The first thing Mike Foster ever said to me was, "I'm bowling like shit, but come on." He ushered me over to a table right in the middle of a bowling league. And into another world.
A lot of people know a very tiny bit about bowling. They go once every few months, or maybe once a year. They rent shoes, they have no clue how to keep score so they're thankful for the automated scoring most bowling alleys have these days, they skulk around looking for a ball that somehow feels right, and then they have fun. They suck, but they have fun.
But in the world of professional bowler Mike Foster and his leaguemates, that kind of person just doesn't exist.
"Yes, I do have 17 bowling balls," Foster volunteered. "Bowling balls are like golf clubs. You set up a bowling ball for a certain situation, to get a certain reaction."
Did you know that bowling balls give different reactions? I didn't. I was always under the impression they were inanimate objects.
"A lot of people don't realize that you can take the same bowling ball and drill it seven different ways and get seven different reactions out of it," he continued.
This was echoed by Tonya Bennett, co-owner of Extreme Bowling Supply, the pro shop where Foster works part-time. Bennett, by the way, is a bowling big shot herself.
"It's kind of like the more you learn, the more you know there is to learn," she said. "Everybody can bowl, but to be really good at it, that's when you start reading different lanes and having different equipment. Bowling balls are like golf clubs. You have different ones for different jobs."
Reading lanes? Seriously? Show of hands: how many of you read the lanes? Okay, now how many of you recognize the bowling trifecta as 1) don't fall down, 2) don't get your thumb stuck in the hole, and 3) keep it out of the gutter? I thought so.
However, while there are many of us trifecta people, there are only a few Fosters and Bennetts. And damn, they know their stuff.
Foster spoke at length about drilling bowling balls, and here is where a lot of the otherworldly nature of these dedicated players rears its head. They have different styles of throwing the ball. And they talk about lane conditions. And weight blocks (which are, as it turns out, located inside bowling balls).
"We drill the balls," Foster said of Extreme Bowling Supply. "We don't buy them pre-drilled. It's a solid ball, and we drill it. We measure you, we get you fitted for a ball, and we take it back there and drill it for you."
As it turns out, there are tons of variables in bowling, and most of them have to do with the ball (remember that Foster has 17 of them). The weight blocks, which serve sort of as the core of the bowling ball, come in all shapes and sizes--many of them asymmetrical.
"The weight block inside has a lot to do with how we drill a bowling ball," he said. "I can't drill the same for a left-handed bowler and for a right-hander. I have to reverse the drilling pattern."
This is the point at which I smiled and nodded as if I had any idea what he was talking about. Still, despite the complete ineffability of all this ball-drilling talk, how can you not love this guy?
There are apparently as many configurations of ball, weight block, and drilled holes as there are bowlers out there. And to an extent, that customization is often what draws people in.
"We drill the bowling balls, we give lessons, anything that gets people into the sport," Foster said.
"I'd been bowling three years with stuff from a garage sale before I met someone who showed me that the ball wasn't drilled for me," he said.
Once someone explained the whole customization thing to him, he got even more interested in the sport.
"I worked as a draftsman in the petroleum industry, so I kind of understood math and geometry," he said. "This was a different kind of math and geometry, but it really interested me. I wanted to learn all about drilling the balls. I think that's what really drew me in."
Some people get into football because they like hitting things. Soccer players enjoy kicking stuff. Mike Foster likes drilling holes in bowling balls.
But it drew him in, and it works for him. Did I mention he's a pro? Like he's an actual Professional Bowling Association bowler. And he's not entirely certain as to how he got into it.
"I don't know. I had an aunt and uncle who bowled leagues for as long as I can remember," he recounted. "I played sports all the way through high school, and I guess I was looking to keep going. I was lucky enough to get good quick, and I fell into the right crowd and they showed me the behind the scenes stuff."
It was a short trip to learning about the ball-drilling that so fascinates him.
