LAS VEGAS -- Quick, name the country's oldest sports monthly.
Four... three... two... one...
That would be Bowlers Journal, which will turn 100 on Friday, which will be "Bowlers Journal Day" in Illinois by legislative proclamation. So happy Bowlers Journal Day, while acknowledging that Bowlers Journal's longevity does tell us something essential about ourselves: we humans love to drive ourselves half-mad with games.
The knack for driving ourselves half-mad went on fine display Sunday at the South Point Hotel Casino. The half-madness visited even the best. "I think at the high level, the bowlers are better than they've ever been; these guys are just phenomenal," said Bowlers Journal president Keith Hamilton, yet the half-madness bit almost the whole lot of them.
The sneering beast that beguiles and torments them -- and which we blithely call "bowling" -- reserved some spite even after 10 days had whittled 240 players for the PBA World Championship down to five, all qualifying through a 52-game gruel: one from Missouri, one from Michigan, one from Texas, one from Illinois and one from Colchester, England.
"I've gotten here plenty of times. For me, it's not about getting here again, it's about winning. I'm past that point of having this be a success. This is a failure. For me, either it's first place or it's a failure."
That's a Mr. Mike Fagan from Fort Worth, four-time PBA winner, 32 years old, 11 years a pro. He had just bowled a match of sterling quality against an all-time great, but lost by 258-246. He had also bowled one shot he disliked. One.
The game had asked for zero.
Now, as he leaned over his bag and changed his shirt in the vast, mostly empty convention room next to the hotel meeting room with the makeshift two lanes and the few-hundred spectators, he qualified as irked. "Sometimes I get the ball going a little quicker through the downswing," he said.
Guess you can't do that. "Made one bad shot and that was it," he said. "I don't know how many bad shots he made, but I know he scored better." So bowling, so good so often to Fagan, ousted him this day.
"I threw it well. I was happy when I let it go. Wasn't happy with the result but as far as letting the ball go and throwing it where I wanted to, I did. I thought it was gonna strike."
That's a Mr. Pete Weber from St. Ann, Mo. He, of course, is the owner of 37 PBA titles, a 33-year pro at 51, the fourth-best player ever by a vote in 2009 (his father, Dick, finished third), that rare figure who does warrant the word "legend."
Of the five bowlers who made it to what they call "The Show" on Sunday, he had the lowest overall finish (20th) from the first four days of qualifying, but discount him at your peril. He possesses that thing some people have, the capacity to produce their best at the very times that demand it. He had forged through the next two stages, including the match-play, all the way to Sunday, where he was the No. 5 seed of the five.
As the No. 5, he had ousted the No. 4, Tom Smallwood of Saginaw, Mich., by 258-237 in the stepladder format, whereupon Smallwood said, "Unfortunately, the really, really, really good Pete Weber showed up today." Weber had moved on through the No. 3 Fagan, who had that one bad ball. Weber got to No. 2 Sean Rash, whom he led after striking through the first six frames while Rash had a spare in his third.
Weber cooled off really, really, really slightly with a spare in the seventh, and the match evened up until Weber threw that ball he liked in the ninth. A great tennis historian and avid bowler named Ted Tinling used to say each pin had a different personality, telling Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated, "Some are quite obstinate, while others have no resolve whatsoever," and it seemed that the No. 7 (on the far left in the back) felt obstinate just then.
Weber picked up the spare, but as the ever-animated Weber grimaced and gesticulated and sat and muttered, Rash struck on through. Bowling, with its stickler's insistence on inches and millimeters and less-than-millimeters, had harrumphed again, even as Rash's score of 279 was gaudy.
"I only had one bad shot out of the 12. The 6-10 was a bit slow and right early. The thing that sucks, I thought I made the spare and when you chop something like that, it's just heartbreaking that early in the game when you know the scoring pace is going to be high."
That would be Mr. Rash of Montgomery, Ill., whose third frame in the title match made him sit down and go, "Wow," in shock.
He had left the 6-10 split after the first ball, which was hard enough, but then he chopped the 6 and left the bloody 10. Among the 80 frames in the four matches among the five absurdly talented players of this main event, only two failed to end in strike or spare.
That was one.
"I thought I made it," Rash said.
The savage old game lives on.
"You only have so many inches and millimeters to try to make things," he said.
It lives in a different way now. It tours less and centers on Las Vegas more. Its big finals in its World Series of Bowling took place in a hotel meeting room with spectators and international flags of participants, but it won't air on ESPN until December.
Like so many other games, it fights for TV space in a country where, for one thing, the NFL keeps gobbling up more and more air. It tries to stay young and fresh, so the finish of each ball meets with music: AC/DC, Green Day, Beastie Boys, Motorhead's "The Game" et al. While its audience might tilt younger than it used to, you probably haven't lived until you've seen a woman knitting at one of the back tables -- a scarf, possibly -- during a break amid Joan Jett & The Blackhearts "I Love Rock And Roll."
Hamilton, the Bowlers Journal president, feels excited and worried for bowling. He noted its gathering steam with high school and college programs, internationally as in Asia, and entertainment-wise with new wrinkles like the glow-in-the-dark stuff. "But for the sport, do I worry? Certainly. How could I not?" he said. It fights for attention in a marketplace ever more hectic -- the 1970s so golden to bowling lacked anything called an "X-Games," for example -- and finds it harder to create stars (and is not alone there), while seeing a decrease in members of the U.S. Bowling Congress.
Yet for another Sunday...
"Throughout the week, I tried to stay very calm all week and not get ahead of myself, not think about too much, just try and keep my heart rate the same and try and keep my emotions in check."
The Englishman Dom Barrett knows the beast well, so when Rash faltered that shocking once, Barrett kept going. He was the only bowler to finish in the coveted top 24 of all four of the oil-pattern disciplines during qualifying. Still, he couldn't see the scoreboard, so when he struck on the second ball of the 10th frame, he mistakenly believed he'd clinched. The half-madness of the whole thing got him, and he exulted, throwing down the ball rag onto the floor.
He would get word he'd still have to bowl one more ball, and he'd think positive thoughts for that, and he'd bowl that ball for one last strike, and he'd hold up the Earl Anthony Trophy. But for just a second when he threw that rag, he embodied the half-madness. He'd gone home last year after a big disappointment, had redoubled himself, had come back and had licked the fickle, finicky game that has treated humanity to more than a century of hex.