Schmoke unwinds by going on a roll

Think of the mayor of Baltimore and certain images come naturally to mind.

The bespectacled, button-down political leader with the Ivy League resume. The cautious scholar of public policy. The nice guy with the extraordinary smile.


The bowler with the 136 average?

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke just doesn't seem like the type to hang out regularly in a West Baltimore bowling alley. Yet in the past few months, he's discovered the muscle aches and moments of glory in the working man's game.


Every few weeks, he sheds his conservative suit, packs up the 15-pound bowling ball he got for Christmas, and heads with his staff to the lanes.

In the basement of the old Shake & Bake recreation center on Pennsylvania Avenue, he stands out for his smooth style and the athletic confidence of a former high school football hero. Yet he's also just part of the crowd, another weekend warrior trying for a strike.

It's obvious from his bantering with the Cabinet members and city recreation employees that the mayor feels at home. With his chinos and black T-shirt, he blends in as he cheers on his team and jokes about the true athletes in Baltimore city government.

It's equally obvious that the bowling expeditions at the Shake & Bake, now a city-run recreation center, are pretty popular with his staff.

Some employees in the Schmoke administration only showed up for his first outing, a Christmas party. ("I don't do bowling," Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said.)

Others, however, are enthusiastic regulars. The mayor's spokesman, Clinton R. Coleman, Personnel Director Jesse TC Hoskins, and Nancy Baskerville of central payroll, tease each other about their bowling prowess. They might even be ready for the quintessential Bawlamer bowling experience -- duck pins.

"They call me gutter ball Bill," joked William R. Brown Jr., the city's director of finance.

"We love it," Mr. Hoskins said. Taking an imaginary swing with a golf club, he added, "Really, I'm not a bowler, I'm a golfer. My score is indicative of my IQ, not my bowling proficiency."


Barbara Bostick-Hunt, Mayor Schmoke's chief aide in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, conceded her team was struggling. "At least we haven't lost too bad," she said. "But the mayor, he's good at this. He looks like he's really having a good time."

He's not exactly ready for a pro tournament. But the mayor does better than you might expect from a man who looks like he'd rather be reading Homer than playing Homer Simpson's favorite game.

His scores are consistent, not great but certainly not embarrassing, especially considering that he just rediscovered the game at age 44.

His face knots in concentration. He takes two quick steps and sends the ball smoothly down the lane. All but one of the pins fall.

Deputy Fire Chief Clyde J. Smith is up next. "Come on," Mr. Schmoke encourages the chief, who confesses he's no bowling whiz. "Here's where we make our comeback."

More than two decades ago, when he was a teen-ager, the mayor used to go bowling regularly with his father. But the years passed at Yale, Harvard and Oxford before he wandered into a bowling alley again.


One day last fall, as he explains, he was walking around the Upton neighborhood, stopped by the recreation center and felt compelled to try the game again.

"Everybody was having so much fun that I decided to bring my cabinet here for my Christmas party," Mr. Schmoke said.

Not everyone was exactly thrilled. In fact, some officials in the Schmoke administration grumbled that they would never let him choose a party location again. "They hated the idea," the mayor admits.

But somehow the quirky affair last December caught on. (Or his employees do a really good job of pretending to have fun.)

Next thing he knew, the mayor was back at the bowling alley, this time challenging the city employees who ran the government's combined charities campaign. Recreation and Parks employees got into the act next. And now Ms. Bostick-Hunt wants to arrange a bowling trip with Sandtown residents.

"People get to know one another at another level," Mayor Schmoke said. Now he knows something new about city employees -- which of them can roll a strike.


Anthony Williams, the 27-year-old director of bowling at the recreation center, is one. With a couple of clean moves, he put the mayor's team over the top to beat the ringers from the recreation department on a recent Thursday night.

"I tell you, it was a come-from-behind victory," the mayor crowed as his staff applauded.

Asked what he thinks of the mayor's bowling skills, Mr. Williams answered diplomatically, "Well, he needs some more practice. But he's enthusiastic."

At the end of the evening, as city workers collapsed in the plastic chairs and the mayor ordered a cherry Coke, a man sauntered over. Bashfully, he reached out a napkin.

"Could you sign this for my daughter?" he said. "It's Kira, K-i-r-a. I told her I was going bowling with the mayor tonight."