"My Uncle Gene was my sole inspiration. He's had five bypass surgeries and he still bowls," Foster said. "Paula Drake took me under her wing and showed me about drilling balls and things like that. She had the highest score ever bowled on TV--a 299--when she was bowling for the women's league."
Oh, Mike. You and your name-dropping.
Seriously, how can you not love this guy?
As a professional, Foster has several things to keep in mind, he said. There are lots of rules regarding eligibility and the like, especially when a pro like Foster gets asked to bowl as a substitute bowler in leagues around town.
"Once we bowl professionally, any open tournament, we have to notify them of our professional status," he said. "Because a lot of events we go to, they'll only allow us two PBA members. They have all-amateur events that I'm not allowed in. I can never go back. I can't go bowl the US Open, because I'm not an amateur."
That said, there are still PBA events he participates in, even here in Oklahoma.
"We normally don't have but maybe two stops in Oklahoma. We have one in Lawton, and this year we had one in Shawnee," he said.
"Right now, I'm only going to regional events, so I'm in a five-state area--here, Colorado, Arkansas, Texas, and New Mexico. I also travel to a couple of events in Missouri," he said. All to hurl heavy forms at effigies of penguins.
However, Bennett doesn't have quite the same opportunities that Foster does. For all the collegiate good Title IX did, and for all the credit it gets for setting in motion the chain of events that gave the world that iconic shot of Brandy Chastain with her shirt ripped off, it hasn't done much for women in bowling. So while we tell our daughters they can be anything they want to be, we are lying, because they can't be professional bowlers. President? Sure. PBA member? Sorry, sweet cheeks.
"Technically, I'm an amateur, because women don't have a tour anymore," she said. "It's kind of been a bummer, because it seems like the more serious I got, the more opportunities to bowl kind of dried up."
Still, it's not like she's sitting around commiserating with her sisters about their misfortune about being born into a man's world.
"Women don't have a pro tour anymore, but there are plenty of tournaments around that I go to with a couple of girls," she said. "There are about 10 of us, and we split up into two teams. We bowl Missouri and Kansas and Arkansas -- just about anywhere there's a tournament."
And it's not always a bowling chick-fest. This year, she has participated in some competitions on the other side of the gender line.
"I'd never bowled the men's tournament, so I decided to do that this year," she said. And while one might wonder if there was any friction or harassment or resentment from the men, Bennett says there's nothing like that.
"They're just glad to have the girls come out and bowl," she said. You're preaching to the choir, sister.
Keeping It Sharp
Now, tournaments or not, a bowler has to stay in shape, because bowling is just like anything else in that you use it or you lose it. So Foster keeps himself sharp by bowling once or twice a week, and does so pretty much year-round.
"Normally I'll pick one league a year as my main league, and I'll bowl that same night every week," he said. "But sometimes a team will call me when someone is out of town or sick or something, and they'll call me in to fill in for them. That's the main way I get around to every house."
"House," by the way, is bowler talk for "bowling alley."
With one league night a week and the occasional call for some substitute work, Foster said he has all the bowling he can handle.
"I bowl once or twice a week, and that's it," he said. Granted, he's been doing it for more than two decades, but still, this seems a bit surprising. "I really burn out if I do it much more than that. People don't realize it's a job. If you want to keep the lights on, you have to keep mentally fit. Physically, too."
The whole burning out thing is completely foreign to Bennett, however. This woman bowls about as often as Tyler Perry makes a movie that isn't funny. I mean, she's in four leagues at once. That's four days a week.
"I bowl two day leagues, so I've only got two evenings a week, and one of those is later in the evening, so I only have to take one night off a week from the shop," she said. "I bowl an afternoon traveling league. And what that means is that we bowl all around town. It sort of keeps you sharp. When you bowl in the same place every time, everything's pretty consistent, so if you bowl someplace you're not used to, it's good for you and sort of keeps you on your toes."
That is a hell of a lot of bowling.
