BY DENNIS BERGENDORF
Ryan Ciminelli has been known as the Ryan Express — a play on the Frank Sinatra WWII action thriller about Allied soldiers escaping Germans on a speeding steam locomotive. But for the last few years, Ciminelli’s game could be called the Ryan Roller Coaster. His $142,000 season in 2015 was followed by two decent years before the bottom fell out: no wins, a controversial change of ball staffs, an injury, a withdrawal from the Tournament of Champions, forced free agency, and grinding it out on the lanes just to get a check.
Ciminelli’s more widely-used nickname is Hit Man — certainly not because he is Mr. Humble. No, far from it. He’s been as close to a tenpin assassin as a bowler can get, with a game built on cruise missile-like power and a seeming desire to grind up lesser souls.
But by August of this year, he had become the lesser soul: hovering around 50th in both earnings and points, not winning for the third straight year, dropping out of the Tournament of Champions after suffering a shoulder injury due to laying bricks to supplement his meager income, losing his staff position with Motiv amid rumblings that he didn’t communicate, wondering how he was going to feed his family (which had moved to a new town, outside Charlotte, N.C.), and serving a two-tournament suspension for suggesting on FloBowling’s Sweep the Rack podcast that the PBA plays favorites with about 15 top bowlers (none named Ciminelli), as well as making accusations against the PBA’s lane man.
The summer of 2019 brought what roller coaster operators call a “camel back,” a series of rapid ups and downs that shake riders to the teeth. First came the win in the PBA League (teaming with Wes Malott, Kyle Troup, Kristopher Prather and Mitch Hupe) and a $12,000 payday. But that was followed by the infamous interview in which he criticized the PBA for, in his view, favoring certain stars, and the PBA’s response of suspending him for two tournaments, and then Motiv’s dropping him from its staff — what he called “another hit to the gut.”
Meanwhile, wife Chelsie, a social therapist and psychologist, took a job in a Charlotte clinic and they and 16-month old Jackson packed up and moved to the suburb of Lancaster, S.C. At first, Chelsie didn’t have any clientele, so with the loss of Motiv and no tournaments to bowl, “we didn’t have any means of income.”
Was there some soul-searching, brought on by being a free-agent, coupled with the imposed two-event suspension? Perhaps. His post on Facebook was gracious and contrite to the company that terminated him. “I wish everyone at Motiv nothing but the best! Love you guys... thank you again for everything... u are all friends for life!” he posted.
Touching sentiment aside, he was no longer under contract, and could choose any equipment he wanted, as long as he paid for it. So that same day, he gingerly approached his former employer, Brunswick, which he had dumped two years before. “The day of the split [with Motiv], I went over to Chuck Gardner’s house and drilled some Brunswick stuff. I needed to build an arsenal and I had a week-and-a-half to do it.” He would also get a few balls from The Brands of Ebonite International, one of which would play a role at the Gene Carter’s Pro Shop Classic.
The roller coaster had hit a crest. The Gene Carter’s Pro Shop Classic was only a Tier-3 event that paid $10,000, but it proved to the Ciminellis and the bowling world that he can still be the Hit Man, in this case tossing a pair of cold-blooded strikes that followed a huge split that could have reduced him to a whimpering mess. He flushed two strikes to seal the deal.
At Ten Pin Alley, some observers reported seeing a new Ciminelli, more determined than ever. “I was determined,” he later said. “I felt I had something to prove. It was definitely a little more chip on the shoulder.”
He won, but not before experiencing a few more peaks and valleys. Ciminelli “grinded out” 26th place in qualifying, then led the first games of the cashers’ round, but shot 165-220 the last two games and had to capitalize on the collapse of a couple stars to grab the last match play spot. In fact, he’d told Chelsie that the 220 probably wouldn’t be enough, and he’d packed up the big pickup truck and sat down for lunch, to be interrupted by a fan who said, “Skin of your the teeth. You’re the number.”
So he unloaded the truck and bowled match play, good enough (8-4) to reach third in the stepladder — his first singles show in over two years.
He took care of Tom Smallwood, 224-214, in the first game, then threw an eight-bagger to crush Zacharay Wilkins, 266-223, which brought the showdown with tournament leader Tom Daughtery — and the shot at redemption.
The Hit Man was on a mission, smashing a turkey and a double in the first eight frames, virtually wrapping up the match — until he laid the ball down short. It “check-marked” and he was staring at a Greek Church (giving the Rebel a glimmer of hope). Daughtery struck out in the 10th, forcing Hit Man to get 20 pins.
