In Their Spare Time
There are bragging rights at stake for the Sleepers and the nine other teams competing in APL's bowling league for the 2005-2006 season. Like those who have bowled before them — in a tradition dating back to the 1940s — this year's keglers from Hopkins' Applied Physics Lab have gotten fun down to a science.
At the Brunswick Lanes in Columbia, Maryland, Madge Kellner
lofts a bowling ball toward the pins waiting 60 feet away
at the end of lane 11. The ball sails several yards through
the air before landing on the lane with a thunk and rolling
on its way. An ideal roll hooks at the end of its
trajectory to strike between the head pin and the three
pin. But Madge, watching with her hand still overhead from
her follow-through, has made a less-than-ideal roll that
leaves pins standing in an unfortunate 4-10 split.
Achieving a spare on her next ball seems unlikely. At least
she knows what went wrong. As she explains to one of her
teammates, "Ball's not working tonight."
Madge's team is called the Sleepers. Her late husband was a
longtime security guard at Johns Hopkins'
Laboratory. Her daughter, Margaret Reed, is on APL's
payroll now as an administrative assistant, and tonight
Madge is trying to help lift the Sleepers out of fourth
place in APL's 2005-2006 bowling league. The current
season, which began last September and will go about 35
weeks, has 10 teams vying for the championship, teams with
names like That Ain't Right, Aces Over Kings, Bombers, and
King Pins. The bowling alley — a term the industry
has forsaken in favor of "bowling center" or, God help us,
"family-friendly entertainment destination" — is a
lively place on this rainy Tuesday evening. It contains
about 30 lanes and all are in action. Nothing else sounds
like a bowling alley: the resonant rolling basso of bowling
balls and the sudden clatter of scattered pins against a
background of public address announcements alerting keglers
that their dinners are served.
We have a hot-dog meal ready for pickup.
Bowling with Madge on the Sleepers is Peter Crickman, a
skinny, affable APL systems engineer who is also the
league's president, a position of eminence that he
attributes to being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This is his 15th year of APL bowling. Before tonight's
match commenced against Dead Wood, Crickman explained a few
things about the league and his team. The team's name
derives from bowling terminology: "If one pin is hiding
behind another pin, it's a 'sleeper.'" ("Barmaid" is
another term for the same phenomenon, but that might not be
such a great team name.) Five bowlers compose a team, and
three of the Sleepers — Kim Hailey, Jerry Metz, and
Jim Beatley — have no connection to APL other than
the Tuesday-night league. Participation in the league by
APL personnel waxes and wanes from year to year, and this
season the league has had to include a lot of non-APL
bowlers to field the 10-team minimum required by Brunswick
|Crickman, with his prized Pearl, a gift from his wife during college.||
For a while, Crickman says, the APL league considered
merging with another group that's bowling tonight several
lanes over, but called it off. The other, bigger league had
too much of an appetite for strict enforcement of rules,
such as the rule about everyone arriving on time. "In the
spring a lot of APL guys play softball," Crickman says, "so
they get here a little late." Two of the Sleepers are late
tonight, and the three-game match begins without them;
their scores will be entered as their averages minus 10
pins. This is not a good development, especially when one
member of Dead Wood, Michael Carullo, starts off with three
straight strikes. Jerry Metz of the Sleepers nails a strike
in the fourth frame, and Crickman gets one in the fifth,
but Dead Wood begins to build a lead as the Sleepers' Kim
Hailey bustles in, late from her job in real estate. A few
frames later, the last Sleeper, Jim Beatley, arrives with
his son, Jimmy. Beatley drives for Ultimate Towing and had
to go out on a last-minute job that has left the seat of
his pants soaked from rigging the tow chain. Jimmy thinks
this is hilarious and points out to everyone within earshot
that his daddy's rear end is wet.
|Madge nails a four-pin spare, Jerry rolls a strike, President Crickman scores a spare, and Jim rolls another strike. Madge, who is a great-grandmother, rubs her knee, which hurts....||
If you've not been in a bowling alley for, say, a couple of
decades, some things have changed. No longer do you keep
score with a grease pencil on a projected acetate overlay.
The lanes have been computerized, and digital technology
notes the drop of every pin and automatically displays the
score. Tonight the system keeps missing a pin here and
there, forcing Metz to monitor the situation and
occasionally override the system with a manual keyboard by
his chair. No longer must bowlers suffer the indignity of
ugly bowling shoes. Many of the competitors tonight wear
white footwear that more resembles running gear. There has
been one regrettable development: No one anywhere in sight
is wearing one of those brightly colored, embroidered team
bowling shirts. Crickman, for example, competes in a navy
blue T-shirt and jeans. Madge at least has turned out in a
lively Halloween ensemble that includes a turtleneck shirt
decorated with pumpkins, a black sweatshirt bearing a cat
in a witch's hat, and jack-o-lantern earrings.