Perhaps the most striking (get it? STRIKING?) things about Bennett and Foster in relation to them talking about bowling is how freaking passionate they are about it. Honestly. Foster loves it so much that he bowls at different places so that they have business and can keep their doors open.
"I try to spread my bowling around to all the facilities here in Tulsa," he said. "We're struggling as a sport at the local level. Tulsa has lost three bowling facilities in the last 10 years. We lost Rose Bowl, we lost Mickey's, and we lost Crystal Bowl."
As for exactly why bowling is struggling, Bennett spoke almost as if it were something old-fashioned.
"It was in its prime in the '80s," she said. "Most of the reason for its decline is that there's just more stuff out there for people to spend their money on."
And she has that Come-On-Try-It-I-Just-Know-You'll-Love-It attitude.
"I love for people to see how much fun it can be when you join a weekly league and get to know these people week after week and year after year," she said. "You can build real relationships. It's not just about the act of bowling."
What she doesn't know is how to spread the gospel of passion.
"I don't know how to get everybody to love it as much as I do," she said, almost sadly. But it would seem that learning how to do exactly that might reverse bowling's fortunes.
It's not like there's this incredible shortage of houses, though. There's the Lanes at Coffee Creek in Owasso, where Bennett's pro shop is, there's AMF Sheridan Lanes at 31st and Sheridan, the Dust Bowl and a couple of Andy B's in and around town. Broken Arrow and Sapulpa have lanes. But there used to be more. And Foster wants to ensure that the Tulsa bowling community doesn't lose any more. That said, he doesn't have a preference as to where he bowls.
"They're all 60 feet," he said, nonchalantly. "To have a preference puts you in a mindset so that when you go to another house, you're making comparisons and correlations. I don't want to do that. I think it keeps me mentally sharp."
Yet another thing Foster said that not many people consider: mental focus while bowling. It seems that generally, people are mentally focused on how much beer is left in the pitcher. But those people are amateurs.
Pros know it's a mental game.
"Physical is a large part of the game," he said. "But I would still say that you can be as physically fit as you want, but if you don't have the mental capacity to watch your equipment up and down the lane and react to it, being the strongest person in the world won't make you a good bowler."
Regarding staying sharp mentally, Foster said his work as a substitute in leagues around town is a mental exercise in and of itself, something to which Bennett had alluded earlier.
"It's not my normal night, it's not my normal league, it's not my normal lane conditions, so I have to think, I have to stay sharp, because these people are expecting something from me," he said. "Anyone can bowl a 140, but when they call me, they're looking for someone to bowl a 210."
So he takes his mental approach and spreads it throughout the region, where, as he intimated, people know him. He is, after all, a professional bowler. Then again, Tulsa's pretty small in terms of running into people you know.
"Tulsa's a very close-knit group. You're going to know at least half the league," Foster said. "Plus, working part time in a pro shop, you're going to be known."
Honestly, I'm asking: how can you not love this guy?
What's the best way to become known in the bowling world? Most people would probably say, "This is Sparta," which is to say, "300." And Foster has bowled that perfect game. Five times, in fact. But he said there's no pressure in trying to reach that perfect goal.
"People ask me about the last frame, but by the time you get there, you're relaxed," he said. "By the time you get to the 12th ball, you're like, 'It's the money ball. The worst I'm going to score is a 290.'"
Besides, there's a certain been-there-done-that feeling to Foster's 300 talk.
"The other day, I had eight strikes, and someone asked me about bowling a 300," he said. "I said, 'If I do, I do. If I don't, I don't.' I'm just not that worried about it anymore. I've been there. I'm not chasing 300 anymore. I'm much more concerned with putting together something like three really good games rather than just one 300."
So take that, perfection. You're not needed here anymore.
Foster has it all in the bowling world. He's a pro, he knows the equipment inside and out -- literally -- and he's achieved the bowler's Holy Grail of that perfect game. And he loves it.
