(Editor’s Note: This is an expanded version of the report on the lane conditioning controversy at the PBA Regional Players Invitational that appeared in the February issue of Bowlers Journal International. For an update on the status of PBA laneman Steve Stevens, see the editor's note at the end of the story.)
BY JEFF RICHGELS
IT'S TOUGH TO ARGUE against the assertion that what happened in the first squad of the 2009 PBA Regional Players Invitational was the biggest lane pattern fiasco in PBA history.
The lower half of the National Bowling Stadium was oiled with the Chameleon pattern when it was supposed to have been Cheetah — which was correctly applied to the higher half.
Because the lanes were not checked before competition began — even when bowlers on the low end complained during practice that something was wrong — the first squad was completed on the mixed patterns, with players bowling either two, three or four games on one pattern or the other, depending on their lane cross.
Similar mistakes have occurred in the past, but never with such huge stakes: The 2009 RPI included a Tour Trials option, with seven exemptions for the 2010-11 PBA Tour up for grabs.
In other words, careers were impacted by this mistake.
No one knows that better than Steve Stevens, the lane man who made the mistake that later cost him his job with the PBA.
“I’ve been doing this job four years, and it was my first mistake,” a dejected Stevens said on the final day of the RPI. “Unfortunately, it was at the most important regional tournament of the year. I know in some people’s minds I’ve affected their lives and there’s nothing I can do about that. It’s an unfortunate thing and I’m just deeply sorry.”
Stevens said he watched most of the first squad and had a “gut feeling” that he had made a mistake before he returned to his hotel — even though he was certain that he had applied Cheetah across the house.
“I went back to my room and agonized over it,” Stevens said. “It was terrible. And once I got completely in the loop (that the mistake had been confirmed), I beat myself up all night.
“The main thing I want to say is the bowlers treated it like real professionals,” he added. “A lot of guys came up to me and not one of them took a shot at me. Every one of them was supportive. We’ve all made mistakes, and that’s what they told me.”
How the mistake was made and then not caught in time resulted from almost a perfect storm of mistakes, abnormal situations and missed opportunities.
There was a long practice session that Tuesday morning at the National Bowling Stadium, followed by the first squad in the afternoon.
Stevens oiled the lower half, and said the similarity between Cheetah and Chameleon on the computer screen of his lane machine was the first problem.
“I have all my patterns in one bank of my computer,” he said. “And when you pull the bank up, you have to key in the pattern you want. Chameleon and Cheetah both started with ‘CH’ and ended with ‘RP09’ for Resident Pro. All the letters run together (with no spaces). I thought I had Cheetah in, and I had Chameleon in. ‘CH09’ is basically what I saw.”
Under normal circumstances, the Stadium’s head mechanic, Al Catapia, would “walk the patterns” and run tapes to check the lanes. But because he’d arrived between 4 and 5 a.m. with Stevens, he’d completed his hours for the day and left, Stevens said.
“If he had been here, we would have seen the obvious difference,” said Stevens, who added that he doesn’t have the “tools or the capability” to run tapes.
(After the first squad fiasco, another Stadium staffer was used to ensure tapes were run for the other four squads.)
The lane men were a little behind in oiling the lanes after the long practice session, Stevens said, and he had time to walk only the back-ends of the lanes to make sure they were clean. He said he was not in position to see the end of the patterns.
“All I was checking was in front of the pindeck to make sure there was no oil or traces down there,” he said.
Once practice started, bowlers on the low end realized their reaction was drastically different from practice, and one or more contacted PBA Central Region Director Bobby Jakel, who was on the low end, with their concerns. Jakel then found Stevens and asked if there had possibly been a mistake.
“I said I was sure it was Cheetah because I was sure,” Stevens said, adding that by his recollection, when Jakel found him and asked him, “scoring had already started, and once scoring started, there’s nothing we can do.”
Jakel could not be reached to provide his version of what happened. John Weber, director of the Senior and Regional Tours, was back in the Stadium offices and not informed of any possible issue until after scoring had begun.
Several bowlers made comments during the squad about the low end possibly being a different pattern, but everyone said they thought it might be Viper, which is what erroneously appeared on the PBA.com message boards at first. (The Cheetah pattern extends to 35 feet, Viper to 37 and Chameleon to 39.)
Once bowling was completed, the lanes were inspected and taped, and the error was confirmed, leaving PBA officials with a difficult decision to make.
Many ideas were considered by the regional directors, Weber and Commissioner Fred Schreyer, who was in Reno for the RPI banquet that night.
Options included allowing players to keep just their two highest scores, since everyone bowled at least two games on Cheetah; and bowling the Chameleon squad with Cheetah on the first 38 lanes, using the same lane assignments as the first squad, which would result in all players bowling six games each on Cheetah and Chameleon.
Ultimately, the decision was made to continue the tournament with no alterations.
“The decision regarding how to proceed was based on years of experience and historical precedent,” Weber said in an e-mail response to questions submitted a few days after the RPI. “Any attempt to rectify the situation, in my opinion, would have only compounded the mistake. I firmly believe that the decision to continue the event without modification was the correct call.”
Weber said he “couldn’t disagree more” with those who view the exemptions as tainted because of the lane fiasco.
“The players that earned those exemptions outperformed the rest of the field under some very difficult and demanding conditions,” he said.
Asked if he felt he should be disciplined or fired, Stevens said on the final day of the RPI — before learning his fate — that those calling for his firing “should look at themselves and see if they’ve ever made a mistake.”
The PBA is reviewing its lane maintenance procedures, and players will be notified of any changes that are made, Weber said.
Stevens, who bowled on the PBA Tour for a while in the 1970s, said he would suggest one change.
“When there are two lanemen, one should walk down and verify the (other’s) pattern entry, (and vice versa),” he said. “This taught me a very important lesson: You check, double-check and then check again. I’ll sure do that in the future.”
Just not for the PBA.
(Editor's Note: Bowlers Journal International has confirmed that while Stevens was fired shortly after the RPI incident, he was re-hired by the PBA in mid-January.)