it to? This time it just barely kisses the right side of the headpin, which teeters back and forth for just a second before gently easing over onto its side and it doesn’t knock anything else over so I’ve left three standing again.
League rules specify that if a bowler leaves a pin standing in the seventh frame, that bowler should immediately contribute 25 cents to the prize fund. I’ve put a lot of quarters in the kitty this year, and that last throw was so bad I should put in a dollar and a half.
Every week I go in optimistic. We bowl three games and each one is a clean slate - a brand new start. It isn’t uncommon for me to roll a 98 in one game and a 144 in the next. Consistency eludes and defies me.
I keep track of everything I do on a Saturday and think back to the last time I had a really good game. I try to recreate the exact same conditions: skip the bike ride in the afternoon, don’t have a beer, eat two french dip sandwiches at 5:14, wear my lucky pants and my rally cap, and it makes no difference.
But Coach Rob said it would be fun, and you know what? It is. The people are nice and tolerate my incompetence. I celebrate when my partner rolls a good ball. The Kingpin Grill makes one of the best hamburgers in town. And the league gives me a venue to make inappropriate, off-color, “playing with my balls” jokes.
To be honest, I don’t really put much effort into getting better. Bowling isn’t my first sport or my main activity, so I’m not going to invest a lot into it. But bowling is completely different from anything else that I do and it’s like a little, two-hour mental and physical vacation from work and riding and writing, and every once in a while - about twice a night - I manage to roll a good ball. I stand on the dots, bend my knees, focus on the mark, take four steps, swing my arm, follow through and the ball crashes into the pins and they fly all over the place and an X goes up on the scoreboard. It’s was so easy and so effortless and it just felt so right that I’m pretty sure I can do it again so when my next turn comes ….
I step up to the dots, bend my knees, focus on the marks . . .