Picking up his ball in the 10th, “I told myself, ‘You’re not making the same mistake again. No matter what you do, you’re getting the ball over the front and let whatever happens happen.’” He flushed two strikes to win, 217-209.
Later, when asked if he’d “partied it up,” Ciminelli said, “It was more relief than anything. A lot had happened personally.”
Personally. And professionally. Here’s how it played out:
Ciminelli was a DV-8 staffer, but he was becoming disillusioned with his contract and what he saw as a lack of incentives for winning tournaments (he even criticized parent Brunswick’s stressing personal appearances when he thought it should pay for performance). In the spring of 2017, he began talks with Motiv, and started practicing with its equipment. He also approached Brunswick about modifying his existing contract, but The Big B wasn’t biting. Gardner was quoted as saying Ciminelli wanted more than Brunswick was comfortable paying.
On June 1, with months to go on his Brunswick deal, he and Motiv announced that he’d signed on. The company was effusive in its praise, while Brunswick made it clear it wasn’t happy. “We were surprised that another company would negotiate with Ryan in the middle of a contract,” said Brunswick Bowling Products CEO Corey Dykstra. “I can tell you this: We wouldn’t do this at Brunswick.”
Two days after the announcement, Ciminelli was tournament leader at Jonesboro, eventually losing to Francois Lavoie. There would be several top-five finishes in 2017, but no titles. Still, he banked over $75,000.
But 2018 saw the Ryan Express go off the tracks. He won only two regionals and amassed a mere $32,000, good for 31st on the money list. Since 30 grand barely paid expenses, Ciminelli went back to work part-time as a brick layer, his father Angelo’s profession. But hefting one five-pound brick after another somehow injured his right shoulder.
With the calendar flipping over to 2019, Ciminelli was a non-factor in the first three events, but did grab a check in Lubbock (he missed match play). And at the Tournament of Champions he was hurting. After going minus-216 the first round, he dropped out.
The problem was, Motiv was not notified. Tour Staff Director Brett Spangler told BJI’s Gianmarc Manzione that he was not aware of the withdrawal until he “got back to the bowling center. He didn’t tell me.” (Whether his Motiv contract contained a “physical activity” clause has not been made public.)
In the next seven national events, Ciminelli’s highest finish was a shocking 43rd, with no cashes. Yet Portland Lumberjacks manager Tim Mack protected him in the PBA League draft, and the Hit Man went on to help the team win the Elias Cup at Bayside Bowl.
During this period, Ciminelli tweeted some complaints about lane conditions, and one week after the Elias Cup triumph came the interview on FloBowling in which he used the word “conspiracy.” (He took that back, but then amended that to say “it sure looks like it.”)
The PBA followed suit with its suspension — and though it has never revealed the details, it’s been widely assumed that Ciminelli’s accusations of playing favorites was the reason, because of the rule prohibiting members from making public critical comments about lane conditions and PBA staffers.
Within days, Motiv pulled the plug and Ciminelli was a free agent. And using balls from both Radical and The Brands of Ebonite International, he won the Delaware event, thanks in large part to that gritty recovery from the 9th-frame Greek Church.
Through the turmoil, he’s heaped praise on all three companies, posting or talking about the love he’s gotten. During a separate interview on FloBowling, he said, “I’ve done things I regret. I shouldn’t have left Brunswick like I did… It was a little naïve of me. But man, they showed me love. You can’t buy that.”
As for Brunswick’s helping him during and after the suspension: “When I left in the middle of the year, I gave them plenty of reason to more or less say, ‘Screw him.’ They acted more like a family. And a family forgives you. That’s love. That’s not business. Not what’s best for us. It’s more than that.”
In a lengthy interview, he stated several times that both Brunswick and The Brands of Ebonite International supported him when he left Motiv, which he called surprising.
Ciminelli can dream (“I’d like to be in the predicament where I get an offer from both companies”). But he knows he’s got to get something. “There’s just not enough money out there. You’ve got to have a ball company.”
That was borne out by the fact that even with the Elias Cup and Middletown wins, he stood at only $25,600 for the year. And following Middletown, he failed to cash in the Summer Swing, proving that there are plenty of drops on the Ryan Express.
Ryan Ciminelli may indeed be on a roller coaster, rather than an express train, and the Hit Man has taken more hits than he’s thrown. But he knows he’s in the fight for the long haul.