Football has Joe Buck. Golf has Jim Nantz.
Duckpin bowling has Nicholas Lloyd.
The 23-year-old wunderkind utters into the microphone clipped to the front of his T-shirt, his eyes scanning the monitors on the folding table in front of him. The championship match of the 2022-23 Pop Whitten Pro Tour’s 11th and final event has just begun.
“Matt for the early lead … juuust has it!” Lloyd exclaims over the sound of clattering pins.
Lloyd’s screen lights up with comments as his loyal YouTube viewers chime in. Several thousand are tuning in to Duckpins4ever’s stream from AMF Southwest Lanes in Linthicum Heights on a Sunday afternoon.
“This is not something I ever anticipated being like, ‘This is what I’m going to do when I grow up’ or anything,” Lloyd says.
A duckpin mechanic who bowls competitively himself, Lloyd is a historian of a sport that has passed its prime.
Duckpin bowling is a Maryland institution, but the number of duckpin “houses” has dwindled, and the game’s expansion has been hindered by an inability to produce more free-fall pinsetters. Still, the tournaments are as competitive as ever, with Pop Whitten Tour events averaging almost 200 entrants. And, on this sunny day in late August, about 50 spectators sip their beers and watch the drama unfold between Matt Kruger and Joe Sears, competing in the tour’s Masters event.
Don Dove, the all-time Duckpin Professional Bowlers Association Pro Tour winner, observes from a table off to the side.
“The pins talk to you,” he muses. “They say, ‘Yeah, that was a good shot,’ and they’ll fly around like crazy. And, when you throw it bad, they’ll tell you the same thing. So they’ll talk to you; you just have to pay attention to what they’re saying.”
Dove, 57, was eliminated earlier in the afternoon and won’t be picking up his 11th career win on the Pop Whitten Tour on this day. Increased participation in tournaments like this is making wins harder to come by for the game’s stalwarts. But Dove doesn’t mind.
“Nobody’s getting rich here at all,” he says. “I mean, you could never make a living off of this. But people come to have fun and they bowl, and if they make it they make it. If they don’t, they don’t, and they see you next month.”
The difficulty of duckpins sets the game apart from tenpins, its more popular counterpart. Even though duckpin bowlers receive an extra throw every frame, the game’s smaller pins and ball lead to lower scores. Bowling a 300 – a perfect game – in tenpins is rare; in duckpins, it’s never been done.
But it’s the sport’s purity that keeps duckpin enthusiasts coming back.
“I will pick this game every single day,” Lloyd says. “At the end of the day, this game is all about your ability to execute shots, because the lanes aren’t giving you much help, the ball isn’t giving you much help, the pins aren’t giving you much help. This is a harder game than tenpins; it’s no secret.”
Lloyd, who “grew up in a bowling alley,” began livestreaming matches on his phone before launching Duckpins4ever in 2021. In two years, the channel has garnered nearly 1,000 followers and produced 430 videos, with Lloyd on play-by-play for most tournaments.
“I’ve had my little duckpins family grow as part of being on Duckpins4ever,” he says.
As Lloyd calls the action, Michael Manns calls out lane assignments from a microphone behind the counter. A full-time employee with Baltimore Gas & Electric, Manns has been here all weekend, organizing and overseeing the tournament.
“We all do this for nothing other than the love of the game and to keep it alive,” Manns says through a Baltimore accent. “It’s a fraternity. It really is. It’s a family.”
For Manns, that family is literal. He met his wife, Jill, in a summer bowling league in 2008. Now they’re something of a duckpin power couple. Michael has one win on the Pro Tour; Jill has five. Their teenage daughter, Addyson, is helping her dad at this Pop Whitten event, updating the bracket next to the counter.
The Orioles game blares on the television behind the bowlers. Kruger, resplendent in a “Flintstones”-themed polo and O’s cap, glances at the score. Then he unleashes a ball with terrific force, connecting for a strike. His fans holler “Yabba-Dabba-Doo!” from the back, and Kruger tips his cap.
Kruger finishes off Sears – who is competing in his final tournament before retiring – by bowling an impressive 149 in the final round. The pair shake hands.
There is no Gatorade bath. But the $3,000 check is nice.
Kruger joins Lloyd for a postmatch interview on the Duckpins4ever livestream. The chat lights up with “WILMAAAAA!” comments and other “Flintstones” references. After breaking down his performance, Kruger explains that the “Flintstones” obsession came from his mom, with whom he used to watch the show religiously.
“I just want to close with this,” Kruger says, his voice becoming tenuous. “It’s been a rough year, losing my dad. This was for him.”
Had their names not been stitched to the backs of their shirts — a requirement for tournament play — Lloyd, Kruger, Sears, Dove and Manns would still be widely recognized at events like this. These are the same names and faces that appear at competitions across the state year round. This is the family Manns speaks of, a highly competitive group, all doing their part to keep the game they love alive.
“It may not be a large community, but it is a fiercely loyal community of duckpin bowlers on both the casual side and the competitive side that are committed to keeping the game around thriving, competitive,” Lloyd says. “It’s no easy task.”