There comes a time in the life of every sport when it must grapple with the irrepressible encroachment of technology. Replay review in football, automated ball-strike systems in baseball, Hawk-Eye in tennis.

Duckpin bowling’s inflection point appears fast approaching, and the game’s future could be up to whoever is pulling the strings.

To most, the inner workings of a bowling alley are a mystery. After the first throw, a crane-like contraption lifts the standing pins and sweeps away the ones that have fallen. Then the remaining pins are replaced, and the ball rolls down a track beside the lane, headed back to the bowler. It’s so smooth, casual bowlers hardly notice.

Hard at work behind each lane is a free-fall pinsetter, a 1,000-part machine that replaced pin boys – young men and women who were responsible for manually reracking the pins – over a half-century ago.

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Duckpin bowling, a variation that has been a Maryland staple since its inception in the late 19th century, requires a unique pinsetter that accommodates the game’s smaller equipment. These contraptions, developed by submarine designer Kenneth Sherman in 1953, haven’t been manufactured in 50 years. The patent has expired, meaning anyone can re-create and sell new machines, but the parts are hard to come by and the demand is low.

When a duckpin “house” closes, parts are scavenged and used by other locations. With only about 35 duckpin centers remaining nationwide, the number of working machines is dwindling.

Nicholas Lloyd, one of the few remaining Sherman duckpin pinsetter mechanics in the country, sees industry knowledge of the machines declining.

“There is no school for this,” said Lloyd, who learned his craft from longtime professionals and a 300-page manual. “You cannot get a degree in fixing a Sherman pinsetter.”

The proposed solution: string pinsetters, which use thin, nylon ropes attached to the tops of pins to rerack between throws. These machines were introduced in arcades and home lanes, and now Brunswick and QubicaAMF have begun producing and selling them to larger houses.

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String pinsetters are cheaper and require less upkeep, but the connective ropes lead to less lateral movement from the pins and lower scores from the bowlers.

Tenpin bowling is weighing its options. After the conclusion of a two-year study, the United States Bowling Congress certified string pinsetters as an independent category of competition, a massive step toward making strings the norm at houses across the country.

But the idea of bowling on strings is unpalatable to some, especially duckpin bowlers, whose scores are already depressed by the game’s difficulty. No duckpin bowler has ever thrown a 300 – a perfect game.

“The only way you’re gonna throw a strike is if you throw it perfect,” Don Dove said of bowling on strings. “It’s gonna be tough.”

Dove, who has collected more wins on the Duckpin Professional Bowlers Association Pro Tour than anyone else, knows the game cannot avoid change forever.

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“You just have to adapt,” Dove said. “It’s like anything in life; you have to adapt.”

The discipline’s governing body, the Duckpin National Congress, isn’t exactly facing impending doom. The game’s competitive side is going strong, and the free-fall pinsetters in use remain remarkably reliable, even after decades in operation.

Still, the Congress’ executive director, Laura Bowden, is keeping an eye on the future. Like most duckpin enthusiasts, she’s hoping strings don’t detract from the delightful chaos that keeps the game entertaining.

“I know the game is gonna have to change a little bit through attrition,” Bowden said. “But I just wish we would be able to keep the originality of what the sport was and expand through the country. Because I really think, if we could get there, the bowlers would be there.

“All I can think of is ‘If you build it, they will come,’ right?” she said, quoting the classic baseball film “Field of Dreams.” “And I really do believe that. If we could figure out a way to build it, [the bowlers] would come. Duckpins is that good.”

paul.mancano@thebaltimorebanner.com

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