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A haven for lovers of a waning pastime

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WILDWOOD, N.J. - On the boardwalk a few feet behind Ricky Brode loom amusements built for 10-year-old boys: funnel cake stands, the curving spine of a roller coaster, a haunted mansion overrun by the undead.

But Ricky is transfixed by the polished stone resting against his right thumb knuckle. Patience, he tells himself: A great mibster can take 30 seconds or more to set up a shot. Finally he flicks the marble across the concrete slab, and as it skitters it spins on its axis, like a tiny world.

Which is a good way of thinking about the 82nd National Marbles Tournament.

Forty-five young marbles champions are battling for the American title this week on the beach here, where 10 of the country's best marble rings are raised on wooden bases above the sand.

And as always, Marylanders like Ricky are among the contenders. In an age when kids are more commonly shackled to their Xbox, Maryland is one of the few states that maintain a legitimate marbles tradition. The first national champion was Bud McQuade of Baltimore, although the state's locus of marbling has long since shifted to the mountain region that borders West Virginia.

"It's mostly the remote areas," said Beri Fox, whose West Virginia-based company, Marble King, co-sponsors the tournament. "It's the places where you go back to more simple lives and more simple things."

In Depression-era tournaments when thousands of spectators burdened the Wildwood boardwalk, city and county champs flocked from as far away as California; today, the vast majority come from along the Appalachian Mountains: West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Western Maryland.

But even in the mountains, the tradition eroded. The glass factories where fathers used leftover slag to make "end-of-day" marbles for their children have closed, and so have many schools in the rural west, as families relocate to find work in the face of a struggling economy. Cumberland, once America's most formidable marble power, hasn't produced a national champion in 15 years.

Ricky, who lives in Cumberland and learned to play on his great-grandmother's carpeted floor, is the region's red-headed hope. After dinner Monday, the first day of the tournament, he practiced footers and lag shots with his father in anticipation of today's finals. He sheltered the spinning stone with his hands to protect against ocean breezes that might blow it out of bounds.

This is how the last marble-lovers treat their tournament, cupping it protectively, as though a strong enough wind might carry away their game - their little world.

The Beach Terrace Motel, where four floors of 8- to 14-year-old mibsters - or marble players - are stashed with parents and coaches, is a haven this week for the marble minded, as is the little set of beach-side bleachers overlooking the marble rings a few blocks away.

Here, for the duration of the four-day tournament, it's OK to do and say certain things that might be considered quaint, if not a little peculiar, elsewhere.

It's OK to introduce yourself as a "marble man" (or "ma'am") and to admit that you had your wedding pictures taken in a marble ring.

It's OK to wear marble earrings and sling an official National Marbles Championship towel over your shoulder, to have license plates identifying you as the 1973 national marbles champion. Here no one bats an eyelash if your minivan makes a loud tumbling sound as it turns corners, thanks to the dozens of loose marbles on the floor.

Here, too, it's perfectly acceptable to sidle up to a stranger and - nodding at your innocent-looking 13-year-old daughter who is working on her tap shot nearby - whisper:

"Watch her, no emotion. She don't do anything except beat you. No smile, no frown. She don't do anything except silently tear your arm off and beat you to death."

But Dan Nees of Mesa County, Colo., should be forgiven this fearsome speech. His son Aaron won last year; he's on the verge of a legacy.

What marble aficionados lack in numbers they make up for in intensity, and much of their pent-up passion finds release this climactic week of the national championship. Where else would anyone care whose fingernail is on the verge of splitting from excessive training or whose thumb is being iced after preliminary rounds?

Yet the giddiness and gossiping of parents don't seem to have much effect on the kids, who are playing ringer - a standard variation of the game - as American mibsters have always done: knuckling down to knock little spheres of glass out of a 10-foot circle. Coaches may fret over the young bruiser from Standing Stone, Tenn., with the wicked backspin, but ask Ricky Brode whom he's playing next, and he will answer, calmly, "a boy."

'That kid is sick'

He's just enjoying the moment, for not even in Cumberland is it cool to shoot marbles these days, but here on the sands of Wildwood this week, it kind of is. Guys almost twice Ricky's age hang over the boardwalk railing during yesterday morning's competition, staring as a well-spun marble suddenly curves back, drawn to Ricky invisibly, as though by fishing line.

"Did you see that? That kid is sick," one of them says.

And yet, even avid marbles admirers such as Bob Scully acknowledge that "it's all rinky-dink."

Scully is the curator of the National Marbles Hall of Fame and a former local champ, from way back in the 1940s, when New Jersey kids used to play - and pretty well, too.

Dominating Wildwood's small historical museum, the hall is an ode to the mighty knuckled, the strong of thumb. Until recently, its glory was a foot-wide lollipop studded with "rare" marbles that was preserved from the 1930s. (Alas, it melted last year.)

Lucky marbles and lucky rabbits' feet fill glass cases, and the newspaper clippings lining the walls are a Rockwellian display of beach freckles and chipped grins - although many winners scowl, perhaps worried about a long-standing tradition that requires the newly crowned "marble king" to kiss his queen in public.

It's so sweet it almost makes your teeth hurt. And yet Scully says that this country needs room in its heart for the adorable and, yes, "the rinky-dink." That's why he adds memorabilia to the marbles hall each year, even as the sport's popularity wanes. As he sees it, marbles are the ultimate source of Americana, the story of the rise out of the dirt, where marbles games were initially played, the circles roughly drawn with sticks.

"Marbles is a humble sport," he said. "You play on your knees."

A place in history

At the very least, champions go up on a wall that lists every male and female winner from Bud McQuade on down. About 20 are from Maryland, seven from Cumberland. There is space for future winners and perhaps for Ricky, who believes "it would feel like a million dollars" to have his name there.

"This is the Super Bowl of marbles," said Morgan Kellman, 16, the 2002 champ from Middletown, who was coached by a Cumberland alum. "It's like you're part of history."

Whether they're also part of the future is less clear. Once ubiquitous, the sport has become so obscure that many Wildwood tourists don't know what the circles on the beach are for. In recent decades, the rings have served as a stage for more modern fads - in the 1980s, break dancing, in the 1990s, hacky sack. Sunbathers who have forgotten their towels crowd them on good beach days.

But mostly, they are abandoned and scattered with sand.

Will America lose its marbles?

To be sure, this is a culture where marbles appear in belly-button rings and the bottom of spray-paint cans far more often than in children's hands. But modern mibsters are taking steps to prevent this great national pastime from passing away on their watch.

Next week, for instance, the tournament winners are tentatively slated to host Cold Pizza, the ESPN2 morning show.

And recently, a few promising new marbles programs have surfaced, one of them in the Colorado Rockies, another on the outskirts of Baltimore. Visors supporting the "Perry Hall mibsters" are prominent at Wildwood this year. Back home in Maryland, the team is holding a collectors show in the spring to raise money and adopting the previously homeless Maryland state tournament, now scheduled for August in Perry Hall.

They've even been doing a little politicking at exhibition games they've held around the Baltimore area.

"We've shot with Governor Ehrlich," said Mary Friedel of Carney, whose 12-year-old daughter, Molly, is playing at Wildwood this year, and who lent the governor her shooter marble.

Maybe the mibsters have a clean shot. Spelling bees, soapbox derbies and other nostalgia sports are in vogue these days. Perhaps there will be another Baltimore national champion, in the tradition of Bud McQuade.

Then the story will have come full circle, as though drawn with a stick in the dirt.

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