Having a ball!

Multitasking bowling shop manager can’t be pinned down.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Bowling and the state of Texas somehow seem to be polar opposites. After all, any true Wisconsinite knows that bowling and Wisconsin are as symbiotic as peanut butter and jelly, or brats and beer, right? So in 2008, when the U.S. Bowling Congress decided to move its location from Milwaukee — which it had called home for over 100 years — to Texas, some cages were rattled. “It was horrible,” recalls Jeff Taylor.

Jeff Taylor says the Madison area is blessed with some solid, family owned bowling centers, which is promising for the future of the sport here.

Taylor, 54, is the manager of Phoenix Pro Shops at Fitchburg’s Ten Pin Alley and Bowl-A-Vard Lanes near East Towne Mall, and he also co-owns a shop in Plover, Wis. During the busy season, he’ll often be on the job six to seven days a week, splitting his time between the two venues. His only complaint: the daily commutes. “I have to drive the beltline back and forth. That’s enough of a stressor,” he laughs.

His lifelong love of bowling began in kindergarten when he pushed his first 10-pound ball down the lane with two hands. Since then, he’s notched nine 300 games in his lifetime (a mere pittance compared to other bowlers, he notes) and has a collection of dozens upon dozens of balls at home. With a 220 average, Taylor is always in pursuit of a more perfect game, and feeds his own passion by helping others learn the sport and improve their technique.

This is Taylor’s second career after working in computer technology and electronics for TDS and Natus Medical. He worked part-time at the shop for several years until six years ago, when he jumped at an opportunity to become its full-time manager. Now his days are spent coaching, drilling balls, consulting with customers, and keeping both locations stocked and successful.

Ball talk

Bowling balls have transitioned through the years, from being made of rubber, stone, and even some metal. Now, the emphasis is on weights and cover stocks designed to make a ball hook more. “Cover stocks are chemicals — reactive resins — that are very sensitive to the lanes. They create more slide, more friction, and more movement.”

Balls range from six pounds to 16 pounds. More often, men opt for 15-pound balls while women select 14- to 15-pound balls. “I just recommend whatever is comfortable,” he says. In terms of cost, the balls on display in the Ten Pin Alley shop range from about $80 to as much as $240.

Bowlers can even choose from a selection of scented bowling balls, thanks to one manufacturer that has added fragrances to complement a ball’s outer skin — grape for a purple ball, root beer to match a ball with swirls of browns, gold, and white, for example.

Perhaps it’s all part of trying to lure more interest in the sport, which Taylor admits has been waning in recent years. Things started slowing down with Generation X, he noticed, and really fell off with Gen Y, but he’s seeing a slight uptick with millennials. Currently, Ten Pin Alley has roughly 800 league bowlers, and high school and college bowling teams have also been on the rise, giving Taylor some hope. “There are three times as many bowlers as golfers, but bowling just doesn’t get the press, which is very disappointing.”

A weighty issue

A ball’s smell obviously doesn’t affect its performance. The key to that, he suggests, is having a good hook, meaning a ball that turns inward as it approaches the headpin 60 feet away.

Technology now makes that hook more achievable. Balls are manufactured with weights of various shapes and sizes embedded inside. As a bowler releases the ball, the weight is on one side. “When it gets to the dry (un-oiled) portion of the lane, the weight shifts, which pulls the ball over and helps drive through the pins.”

A ball’s exterior can also affect the hook. “A duller, matte finish grabs the lane earlier, so it will hook sooner,” Taylor explains. Sometimes it’s just a matter of needing a good buffing. “Polishing the ball can give it more shine so it will slide down the lane further and hook later.” But it all starts with the proper grip.

Bowling balls all come marked with two dots. One, called the “pin,” locates the top of the weight block, and the other several inches away marks the ball’s center of gravity, or its heaviest point. Finger hole placement in relation to those two points affects how a ball rolls.

Taylor says there’s a lot to know about the game, including how finger hole location, drilling, or oil patterns on the lanes can all affect a ball’s movement. A fingertip fit is popular with many bowlers because it tends to result in more hook and thus, higher scores. There’s also less strain on the hand, he adds, comparing it to throwing a football or baseball, where most spin comes from the fingertips.

“This is the only sport I can think of where you’re actually putting your hand into the ball, so it’s very important that the fit is as comfortable as possible. Their hand should just fall into the ball,” he explains. “That’s my satisfaction.

“I want bowlers to enjoy the sport. It’s a leisure activity, and they’re spending discretionary income.”



Off the hook

It’s not unusual for Taylor to drill four to six bowling balls in a day. On this visit, he is in his workshop preparing to drill a ball for a ninth-grader who is moving up to his first fingertip grip.

The boy’s hand measurements hang on the wall next to the drill. Taylor refers to them as he places a curved ruler around the ball’s circumference, then uses a grease pencil to draw a series of crisscrossing lines on the ball to help determine exactly where the thumb and finger holes will go.

After all points are marked, he weighs the ball on a special scale to determine not only how heavy it is, but also how much each half of the ball weighs separately, in accordance with USBC rules. Legally, a ball can only have so much weight imbalance from one side of the ball to the other.

“I want to know how much difference there is between the sides of the ball,” Taylor says. “If it’s over an ounce of difference, I’ll have to put a balance hole in.” He eyes the scale. “We’re really close, seven-eighths of an ounce.” Next, he measures the top versus the bottom halves of the ball. “There’s about three-quarters of an ounce more weight up here than down there,” he notes. “I may drill the finger holes a little deeper to make up for the weight so I don’t have to put a balance hole in.”

Time to drill. Taylor clamps the 15-pound ball onto the drill platform, adjusts the pitch to create the angles required, and then lowers the drill bit into the ball. A vacuum hose collects loose materials that ooze from the new hole.

Behind him, a wall is stacked with countless urethane thumb slugs in a rainbow of colors. The ninth-grader optioned for a lime green slug to go with his purple ball. Taylor pounds it into the newly drilled thumbhole. Next, he drills and tweaks the slug for a more custom fit. “Bowlers really like that,” he notes. “[Slugs] prevent foreign materials, sweat, or oils from collecting in a ball, and allow for a consistent feel.” About 35 minutes later, the ball is ready for a trial roll.

Striking a balance

Taylor once dreamed of being a professional bowler, and sometimes regrets not pursuing the idea more aggressively years ago. He continues to work with a Las Vegas-based bowling mentor he’s known for years, always striving for another 300 game. Meanwhile, he’s perfectly happy promoting the sport here and sharing his knowledge and passion with others so they can improve their games.

“I want to have enough knowledge and experience to help bowlers get to whatever level they aspire to reach. I really love this, and I even get teary-eyed sometimes when someone calls me and tells me they bowled their best game ever.

“That’s the best part of this job.”

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