So what's not to love about bowling? Foster has an answer: the late-night bowling fad.
"I'm not a big fan of it," he said. "It brings a lot of abuse to the lanes that's really unnecessary, but with the economy like it is, I feel like they have to do it to keep the lights on. A lot of leagues have folded, so to keep the lights on, that's kind of a necessary evil."
Still, one wonders if late-night, so-called glow bowling -- complete with loud tunes, music videos, and black lights -- might attract people to the sport that Foster loves so much. And he said there's no way that's happening.
"It's two totally different things," he said. "In glow bowling, there's no etiquette, there's no lane courtesy. You know, we have a governing body that oversees this sport. It would be like saying putt-putt golf is going to hook somebody on playing in the PGA."
Add to that the fact it's a solid bet that none of those late-night glow bowlers have 17 bowling balls in their possession.
Foster spoke at length about why one needs 17 heavy spheres, referring to the different reactions from different balls, as mentioned above, but perhaps the most fascinating thing is how Foster and his ilk use these different balls to adjust to different lane conditions. Apparently, and somewhat contradictory to Foster's earlier assertion that "they're all 60 feet," there are big differences from house to house and from lane to lane.
"What's different?" He repeated my question. "The oil patterns."
You thought that they waxed or polished or whatevered the lanes in the morning, before they open for business, and that it's all the same everywhere. But you were wrong. That is, if you even thought about it.
But bowlers like Foster know all there is to know about the sport, right down to how local weather will affect a lane, or a building's air conditioning system will cause changes.
"Ventilation affects how the oil breaks down over the course of a game," he said. He then pointed to one of the two lanes he periodically got up and bowled on through the course of one interview.
"If you look there, you can see where the oil pattern stops," he said, indicating a nearly-imperceptible change in the light reflecting off the lane, right about the area where the ball strikes the floor. "When the ball hits the oil, it picks it up and moves it on the floor. So we need to look at how that oil is moving, and where the floor is going to be dry first, and what's going to happen the more we bowl on it."
There is way more to bowling than I had any idea. Like actual variables and things to think about and consider. And Foster knows it all.
"In golf, the variables are the wind. For us, it's the lane conditions," he said.
The Next Generation
What keeps this man going? He's bowled a perfect game, he's played around the country, he's obviously incredibly knowledgeable about the sport. But that's the one thing that he's not entirely sure of: why he does it, and what keeps him going. He has a few ideas, but he's loathe to pinpoint one.
"I guess it's just a challenge. Myself against the lane conditions, fighting my body day by day," he said. "Anyone who's ever mowed the lawn and then tried to go play golf or whatever other physical thing they do knows what I'm talking about. I'm not in my 20s anymore, and my body's got a little wear and tear."
So there is the age-old man vs. nature, and there's man vs. himself playing out here. That's one thing. Foster continued, though, eventually landing on what feels like the real reason he continues to bowl and why he loves it so much, and that has to do with his family.
"I've got kids -- my own and others -- who would say, 'You can't hang it up. You're the reason I got into bowling,'" he said.
In fact, his 8-year-old daughter Shelby already lists bowling in a pro tournament as one of her life goals. So why does she do it?
"'Cause it's fun," she said simply. And truthfully, that may be the only real reason Foster or anyone else does it. For all the talk about tournaments and pushing oneself and competing against this or that, Foster has fun when he bowls. Every time he got up to bowl during an interview, he would walk back to the table getting high fives and fist bumps from his fellow players. The guy is in heaven.
Shelby Foster's fun seems somewhat dependent on her dad's participation, though she's apparently no slouch on the lanes, herself.
"I shot 134 in the Learn to Bowl League," she told me (at least three times). Then she said straight to her dad, "You can't quit because I'm doing it."
But there aren't really any other kids around. This is a little girl bowling with grownups. She's already a bowler.
"I just bowl with the adults. I don't beat them all the time. I can beat my Uncle George and my sister occasionally," she said.