League has fun to spare

Blind bowlers find camaraderie, inspiration in weekly outings

February 05, 2007|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

Kenny Rich launches his ball down the alley, then turns his face to the ceiling as the pins crash. A strike, and he raises his arms in triumph.

Then he turns his attention to the next lane, where Paul Hamm has just failed to pick up his spare.

"I felt the breeze," Rich says, letting out a deep belly laugh, "but I didn't hear any pins go down."

Mixing encouragement with a pinch of trash-talking, the bowlers sound like competitors in any other league. But the scene at AMF Dundalk Lanes is a little unusual. Collapsible white canes rest next to plates of nachos, metal railings lead toward the foul line, and two golden Labrador retriever guide dogs doze under the tables.

Each Friday night, about 40 people arrive at the Dundalk bowling alley to compete in the Baltimore Blind Bowling League. For more than four decades, partially and totally blind bowlers and their sighted friends have practiced at local lanes, traveled to tournaments around the country and taken home dozens of trophies.

"We like to go out and have fun, like everyone else does," says bowler Hope Pietrolungo.

The bowlers rely on their sense of hearing and touch. Some align themselves by feeling the raised dots at the foul line through the soles of their shoes. Others listen to tips from sighted teammates or hold on to rails placed along the approach to the lanes.

When Rich tells his teammate Patsy Harlan which pins she has missed, it is because he can pick out the sound of individual pins falling.

The league is divided into teams of four that are usually made up of two players who are completely blind, one who has a serious visual impairment and one with normal vision. The blind players like to point out that the sighted people do not necessarily have higher scores.

"They do something that resembles bowling," Howard Beares, 61, one of the league's founders, says of the sighted bowlers. "We can't decide if they keep us straight or we keep them straight."

In 1964, Beares was a senior at the Maryland School for the Blind when he and a few friends decided to start the league after hearing about similar groups in other states. He has stuck with it ever since, moving the league four times after alleys closed.

The American Blind Bowling Association, was founded in 1947, according to the association's secretary, Ginger Rush of North Carolina.

Adapted sports

Bowling is one of more than a dozen sports that have been adapted for blind people. Some play baseball with a beeping ball, shoot special darts or play goalball, which is sort of like dodgeball in reverse, says Mark Lucas, the executive director of the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes in Colorado.

The first sports were modified for the blind after World War II to accommodate veterans who had lost their vision. Interest grew after the first Paralympics for disabled athletes was held in 1960, Lucas says.

Some of the Baltimore bowlers plan to travel to Denver in May for the national blind bowling championships. Others only bowl for fun.

"I just keep trying to build my confidence level up," says Linwood Boyd, 39, who lost his vision three years ago after being stricken with meningitis. He lost his job as a forklift operator and he had to relearn how to get around, cook and dress himself. He didn't want to go to dance clubs anymore. Some of his friends abandoned him.

Boyd joined the league in September after Ruth Hairsine, a co-worker at Blind Industries, told him about it. He says he finds the other bowlers' stories inspiring. "You know you're not the only one in the same boat," he says.

Rich, 45, a Social Security customer service representative, has taken him under his wing, as he has done with many of the players. "Linwood Boyd, why you got all them shirts on?" he asks, tugging playfully at the other man's hoodie. "Take some of them off so you can bowl."

Then he pauses and listens as Boyd's ball speeds down the lane, knocking down all but one pin. "Very good, son," he says.

When asked about his exceptional hearing, Rich says, "I've just been blessed, that's all."

Last year, when they played on the same team, Patsy Harlan was his protege. Now her teammate Hamm dotes on her, calling her "his little angel."

After she bowls, her hand flutters at her side, searching for his. He takes it and guides her to her seat.

Like Rich, Hamm, a 35-year employee of the Maryland School for the Blind who has low vision, is a jokester and an unofficial cheerleader for the team.

Occasionally the competition grows more intense. Once Hairsine's husband, Steve, who has low vision, bowled a 227 against her team. "Believe me, I heard about that for a long time," he said.

Date night

Several married couples play in the league. The president, William Spriggs, who lost his sight in an auto accident 20 years ago, and his sighted wife, Robin Griffin, play on the same team.

"It's a good Friday night date," she says.

As they wait for the last team to finish bowling, Ruth Hairsine and Beares reminisce about a zealous guide dog that once chased a ball down the lane. For Ruth Hairsine, the sport is more about enjoyment and empowerment than bowling a high score.

"Even as bad as I bowl, I'll never quit," she says. "It shows the sighted world we can do just about anything you can do. We take care of our homes. We go shopping. We even go out bowling."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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