Despite the specter of little sleep staring me in the face, I went to the bowling alley last night and had a pretty good evening.
I missed a spare in the first frame, but had four strikes in a row to get back on the horse. I closed the first game with a spare and a strike in the 10th frame for a 204, and we won the game by 17 pins.
In the second game, I started out with a few strikes in what was shaping up to be a close battle. I kept striking, although not all of them were of the highest quality. I had one where a couple pins were taken down from behind, and another where the 5-pin remained standing for a couple seconds before another pin rolled into it.
In the ninth frame, I threw a pretty good ball, and all the pins fell. I had never gotten the first eight in a row in a game; now I was sitting on nine. I did a little math after the fact: since graduating college, I have bowled the rough equivalent 19 and a half bowling seasons. My best-ever game was 279, which didn’t even come in a league setting, but in a tournament. This, obviously, was uncharted territory for me.
Normally when someone is putting together a long string of strikes, people start to notice. Lots of guys get into the side pots throughout the night, so other peoples’ results affect them; as such, they often cruise up and down the house checking scores. When someone gets to nine in a row, guys will often stop bowling and watch. It’s odd, though, because while they’re essentially offering a setting without distraction, the lack of distraction becomes a distraction in and of itself.
There are a number of great bowlers in the league, and when they are on the brink of a perfect game, they usually only get a handful of guys watching. Someone like me, however, a middle of the road bowler (at least as far as this league is concerned), will draw a crowd. I picked up my ball, toweled off the oil, and made sure not to turn around. All I could think was, “jeez, it took you long enough to get here, didn’t it?”
You would think I’d feel some nerves, but I didn’t. No breathing issues, no noticeably elevated heart rate, no rise in temperature. I’ve been up there with games on the line before – including a championship or three – and I’ve learned to embrace the pressure, at least to the point where it doesn’t affect the result of the shot. If I throw a bad ball, it’s not because I wilted in the moment; it’s because I’m a good bowler but not elite, and the difference is the ability to drop the ball in the same place 100 out of 100 times instead of 85.
I began my approach and quickly discovered that my legs were not on the same page as the rest of my body. I wouldn’t say they felt like jelly, but they certainly weren’t completely solid. I got to the line, and my delivery felt a little off. The ball was decent, though, and rolled right into the pocket. Ten in a row.
I walked back to the ball return and saw that pretty much the entire league was watching. I looked up in mock surprise and asked, “Hey, wait, what’s going on? Something happen?” I got a few laughs, which was the point, but I think the main goal was really to make sure I was keeping an even keel myself.
A big part of bowling is routine. When you begin your approach, you take the same number of steps every time, you (try to) put the ball in the same place every time, and you follow through with the same arm motion in the same arm slot every time. But even more than that, you want to make sure you do the same things leading up to a shot as well; whether it’s cleaning your ball off before every shot, using a rosin bag, or taking a breath before stepping out with one particular foot first, you want to keep your routine.
My routine has me wipe the oil off of my ball, even when there’s none clearly visible. Then I put my ring and middle fingers into the ball while I step up to the approach, and use my right foot to sort of step into my starting stance. I put my thumb in last, and try to remember to take a deep breath; once I exhale, it’s off to the proverbial races. I don’t take a lot of time; once my ball comes off the ball return, if there’s no one on either side of me, it’s usually out of my hand within 20 seconds. I don’t rush, but I also don’t waste time.
Part of what makes a routine so routine is that eventually you get to a point where it becomes second nature and you don’t even think about it. But in that moment, I thought about it. Not to make sure I did it, or was doing it right; I thought about it because it was simple, and it was right there, and if I was thinking about that, then I wouldn’t be worried about what was possibly about to happen.
I stepped up, took my deep breath, and then told myself something that I usually don’t have to: “just don’t fall down.” The legs were a little shakier this time, and as I approached the line I remember thinking that there was a distinct possibility of me ending up on the ground before I released the ball.
It didn’t happen. No, despite all that was going on, despite all the pitfalls that could have stood between me and 11 strikes in a row, I reached the line on my feet and released the best ball I threw all game. As it rolled down the lane, I even started to back away, the way guys do when they know they’ve converted a spare.
It was about as pure a hit as I could have asked for. Ten pins down. Eleven strikes down.
As I turned to walk back, I thought to myself, “well, 290-something is a score, huh?” No matter what, I had come further than I ever had before, and I was going to have one of the best possible scores in the game to my credit.
I’ve often said that once I let go of a ball, I have no control over what happens. It’s not completely true, but it’s not a lie, either. As my teammates and I saw throughout the game, I can throw an iffy ball and get a strike, while someone else could absolutely bury a ball right in the perfect spot and leave a split. All we can do is try to stack the odds in our favor by throwing the ball in the right spot, at the right speed, and on the right path towards the pins.
