Thursday, January 22, 2004

Ralph Curry is standing behind a row of 24 noisy pinsetters at White Oak Bowling Center, one of the few remaining duckpin alleys in the Washington area, explaining how the ancient-looking devices work.

The pinsetters look like something out of the Industrial Revolution. They rely on conveyor belts and chains to pick up and reset the pins and return the pint-sized bowling balls that are the trademarks of duckpin bowling.

If he needs a part, Mr. Curry could be in trouble.

“There’s no one out there actually building these parts. We try to watch them as closely as we can. I grease them every six weeks, and as long as they’re well-lubricated, they will run a long time,” says Mr. Curry, who has owned the Silver Spring alley since 1977.

Despite their age, the pinsetters could outlast the game.

Maryland is the birthplace of duckpin bowling, a sport hatched around 1900, but supporters are concerned it could die here because it isn’t attracting enough young bowlers.

That’s the problem Mr. Curry grapples with each day.

It is just before 9 a.m. on Wednesday at White Oak and scads of mothers and grandmothers already are coming down the steps of the 24-lane duckpin alley that sits below a Starbuck’s in a strip mall off New Hampshire Avenue.

The competition starts early at White Oak. About 60 women from three leagues start bowling while many commuters still are fighting traffic.

Mr. Curry, 61, barely has time to get the coffee brewing and take stock at the snack bar before league play begins.

He is standing at a counter in front of rows of bowling shoes, sipping coffee from a plastic foam cup and talking shop. He says he has real concern about the future of duckpin.

It starts with the number of alleys.

“Especially in this area, they’re drying up fast,” says Mr. Curry, who tosses a bowling ball with his right hand. “I am concerned. But I hope I’m wrong.”

He estimates the Washington area had as many as 22 alleys when he bought White Oak Bowling Center with two friends 27 years ago.

He became the sole proprietor in 1989. Now he can count just six alleys.

“As far as building the game up, I’d like to see some new centers open up,” he says.

Mr. Curry plans to keep White Oak open, but in between frames, Bobbie McConnell says she is afraid the alley will close, too, as the number of duckpin bowlers diminishes.

“I am [concerned] and I’m always talking up bowling to people. I’m always looking for new bowlers for the league,” says Mrs. McConnell, who has bowled at White Oak for 20 years and maintains a 123 average.

Accurate numbers are hard to come by, but Owings Mills, Md., resident Stacy Karten, who publishes the Duckpin News, estimates there are just 75 alleys nationwide, down from 100 a decade ago.

But there’s an irony at work. Despite the somber talk of the game’s uncertain future, White Oak is hopping. Only two lanes — Nos. 23 and 24 — are unoccupied.

Mr. Curry says he doesn’t have to advertise.

In fact, he has benefited from the closing of a nearby competitor. When Glenmont Lanes closed in August 2002, at least 10 leagues migrated to White Oak, said Joanne Blaschke, White Oak’s day manager and a proud grandmother of newborn triplets.

League play has kept White Oak thriving, and the alley hosts 1,200 league bowlers each week.

“If you don’t have league bowlers, you can’t keep your doors open,” Mr. Curry says.

Mr. Curry is well aware of his good fortune. He knocks on the counter three times, then grabs his coffee.

For all the worry about the sport’s future, Mr. Curry still derives joy in coming here each day because he is as much a bowler as he is a businessman.

He developed an interest in the sport as a 13-year-old working at a duckpin alley in Hagerstown, Md.

That was before mechanized pinsetters. He straddled two lanes and set up pins after bowlers knocked them down.

“That was a back-breaking job. But it was a way to make some extra money,” he says.

He bowls in a league at White Oak every Thursday night and has a high game of 215 to his credit.

There are duckpin guys and tenpin guys.

“Duckpins fly a little more, but they’re harder to knock down,” he says.

It’s a game of spares, while tenpin is a game of strikes. For proof that duckpin is harder, Mr. Curry points out what often is repeated among the sport’s fans: No one ever has rolled a perfect game in duckpin bowling.

It’s also a game on life support.

But as long as the pinsetters hold out and Mr. Curry can scavenge the parts he needs to keep them working, bowlers will go to White Oak and try to roll the first perfect game.

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