At AMF Country Club Lanes in Middle River yesterday, starry-eyed children asked their heroes to autograph pins, the crowd murmured about "bump areas," and Ed Austin and Shannon Barnes stood by the Lustre King ball-polishing machine, discussing their joy that the Professional Bowlers Association Tour had returned to the Baltimore area.
"It's the love of the game," said Austin, a Bel Air resident, as he turned so pro bowler Ryan Shafer could sign the back of his T-shirt. "We grew up with this game."
Bowling, said some of the nearly 200 fans who packed the bowling alley yesterday afternoon, is different from other sports. The best bowlers range from jockey-small to basketball player-tall. Women and men, young and old, compete against each other. There are no teams. No whopping salaries. And star athletes mingle freely with their fans.
"Some sports, like baseball, it's almost antiseptic," said Dan Wise of Annapolis, who took off from work yesterday to watch the third day of the Denny's-sponsored Beltway Classic, which concludes tomorrow. "Here you can get so close to the players."
But for the past decade, Baltimore bowling fans had to travel out of state to get close to professional bowlers. The last time the tour made a stop here was 1996.
Fans such as Ken Wholey and Larry Campbell headed to Middle River to watch the stars in action and pick up a few pointers. The two retirees from Anne Arundel County bowl in a league team called "The Early Risers."
"It's nice to accomplish something in bowling," said Wholey, twisting a thick gold and diamond ring around his finger. He said he won the ring for bowling a perfect game, a 300, a few years back.
Sean Rash, 24, a pro bowler from Wichita, Kan., said that he thinks many people have the wrong idea about the sport.
"A lot of people think it's just drinking and big potbellies," he said. "Bowling is a lot bigger than it may seem."
Rash, who said that he has been bowling since childhood, explained his ritual for winning: he wears yellow and black to the alley, digs his thumb in rosin before picking up the ball and mentally plays the song "Number One" by Nelly.
"Bowlers are probably the most superstitious people on the planet," said Tracy Weber, who has watched her husband, Pete, play in six cities during the tour. She never wears red to a tournament and walks around her chair if her husband is not bowling well.
After releasing the ball, players freeze, limbs splayed and fingers spread. As they turn away from the lane, some mutter and raise their arm again as if loosing an invisible ball.
Fans are not allowed to speak to them during play and the alley is mostly silent, save for the clank of balls on pins and the metallic rattle of the machine that sets the pins.
Sitting in the bleachers, Wholey and Campbell muttered commentary on the players.
Wholey watched as Wes Malott, a tall, 30-year-old bowler from Dallas, nicknamed "Shrek," sent ball after ball spinning down the lane. Malott's shots hurtled toward the gutter, only to veer toward the pins after passing through a section of the lane that Wholey called the "bump area."
"He just rips the rack out every time," Wholey said. "He's not a head case yet. He doesn't know how good he is."
Speaking before the round, Malott said that he supports his wife and 3-year-old son on his bowling winnings. Last year, he earned more than $130,000. But there's a lot of pressure on him, he said, because when he doesn't win, he doesn't make money.
Danny Wiseman, a Middle River resident and pro bowler, appeared under pressure as he peered into a small video recorder to watch a slow motion replay of himself flinging the ball down the lane during practice shots.
"It's not good," muttered Wiseman, wearing a shirt emblazoned with green flames and patches from Denny's and Motel 6. "Something's wrong. It looks like I'm carrying."
In the end, Wiseman bowled well yesterday, advancing to become one of four players to compete in tomorrow's televised final, which starts at 1 p.m.
Another local favorite, Tim Criss of Bel Air, was eliminated during yesterday morning's competition.
As Brandon Curtis, a 13-year-old bowler from Drewry, N.C., wandered through the crowd asking players to sign his pin, Rash reflected on his career.
"It's not boring," he said. "We're living a dream."