It’s 60 feet from the foul line to the head pin; a lot can happen in that stretch, and if you get too bogged down with what happens there, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Control what you can control, and let the pins fall where they may.
You could make the argument, then, that every strike is lucky; either you benefited from something out of the ordinary, or you were fortunate that something out of the ordinary didn’t happen on that particular shot.
So here I was, needing one more strike, and the reality is that it was, for the most part, out of my hands. All I could do was lead the horse to water; whether or not he chose to drink, I was at peace with the result.
The precipice of perfection is quiet, as you might expect. By that point, everyone is crowded behind the lane in question, and they’ve been there long enough that you don’t even hear the sounds of the other lanes resetting pins or returning balls. The silence is deafening, and it is heavy.
I took my steps toward the foul line. In my head, my legs looked like a newborn foal trying to stand up.
I released the ball. At that point, it was just the ball, but in a few seconds, it might be the ball.
As soon as it left my hand, the noise came back. You know those scenes in action movies, where everything slows down while the hero fights off two, three, four attackers at once? And how, once that last guy is beaten, everything zips back to normal speed? That’s exactly what throwing a ball after opening with 11 strikes sounds like; as if the entire room, except for me, was in slow motion, and now everyone else was catching up.
The whole game – the whole night, really – I had been throwing the ball towards the outside part of the lane. I had a good, consistent motion that allowed the ball to hook back towards the pins at the right angle. I had a margin for error; so long as I got the ball within a board or two of where I was aiming, I had had success throughout the first 19 frames of the night.
I missed by about five this time.
Despite that, the ball didn’t hook like it had done all night. It held on a little bit, and for 45 feet, it had a real chance. And had I thrown the ball in that exact place, but about five miles per hour faster, this story might have a different ending.
But I didn’t. I threw it at the right speed, with the right motion, from the right starting point; I just released my thumb a half second later than I should have. Was it the pressure? It might have been. But it also might just have been a shot that was poorly executed, and even more poorly timed.
I left two pins for a 298, and I honestly couldn’t tell you which ones they were. There was a groan of disappointment from the crowd: not in me, but for me. There is a difference, and you could tell it was the latter.
I like to think that part of it is because I try to carry myself with as much class as possible on the lanes. It may sound ridiculous, but it’s just like any other competitive activity: respect the game and your opponents. I do my best to avoid wild shows of emotion, both positive and negative. After a shot, you often can’t tell if I just struck for the fourth (or 11th) straight frame, or if I’ve missed my third straight spare. There’s just no reason to show up your opponent or draw attention to yourself. It’s a team game.
But in this instance, the team aspect was over: I could have dumped a pair of balls in the gutter and we would have won by 60-plus pins. This was all about me, and I reacted like I almost always do when I miss: a slight grimace and a walk back to the ball return. I have no idea what I would have done if I’d made the shot, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have been loud or very demonstrative.
Anyway, I think it’s partially because of that even-keelness that the guys were really, truly happy for me that I got that far, and that I was able to appreciate what I’d done as opposed to what I hadn’t done. There were a lot of high fives and handshakes, and even a few bro-hugs. Unfortunately, since he’s been in and out of the hospital, my dad wasn’t there to see it, but on the flip side, the anticipation and nerves might have sent him right back to the emergency room. Despite the old man not being there, I felt the love, and was flattered and humbled by everyone’s reaction. It reminded me why I keep showing up every week, no matter how terrible I might feel.
It took me a while to calm down internally, and it might have shown on the scoreboard. But by the end of the third game, I got it together. So did my teammates, and we pulled out a win for a clean sweep of our opponents. I ended the night with four consecutive strikes for a 203 game and a 705 series.
As today has gone on, and I shared the story with a coworker, I’ve actually gotten more disappointed that I didn’t finish the job. What if I don’t ever get another crack at it? What if that was my peak? It’s entirely possible that I won’t ever be in that position again.
But whereas yesterday I might have said that I didn’t know if I’d ever get there, now I know that I can, because I did. Confidence isn’t often in abundant supply with me, but for some reason, coming so close to a perfect game has already changed how I look at myself as a bowler. As I sit here writing about it, I actually feel like I’m a better bowler than I was yesterday. I’m not, but at the very least, I stood there in front of the entire league in the most pressure-packed individual situation in the game, and I didn’t back down. I didn’t wilt. And, results aside, just knowing that means a world of difference.
I’ll get there again someday. I promise.
(I just hope I don’t have to wait another 20 seasons for a second chance.)