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Spitballin’

Ducks in a Row

“I tried tenpin a couple times. I was always afraid my finger’d get stuck in the damn hole.”

By day, Bill Wright, 46, works at Home Depot. On Monday nights at the Parkville Lanes, he’s the ace of the Bowling Stones. Wright has the second highest average in the league, and his presence in the alley has a rightness about it, like a lion in the Serengeti. His hairless head and razor-thin physique, accentuated by blazing red bowling shoes and jarring yoga pants, combine with his dervishian delivery, making him look as if he’s stepped out of a Midnight Oil video. Wright grips the duckpin ball—sized somewhere between a grapefruit and a cantaloupe—in his right hand, pauses, then torques his body violently to the left. His syncopated delivery is a series of seemingly unrelated maneuvers with a complete lack of simultaneity. His arm whips back and twists down at the elbow as he shuffle-steps once then explodes forward, drops low, and rockets the spheroid projectile pinward like an inverted Roger Clemens heater. The whole place seems then to hang motionless around Wright’s shoulders save for the bowling ball, hurtling forward, rotating counterclockwise, one, two, three revolutions than kablow—strike!

“There’s so many styles in duckpins,” says Joe McNeil, watching his rival approvingly. “Bill’s a cranker, his arm comes up, but he’s smooth. Really smooth.” McNeil looks extraordinarily fit for 60, which is amazing because he’s 70 and currently has the best average in the league. Standing tall with a full head of white hair and the controlled grace of a man who’s clearly earned every bit of his karate black belt and keeps fit for bowling through kick-boxing, a sport he started at 68. McNeil speaks with authority in the lanes. “I prefer tenpins,” he adds. “In duckpins you can’t hook. A tenpin bowler wants to get it out to those arrows. Duckpins, you want to put it down right over the line. You want revolutions.” McNeil’s turn comes up and he steps into the lane, his knee straps, elbow straps, wrist straps all support his classic glide to the foul line, the ball spinning, revolution after revolution, before colliding into an eruption of wooden ducks. Nine pins fall, and after the deadwood is cleared, McNeil picks up the spare.

I can’t say I agree with McNeil on his preference for tenpin, or as it is more commonly known in these parts, big-ball bowling. I didn’t even know finger-in-the-hole bowling existed until I left Baltimore for college. I honestly thought it was made up for The Flintstones. Duckpin bowling, so ubiquitous in my childhood, is virtually unknown outside Baltimore and a narrow corridor of the Northeast up into Connecticut. Here, it’s part of the fabric of the community. Sara Clemment, a waitress at City Café—and at 30-something, probably one of the youngest people in the league—brags, “My grandfather was the pin-monkey at Patterson,” a sentence that could only be a boast in Baltimore. Sara stepped up and, apparently having learned to bowl from a Marine Corps sniper, knocked down three pins with three balls. Her boyfriend, Jaime Dessert, hollered from the scorer’s table, “Put that in the article.”

OK.

Unlike the pins in that frame, duckpin lanes have been dropping all over, with Hillendale’s recent closing adding to the litany of lost lanes. Wright plays in another league with his parents, his aunts, his sister, and nephews. Even his grandmother played there, four generations in one bowling league, but it may not be long for this Old Bay-and-french fry-scented world. “It’s a league from one bowling alley that moved to another bowling alley, that moved to another bowling alley,” said Wright, seeming to lament the loss of all those lanes. “It’s been around a long time.” And while Baltimore’s bowling may fast becoming a relic, duckpins remain the platonic bowling ideal.

The swirling, multi-tone balls each look like a beautiful little world and fit perfectly in the hand. You get three chances, not two like in big-ball bowling, and you’ll need those extra balls. It’s a far more challenging game, and the Parkville Lanes may be the toughest spot on Earth. While much of the bowling world has switched to laminate all the way down the lanes, Parkville still has the old hardwoods with the pins sitting on metal. “Sometimes they just die on that metal,” explained McNeil. “Donnie Dove, he’s a 152 bowler, the best duckpin bowler in the world, and he comes here before tournaments.”

No one in the history of the universe has bowled a perfect game of duckpins. In big-ball bowling, it happens all the time. Just last Wednesday, I sleepwalked to the Sportsman’s Lane and knocked out a pair of 300s before waking confused and covered in nacho cheese. Moe Otradovec may not be the best bowler in the league, but he may be the best possible spokesperson. The 85-year-old retired engineer wore a smile as big as the pizzas at the concession stand and a matching crimson T-shirt that read, “You Bet Your Kielbasa I’m Polish.” He wore a gambler’s visor with spiked gray hair poking through the top. When he took off the visor, the hair went with it, revealing another head of unspiked gray hair, “I’ve got a dozen of ’em,” he said, motioning with his hat.

Moe and his 91-year-old neighbor play in a few leagues, but they’re all duckpin, and they’re waiting for another revolution to bring people back to the ducks. “I tried tenpin a couple times. I was always afraid my finger’d get stuck in the damn hole.” Thinking a little longer he adds, “And it takes no skill!”

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