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Greetings From Tenpin Alley The cast of serial bowlers in the U.S. Open featured more than a few characters


In the Coen brothers' recent kidnap-'n'-bowl caper, The Big
Lebowski, a parade of seedy Southern California scoundrels rolls
across the screen: gold diggers, blackmailers, pornographers,
child molesters and marmot-wielding nihilists. The characters
who bowled at last week's U.S. Open in southern Connecticut were
more benign but no less colorful: a horseshoe-heaving physicist,
pen collectors, coffee muggers, ceramic-frog fetishists and a
ferret fancier. "Not many films portray bowling in a positive
light," says Walter Ray Williams Jr., the marquee name in the
Open's cast of 180 men and 180 women. The seven-day tournament,
part of the PBA's Triple Crown, is the only pro event with a
men's and a women's field.

The hero of The Big Lebowski is the Dude, a hard-core league
bowler who peers warily at life through a haze of White
Russians, low-grade Colombian and the occasional acid flashback,
and who chills out by listening to audiotapes of falling pins.
Williams, who's 38, has some of the Dude's drowsy panache but
none of his resolute dissoluteness. "In the movies, bowlers
always smoke and drink beer and rent their shoes," says
Williams, the PBA's alltime leading money winner ($2,150,000).
"I don't do any of those things. Something may be wrong with me,
I guess." A onetime physics major at Cal Poly, Williams wrote
his senior thesis on the properties of the bowling ball rolling
down the lane. It earned him an A, and he has been showing
gutter disdain ever since.

Williams admits to only one vice: horseshoes. His four PBA
player of the year awards pale--in his mind, at least--next to
his six world horseshoe titles, the last of which he won in
1994. He actually prefers the pits to the lanes. "Of the two,
horseshoes probably gets me a little more excited," says
Williams, who once pitched 56 ringers in a row. "Well, maybe
excited isn't the right word. Maybe emotional is. To me,
horseshoes is a purer sport. Bowling is more subject to outside
properties, like the oil on the lane or the surface of the ball."

Williams's perennial foil on the PBA tour is Pete Weber, who
bears a slight resemblance to The Big Lebowski's chronically
irate Walter Sobchak, a Vietnam-obsessed vet who enforces
line-foul calls with the semiautomatic in his ball bag. The
oft-suspended Weber was banned from the tour's first three
tournaments in 1998 for disparaging lane conditions at a '97
event and put in only a cameo at the Open--he missed the first
cut and finished in 110th place.

The first few days of qualifying even had an edge of
Lebowski-esque surrealism as each field was winnowed down to 45;
bowlers rolled against a backdrop of "Cosmic Bowling"--Day-Glo
pins, flashing disco lights and the relentless throb of the
Village People--a recent innovation for all PBA events that has
updated the sport's image from 1953 to, say, '75. Last Wednesday
the fields were cut from 45 to 24. Ranked 23rd out of the
remaining 24 women was Lisa Wagner, an 18-year veteran who has
won more national titles (30) than any female bowler but last
won player of the year honors in '93. "But you can't count Lisa
out," said her fiance, Brian Billert. "She's capable of
anything." She was not, however, capable of advancing to the
next round.

Wagner and Billert met, not surprisingly, at a bowling alley in
1993. He proposed in May 1996 on ESPN after Wagner won the
prestigious Queens tournament in Buffalo; she waited until after
a commercial break to say "Yes!" They travel the PWBA tour in a
motor home they share with six ferrets. "We've got seven litter
boxes, just in case," says Billert, whose duties include driving
the digs and bathing the ferrets. The couple hopes to open a
four-star pet spa in Florida. "Each pet will have its own
suite," says Wagner, whose T-shirt advises: NEVER SEND A FERRET
TO DO A WEASEL'S JOB. The rooms will have screened lanais and
piped-in music. "The music must be chosen carefully," Wagner
says. "Dogs howl to opera, so we'll probably play soft rock,
like the Eagles."

"Yeah," says Billert. "No Stray Cats."

Ferreting is just one of many fascinating hobbies pursued by
women on the tour. Carolyn Dorin-Ballard collects coffee mugs;
Debbie McMullen, frog memorabilia; Marianne DiRupo, pens. "I'll
be signing an autograph for a fan and say, 'Hey, this is a
really nice pen,'" says DiRupo, the top woman qualifier. More
often than not, the fan will say, 'You want it? It's yours.'"
She now has drawers filled with pens back home in Succasunna,
N.J. Her obsession may be genetic--both parents were undergrads
at Penn.

For Saturday's semis at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield,
DiRupo's opponent was her roomie, Aleta Sill. "Marianne lends me
Bics, but I lose them," says Sill. "Then she gets mad at me."
DiRupo cried when her pin pal struck on six of the last seven
throws to beat her 243-208. In the final Sill rolled eight
straight strikes in a 276-151 romp over Tammy Turner. The
$40,000 purse brought Sill within $82,000 of becoming bowling's
first $1 million woman. She dedicated her second Open title to
her granny, whose ashes are interred in a tiny urn dangling from
a chain around her neck. "I used to worry she'd get wet if I
took a shower," says Sill, "but when I unscrewed the urn, it
seemed airtight."

Far more airtight than the alibis that Williams has had to come
up with for never having won a Triple Crown event despite
holding sizable leads on several occasions. He was beaten in the
1989 Tournament of Champions, he blew the '93 U.S. Open after
being up by 430 pins, and two years ago he led the PBA National
by a wide margin, but a split in the final's ninth frame cost
him that tournament. "Know why Walter Ray lost?" asked Butch
Soper, his conqueror at that PBA National. "Bad karma. Before
the playoffs, he said, 'I beat Butch every time on TV.' You
never say stuff like that! You gotta keep your yap shut."

This time around, Williams did just that. In the semis he
silently strung together six strikes to beat unranked Martin
Letscher 245-222. In the final match his opponent, Tim Criss,
had more splits than a blue-chip stock and couldn't take
advantage of Williams's unconverted 4-7-10 in frame 6. With
Criss crossed-up, Williams struck out. Final score: Williams
221, Criss 189. "Know why Walter Ray won?" asked Soper, who'd
been eliminated on Wednesday. "Good karma."

During the awards ceremony Williams kept his head even while his
trophy was losing its parts. When he was handed the winner's
prize--a hand-painted sculpture of an eagle--one of its talons
fell off. While waiting for the TV camera to set up, Williams
pulled a tube of Krazy Glue out of his ball bag and tried to
reattach the talon...and the base fell off. Hugging the broken
pieces to his chest, Williams smiled Dude-ishly and said, "After
all the bugging I got from people this week about never winning
a Triple Crown event, I'm glad I finally won."

Instead of sticking around to savor his victory and a few
Sprites, Williams stuffed his ready-to-disassemble trophy into a
bag and rushed out to his motor home. He was late for a date to
pitch horseshoes.

COLOR PHOTO: EZRA O. SHAW DiRupo collects pens. Her obsession may be genetic--both her parents went to Penn. [Marianne DiRupo bowling]

At the awards ceremony Williams kept his head even while his
trophy was falling apart.