Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Robert Smith Bowed But Not Broken

"I feel healthy for the first time in awhile, but my game has changed. I’m not the gorilla I thought I was once upon a time. Mentally, I still am, but physically, no. I can’t do what I used to do. I’m learning to deal with it.”
--Robert Smith, after his early lead in the 2010 U.S. Open

Being an older guy with no "hand," unless I throw the ball without my thumb, I love to see old timers stroke their way to victory on the PBA regular and senior tours. As Xtra Frame's "Bowling Doctor" Jeff Mark has repeatedly said, most of us who bowl can identify far better with professional male and female bowlers who throw the ball a lot like we do than we can with the young power players. We love to see the strokers beat the crankers because it makes us feel as though we too can throw our unspectacular balls with accuracy and finesse and still have a chance in our little leagues and local tournaments to beat the big, bad crankers who send the hapless pins careening and flying across the deck with all those revs and all that prodigious speed.

Yet, if you're like me, there's a part of you that thrills to the sight and sound of freakish power on the lanes. Even though you can't come close to matching it yourself, your heart beats a little faster and you feel a sense of respectful deference and awe toward those who can not only put more revs and speed on a bowling ball than seems humanly possible but can also control it well enough to win PBA titles, It's a transcendent testament to human capability, and, in a sense, we identify, simply by virtue of being human ourselves, with these amazing power players.

There's no one I can think of who has been more amazing at combining power with successful control than Robert Smith. Although "Maximum Bob," as he's admiringly called, has won only seven national titles (including a coveted U.S. Open in 2000), he's appeared on TV many more times and has thrilled fans and fellow players alike for years by, as Randy Pedersen once said on a PBA telecast, "doing things with a bowling ball that nobody else can."

He's been clocked throwing a bowling ball 35 miles per hour and has been seen generating over 600 rpms on a shot. I've read articles that compare his freakish power with a baseball pitcher throwing 140 miles per hour. In fact, when he came out on tour, he threw the ball with so much power that he quickly had to tone it down in order to compete. Yet, even a toned down Robert Smith was still "Maximum Bob," and guys like me loved it.

But all those years of throwing more ball than just about anyone else on the planet seems to have taken its toll, and Smith has suffered debilitating injuries recently that make his still thrilling physical game a little less thrilling than it used to be. And in watching that decline, guys like me feel a twinge of sadness as we're reminded of the inevitability of our own physical decline and, yes, mortality. We older guys used to be able to do things as kids and young men that we can't do anymore, and watching Robert Smith throw a little less ball and hearing him talk about it brings it all home and makes us pine for "back in the day."

But if trite expressions become trite because they're so true that they're used to the point of triteness, there is probably no truer trite expression than "Time marches on," and with it, the Maximum Bobs give way to the Sean Rashes and Michelle Feldmans and the rising tide of two-fisted Belmos, Palermas, and Shuabs, and they, in turn and in due time, will surrender their royal power to new kings of crank. And guys like me will still shake our heads in wonder and feel joyful exhilaration over what these young freaks can do with a bowling ball.

But, if Robert Smith's early performance in this year's U.S. Open is any indication, he may not yet be ready to drift unceremoniously into bowling's "good night. " He may put a tad fewer revs on the ball and it may blast the pins a tenth of a second or two later and with a smidgen less force than before, but he can still hang with the best and brightest stars on tour on the tour's most demanding conditions because something more miraculous and potent than raw power can take up the slack--a strong and determined mind.

Robert Smith may just show us that the human mind can prevail to an impressive degree over aging matter and teach us to never give up doing what we love to do.


  1. What incredible talent! 75% of Robert Smith could still compete on tour during some weeks because that is what he has been the last several years...

    He's a joy to watch on TV. Wish other bowlers talked to themselves as uninhibited as Robert does as it makes for great TV...

  2. Steve,

    I suspect you are an accomplished bowler in your own right. I too admire the ball that rotates many times down the lane, whether it is Belmonte, Palerma or Pete Weber. I am 70 years old, five foot six and 150 pounds, and I’m left-handed. About ten years ago the 16 pound ball started resisting my efforts as I tried to impart more spin. I reasoned at the time that I could probably manipulate a much lighter ball and maybe overcome the greater deflection with a strong angle of entry into the pocket. It has not been a success as others would rate it, but it has more than lived up to my expectations.

    Gratefully, I’m not yet restricted by orthopedic problems. I’ve gone to a ten pound ball. So, I believe I can now draw on some of the same athletic abilities I had decades ago. The ball does indeed rotate a lot. And I leave many less seven pins and my brother is getting a great kick out of watching me. I don’t bowl in leagues. It is just the two of us bowling four to five continuous hours twice a week. I just started to bowl about two additional days, though less than the four hours. We cannot wait for the next day to bowl. We’ve been asked to bowl in leagues, but our format is too enjoyable and suits us perfectly.

    An unexpected pleasure is my ability to pick up, with much greater frequency, difficult splits and wash-outs, owing to the easier-to-control lightweight ball. And with my new found hook, I get strikes I never got with the sixteen-pounder. It is just great fun, almost on par to when I played receiver in football. The one drawback is that I do get more splits and washouts. But until my body fails to cooperate, which could be any day, I am always working on my form and release to reduce those bad pinfalls.


  3. Dick, I can't say I'm an "accomplished" bowler by any means. I'm just a guy who's loved playing and watching the sport for the better part of five decades and who has no intentions of slowing down any faster than the laws of physics and biology absolutely require.

    And I'd like to think that I actually throw a more powerful ball now than I did in my youthful prime thanks to rolling my strike ball without my thumb and to even more recent tweaks to my physical game.

    My biggest challenge now, I think, is to improve my mental game, because I've always had trouble understanding bowling biomechanics and bowling physics, and the new oil patterns, bowling equipment, and increasingly technical approach to the sport isn't making that challenge any easier to meet.

    It sounds like you've made the right adjustments for you, and I'm happy that you and your brother get such a kick out of your practice sessions together. However, I have to say that I hope you and he will seriously consider joining a league at some point and add another dimension to your bowling experience. That, in turn, might lead to tournament competition. It seems to me that our leagues and tournaments are dying a slow death from increasing non-participation, and I want so badly to see this unfortunate trend reversed.

    In the meantime, I hope your body "continues to cooperate" for a long, long time. I sub in a senior league with a guy on my team who's 89, and he's still averaging 172. So, take heart in that and keep on striking and sparing away.