300: Average Joes Chase the Perfect Game

Come on, Mike.  You can’t leave a frame open, especially after a strike,” I say to myself as I morosely walk away from lane 15 at the Thunderbird Bowling Center in Willow Grove.


I’m no routine bowler; on the contrary, I rarely find myself in a bowling alley.  When I do bowl, it’s usually because my friends and I are so bored that we resort to paying $20 to be bad at something.  But for the hour or so that my friends and I hopelessly roll the ball toward those ten pins, I really, really care about what I’m doing.  It’s as if my inability to break that 175 barrier (I got that once!) doesn’t matter at all.  I’m there to win, even if the victory is empty because, well, my two friends can’t even combine for a score of 300.

Perfection is a strange concept in sports.  Theoretically, bowling is one of the few sports where perfection is an actual possibility (see baseball for the other recognizable example).  I’ve played basketball my entire life, and perfection might only be attainable in certain aspects of the game—that is, you might make all of your field goal attempts, but turn the ball over twice.  That’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination.

But bowling is different.  If all goes right, you can get a perfect score: 300.  If all those pins fall down on your first roll, every frame, you’re perfect.  You’re more than good; you’re better than great.  You’re literally, undeniably perfect.

So I’ve committed myself to getting as close to perfect (which isn’t close, at all) as I possibly can as a bad, irregular bowler.  I’m documenting my own scores, as well as those of my friends, with the hope that someone, somehow, can do something memorable.  It might be a score of 200—which is damn good for a guy who doesn’t bowl often.  It might be a 150—hey, I knocked down half of all possible pins!  It might be breaking that bowling “Mendoza Line,” which might only be definable depending on the person.  Regardless, there has to be some kind of perfection achieved in a sport where it is definitively possible.

This is the story of my chase for perfection.

I shuffled quietly into Thunderbird Bowling Alley in Willow Grove around 11 AM last Monday morning to bowl a few games (by myself—all of my friends were either in class or sleeping to avoid doing work).  The place was mostly empty, save for a small group of seasoned bowlers to the left of the entrance and a group of two guys, one of whom looked to be instructing the other.  I perused the daily specials and decided to play two games, which were priced fairly at $4.95.  I figured I’d use the first game as the obligatory warm-up and really get going during my second game.  I was wrong.  I was rusty.  Or bad.  But I’ll stick with rusty for now.

My first game ended one shy of the triple digits.  I had more open frames than a teenage girl who had just discarded all the photos of her and her ex-boyfriend.

“Warm-up game,” I thought to myself.  “I haven’t bowled in months.”

That wasn’t my first excuse of the day.

The second game was better, but not by much.  I found a way to pick up a couple of strikes and spares, finishing with a 134.  Still, I wasn’t happy with my effort, which is strange, considering I had absolutely no one to impress.

I went back to the counter and paid for another game, telling myself that I’d break 150 and could leave with a small sense of accomplishment.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a way to pick up spares, dropping my score back down to a 110.  For my three games that day, I averaged a 114.  I’m awful.  I know.

I didn’t get the chance to get back to Thunderbird until Friday, when I went with my two friends, Ryan and Joe.  In general, both are better athletes than I am—both Ryan and Joe are the kind of guys who can be very good at any sport with minimal practice.  In short, I didn’t expect to win.  My hope was for just one moral victory.

The highest score of the day was Ryan’s 173, which was achieved in the last game.  Prior to that, he rolled a 158 and a 137 in the second game, which I tied with my best effort.  Joe’s best score was a 104, which won him a blizzard from Dairy Queen after Ryan bet him that he couldn’t break into triple digits after Joe failed to do so during games one and two.

So what have I learned after my two trips to Thunderbird last week?  Bowling presents a tangible feeling of perfection—a perfection that is as fleeting as it is achievable.  For professionals, a perfect game is not as rare as a perfect game in baseball; for example, Norman Duke, a mainstay in the professional ranks, has 60 (60!!) career 300 games.  He’s also made upwards of three million dollars just by rolling a ball towards those ten pins.

But for amateurs—and I use that term loosely—perfection comes in smaller doses.  For Ryan, it was the turkey (three consecutive strikes) that he used to close out his third game.  For me, it’s the hope that I can have perfect frames multiple times during one game.  For Joe, it was not leaving open frames.

A perfect game might not be realistic.  But portions of a perfect game—a strike here, two strikes strung together there—are easily achievable for the average bowler.  So if you’re going to chase perfection as an athlete, give bowling a shot.

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jupiterfirelyte/5986106019/

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