Bowlers of the Decade

by Gianmarc Manzione 0

BY JIM DRESSEL

AFTER BEING NAMED BOWLER OF THE 1990s, Walter Ray Williams Jr. sounded somewhat wistful when looking ahead. “I’m starting to feel my age,” he said. “Hopefully, I have a few more good years left, but to be very competitive in my late 40s would be pushing it a bit.” He didn’t fool anybody. WRW is just as deadly a tour force as ever.

Even though he’s now reached 50, the new millennium waved the white flag in surrendering to Williams’ attack on the calendar, just as it did at the close of the last century. Williams drank freely of the nectar of athletic agelessness in propelling himself to an unprecedented second straight Bowler of the Decade honor, sharing the laurels this time with Carolyn Dorin-Ballard.

Williams took this new testament to his competitive longevity in stride. “I surprised myself,” said the PBA’s most titled (46) warrior. “Most guys, for whatever reason, lose their desire after bowling all those years. Fortunately, I had the drive and was injury free. I’m very flattered I was picked.”

Dorin-Ballard paused when given the news, momentarily chilled and genuinely thrilled when reflecting on the other women (Lisa Wagner, Betty Morris and Wendy Macpherson) who had won the award.

“I’ve never put myself in that category,” she says. “I always felt that even if I wasn’t No. 1, I wanted to be one of the most consistent and always be a threat. I’m proud of having done that, [but this is] beyond expectations.”

Williams and Dorin-Ballard captured their respective honors decisively, which made it easier on the BJI editors. WRW had 17 titles during the ’00s, including five majors. He also had 10 runnerup finishes and earnings of $1,603,613.

Norm Duke came closest to that level, with 14 championships, including a much- heralded quartet of majors. Duke backed that up with seven runnerup finishes.

The other principal contender was Chris Barnes, whose eight titles were overshadowed by being foiled 17 times in his quest to pad his victory total. Barnes got the BJI All-American nod with seven first-team appearances, compared to six for WRW and four for Duke. Each was Player of the Year once during the decade.

For her part, Dorin-Ballard got a head start on everybody with 13 full-fledged women’s tour titles, while she also won two PBA crowns via the Women’s Series. In addition, she was a four-time USBC champion, including an all-events title.

It was difficult comparing the women’s records because of their fragmented tour, which elevated the importance of events both domestically and globally. Liz Johnson may have come the closest with a record dotted with five PWBA titles and a USBC Queens tiara, in addition to a host of notable — but lesser — accomplishments here and abroad.

Wendy Macpherson was almost as impressive as Williams in attempting a Bowler of the ’90s encore. She was a three-time PWBA champion, and also added two Queens tiaras, claimed the Brunswick World Open title, and set a new precedent by winning the USBC Open Championship Singles competing against [mostly] men, while also capturing four USBC Women’s crowns, including the all-events. Additionally, she had four Japan PBA women’s titles, including three majors and a trio of Japan National titles.

The woman with the most glowing global goblet just had to be Diandra Asbaty, whose list of accomplishments was so diverse and well-rounded that many customs agents in ports of call far and wide would see her coming and ask, “So, what’d you win this time?” She came within a trophy or two of being able to declare FedEx as a dependent.

It was a crazy decade for the women who fought against many hardships and made many sacrifices to remain competitive and keep their games honed.

On the other hand, Williams’ record also provided a great yardstick to measure the “progress” of the PBA Tour. A decade ago, he won 25 titles and was declared Player of the Year four times. In comparison, he won 17 times in the most recent decade, and was Player of the Year once (ditto Duke and Barnes).

How does he explain it? “I’ve been very competitive, and that helps,” he says, “and maybe part of it had something to do with what the PBA has done, which may have helped by giving me more drive.”

Among Williams’ biggest gripes? He doesn’t like the virtual elimination of match play; he feels the cream has a better chance to rise to the top in the longer formats. He’s also thumbs down on the modern match-game format.

He has other quibbles with the PBA as well. But the fact that he has done so well despite them may weaken his case somewhat. For example, the shorter formats may have helped him when factoring in his age. If they also gave him more incentive, all the better.

As for his longevity, part of it has to do with the fact that he’s in great shape, but he also realizes it has its limitations. “The younger players are very talented, and can do things with a ball that I can’t,” he admits. But he also has other advantages, starting with his exceptional focus, and the fact that he is one of the smartest bowlers on tour. He has said that if he weren’t a pro bowler, he’d be teaching math or physics, or working for NASA.

In other words, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to be an exceptional pro bowler, but if it did, you would guess he had a great head start on everybody else.

Williams is a more versatile bowler than those who have seen him only on the fresh oil patterns on TV could imagine. Obviously, he possesses extraordinary accuracy, probably a byproduct of the exceptional hand-eye coordination that has found him doing so well in world horseshoe championships over the years.

And his goals afford him the opportunity to push the longevity limits even more. “If I could be Bowler of Year again, that would be awesome,” he says, reminding us that he was in the thick of that race only two years ago.

“I would also like to win the Tournament of Champions, which is another thing I haven’t done.”

The T of C is an obvious void in Williams’ title galaxy. It would give him the Grand Slam, bowling’s ultimate collection of elite titles. He already has won the USBC Masters, U.S. Open and the World Championship.

As for Player of the Year, it’s probably no accident that he and Earl Anthony are now tied as six-time honorees.

“Earl cut his career short,” Williams explains. “And while everybody has a different personality, I’m not so sure he would have quit if 50 (titles) was within reach [on the regular tour]. As for me, I like competing, and as long as I’m competitive, I’ll continue bowling.”

When — or rather, if — he starts struggling, however, all bets are off. “I know how I get,” he says, “because I don’t like to be miserable.”

Dorin-Ballard never looked at the long haul, but this newest laurel made her reflect on her career: “I wanted to be one of those who was always a threat, and I was able to do that. I’m also proud of the fact that there were times when people said I couldn’t make the show, etc., and that drove me.”

What also drove her was her position as a role model. She took it seriously, perhaps because the women’s tour was, well, something of a shipwreck. “When you’re bowling, you just want to make sure it influences others in a positive way,” she says. “I want younger girls to know that being a professional bowler is a great thing.”

Now if she could only get the rest of the industry to think that way…

Dorin-Ballard’s toughest battle was maintaining her perspective after the women’s tour folded in 2003. “I kept myself competitive,” she says. “[The new scenario] motivated us to really prepare for the few big events we had.

“It was a hard time for us. There were a lot of career choices that had to be made. I was fortunate because I’ve had a lot of help. If I didn’t have the support system I have, there would be no way I could pursue my dream.

“Despite that, I still struggle with the sacrifices,” she adds. “I am at a point where it is harder to be away from home. My little girl looks at me and just wants me to be a mommy. On the other hand, I have a great career, a husband who helped me attain what I could only dream about, and a great family, yet you just don’t know how many of those years you’re going to have left.”

Williams probably summed it up best. “I’ve been able to make a good living at something I enjoy. I sometimes think some of the guys forget the reason they got into bowling is because they enjoyed it. It’s a fun game, it’s something you can do you whole life, it’s a game for everybody. Fortunately, I’ve been able to do it well.”

Very, very well.

Dorin-Ballard, very, very well would be more like it.