I have a pizza with the works ready for pickup.
Dead Wood wins the first game handily, but the Sleepers start fast in the next match. Madge nails a four-pin spare, Jerry rolls a strike, President Crickman scores a spare, and Jim rolls another strike. Madge, who is a great-grandmother, rubs her knee, which hurts after a weekend of helping a pregnant granddaughter. "Her house is so nice, so roomy, but so many steps," she says. An index of how much those steps hurt is Madge's precise count, which she relates as she tells the story: four steps up into the house, 13 to the upstairs bedroom, 12 down to the basement. But, playing in pain, not to mention with a split thumbnail, Madge pulls out a tough spare, and players on both teams clap for her. The competition is all low-key and amiable, with lots of high-fives to celebrate strikes or spares. Awaiting her turn, Kim digs into her hot-dog-and-fries dinner while on her cell phone to resolve a problem with a real-estate transaction.
Encyclopedia Britannica notes that objects found in
the tomb of an Egyptian child, circa 3200 B.C., included
nine pins and a stone ball. In A.D. 1325, municipal
regulations in Berlin and Cologne limited wagers on bowling
to five shillings. The city of Breslau, Poland, gave the
winner of a tournament in 1518 a prize of an ox. In that
same century, Martin Luther built a lane for his kids,
which indicates he wasn't always a sourpuss. Documentary
evidence points to a somewhat later date as the inaugural
year of APL bowling. The August 1944 issue of
APL-JHU-Z — yes, it was meant to be pronounced
"apple juice" — reported the first meeting of the
rules committee that established the lab's first league. In
1960, there were four APL leagues, including one for
married couples that, according to the March 1960 issue of
The APL News, "boomed in popularity because it
incorporates the family idea in bowling."
As befits an APL leisure activity, bowling does involve
physics. As the noted 10-pin authority Isaac Newton
observed, "The acceleration of an object is proportional to
the force and inversely proportional to the mass acting on
it." Or, in this case, a forcefully launched 16-pound ball
will wham the pins a lot harder than a slow-moving
eight-pound ball. Studies of bowling mention rotational
axis vectors and Earth-centered inertial coordinate systems
and 6-degree entry angles and rotational kinematics and,
here and there, a null eigenvalue. All of which may or may
not be on the mind of Hailey as she converts a tough spare,
inspiring Beatley, whose pants have finally dried out, to
tease her: "I taught you well, girl, I taught you well."
The Sleepers tally three strikes in the seventh, two in the
eighth, and roll to victory in the second game.
Small cheese pizza ready for pickup, small cheese.
The third game proceeds in a tense fashion, with Dead Wood and the Sleepers staying within a few pins of each other, frame by frame. Crickman, who has a 166 average, occasionally glances at Shane Hamlin, who is bowling a few lanes over for That Ain't Right, the APL team currently in first place. The week before, Hamlin rolled a 288, which means he damned near pulled off a perfect, 12-strike, 300 game. "Everybody was rooting for him," Crickman says. (It was a big night for the Hamlin household, as his wife Tracy scored the high game for women with a 232.) Shane, who sports an elaborate brace to help keep a firm wrist during his backswing, isn't doing quite that well tonight. Madge, on the other hand, rolls a strike for the Sleepers, hitting the left-hand pocket between the head pin and the second pin, what's known in the game, for some reason, as a Brooklyn. She observes, "Not bad for a 72-year-old woman, is it?"
In the ninth frame, Madge does it again as the Sleepers chip away at Dead Wood's 18-pin lead. Crickman takes up his Brunswick Pearl ball, which his wife bought for him in college, and rolls a spare in the last frame. He finishes with a respectable 188. Madge contributes a 156, 20 pins over her average, and the Sleepers pull out a 56-pin victory. They will move up in the league standings to at least third place.
As all the matches conclude, the bowlers change their shoes, pack their bags, and clear out rapidly. Apparently, there are no beer frames in a weeknight league that includes a lot of people with kids at home. Next week, the Sleepers will face Aces Over Kings, with second place at stake. Madge says goodnight and Crickman pulls on his coat. He shakes hands with a member of the vanquished Dead Wood and says, "Nice bowling with you."
Dale Keiger is a senior writer for Johns Hopkins Magazine.
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